Archive for the ‘transit’ Category

Segways allowed back on BART

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Last month, I attended the public meeting of the BART board of directors. After an incident in June, BART temporarily banned Segways on safety grounds. After the accident, BART imposed a blanket ban on all Segway use while a more permanent policy could be developed.

The BART Accessibility Task Force recommended reinstating access for all riders, with some restrictions on the able-bodied. BART staff ignored the recommendation and proposed a policy that banned Segways permanently for all non-disabled users, while disabled users would be required to dismount and push their devices inside the stations. Restrictions were justified on the grounds of safety, with the exemption for the disabled required to avoid a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a listener, I felt that if a blanket ban had been legally feasible, staff would have elected that option.

Seven members of the public, including me, spoke against the policy as an unnecessary restriction. Although I am not a Segway owner, I attended the board meeting to speak against the policy. For the past few years, I have considered buying a Segway to make short-range trips from my home to BART and nearby business areas.

After public comment, the board members discussed the proposed policy. Tom Radulovich was by far the most articulate speaker, and he had clearly thought more about the various issues involved. (I suppose this isn’t surprising, given his work with Livable City.) His common-sense idea started with the statement, “let’s treat people like adults.” With the increasing cost of automobile transportation, BART parking lots are getting full. By allowing riders to arrive at stations on bicycles or by Segway, BART could potentially reduce demand for costly parking. For many riders a car is the best option, but alternative vehicles are especially useful for the one to three mile range. Radulovich also argued that BART needed to avoid a situation where they made rules so restrictive that they would be encouraging riders to turn to cars instead.

Other directors supported Radulovich. Lynette Sweet pointed out that non-disabled riders were not creating problems and there was no justification for the ban. President Gail Murray mentioned a knee problem, and said that the morning had been eye-opening because she had learned about the Segway as a transportation option for her. Tom Blalock mentioned letters from other users, some of whom I recognized from the Bay Area Segway Group. One director has never seen a Segway on BART, and can’t believe that they are so numerous to be problematic.

The lone holdout was James Fang, who tried to get the staff policy adopted while promising to revisit it at a future meeting. However, he made it clear that he supported the restrictive policy as written. Bizarrely, he compared a restrictive Segway policy to airport shoe screening, arguing that both were conservative policies designed to prevent great harm. (Many security experts disagree with Fang on the shoe-screening policy, and much else about the TSA.) He also argued that it was appropriate to restrict able-bodied users more than disabled users, as a kind of affirmative action for past discrimination by BART against disabled riders.

After discussion, the BART board adopted a policy of permits. I applied for permits on the second day they were available, and I received permit #7. Now I just need to rent a Segway to see if it works for my commute. Further bulletins to follow…

Best BART delay ever!

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

I am writing this from a delayed BART car that was mis-routed this morning. As we traveled south from Oakland, the Dublin/Pleasanton-bound train didn’t make the turn over the mountains and headed south to Fremont. The train operator had to stop the train, turn it around, and get us back on the right track, which cost us about 15 minutes. Given that it happened during rush hour, I also wonder how much having to move our train out of the way caused delays to cascade through the system. I’m used to BART delays, but this is my first train mis-route.

Wi-Fi Rail about to sign a deal with BART

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Via Glenn Fleishman, I found this Sacramento Bee article describing a imminent deal between BART and Wi-Fi rail. (I tried the Wi-Fi Rail service, but wasn’t impressed.)

The article has two points worth noting. First, the initial trial will expand from the four downtown San Francisco stations to the big underground areas:

If a deal is struck, Lee says WiFi Rail will install the system on BART’s most heavily traveled underground routes – in Oakland, San Francisco and the Transbay Tube – within 120 days. Coverage for BART’s entire 103-mile system would follow.

The underground core of the BART system runs from the four downtown SF stations, the Transbay Tube, and the Oakland Wye (roughly West Oakland north to 19th Street and west to Lake Merritt).

The article then quotes Wi-Fi Rail’s corporate counsel as adding 45 minutes to a workday:

“Take a BART rider who gets on at Walnut Creek and spends 45 minutes going to downtown San Francisco” and back, says [Gilles] Attia [Wi-Fi Rail's corporate lawyer]. By plugging in, “he’s added 1 1/2 hours to his work day.”

Mr. Attia works in Sacramento, so he may not have first-hand experience with BART. Assuming that I’ve got the bounds of the expanded Wi-Fi Rail deployment right, it’s not that big. Lake Merritt to Civic Center (on my commute) is 16 minutes. 19th Street/Oakland to Civic Center is 18 minutes. 19th Street/Oakland to Lake Merritt is only 5 minutes.

Since my initial report on the unreliability of Wi-Fi Rail a year ago, I haven’t found that the service in train cars has improved. Service is faster and more robust on the platform, but I still find the service on the train spotty.

The user interface of “personal” transit systems

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

I recently came across Joel Spolsky’s description of a usability bug in the elevators at 7WTC. The elevator tried to perform a form of “passenger clustering” to reduce the number of stops made by each elevator, but it failed because the new system doesn’t match up with the mental models of most elevator users.

The essay reminded me of why I don’t try to do lots of user-interface design. Although it’s a discipline that involves lots of code, there is much more to it than writing decent code. I can tell you if a UI is good, but I will sometimes struggle to tell you why, and what should be changed to make it better. (I find the whole task of assessing user interfaces to be uncomfortably close to Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography — I may not know how to build a good UI, but I can tell when I use one.)

Joel’s article also reminded me of a much older salon.com article about personal rapid transit (PRT) in the wake of seeing The Incredibles in 2004. The idea behind the new-fangled PRT system is that you enter a station, punch in a destination, and get in a car that whisks you to your destination. It has the potential to suffer from the same sort of UI problem as the elevators, though the company’s description of the ticketing process makes it seem less likely. A PRT system is more like a taxi, which makes it less likely that users would trip over a pre-conceived notion of how things are “supposed to work.”

Interestingly, I might be able to ride the Taxi 2000 system in the distant future. I work in the Hacienda Business Park in (un-)Pleasanton, California, which is apparently considering a PRT system to link up with the BART station. On its face, Pleasanton seems like an idea trial zone for trying a PRT feeder system instead of a bus feeder system. Pleasanton is a rich, car-dependent suburb; as far as I can tell, the bus exists to get lower-paid service workers to their jobs. The shuttle bus that runs from BART to my office building is available only for limited hours, and the commutes end to early for a typical high-tech engineer whose day starts late and ends late. Mostly, though, I’m interested to see if the PRT concept works. Proponents of these systems claim very high capacity, but most rail systems that run tight headways don’t need to throw track switches anywhere near as frequently as the proposed PRTs.

BART says: Yes, Wi-Fi coverage is bad, but you shouldn’t be using it

Monday, June 18th, 2007

You heard it here first. In May, I wrote that the new Wi-Fi service on BART needs some improvement. My blog post was picked up by the Contra Costa Times, and here’s what they had to say about my overall impression that it’s a marginal service:

[BART spokesperson Linton] Johnson acknowledged that Wi-Fi Rail is adjusting the placement of the access points.

“At this point, this is an internal test. Although customer feedback is valuable, this part of the test isn’t designed for that. Maybe the next part will be,” he said.

One thing that I’ve learned in my career in high-tech is that early customers will work with you and help you fix just about anything because of their enthusiasm. It’s one of the big reasons why I’ve spent more than half my time at start-up companies. I’d be interested in learning more about how the trains are getting connected up, and I’d dearly like to see an wireless LAN connection that could stay up when the trains are in the tunnels. I’d also like to think that my opinions about wireless LANs might be worth something.

Bad Advertising: Our services have the “speed” and “reliability” of the London Underground!

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

In a recent issue of a tech magazine that I receive, I saw the following advertisement, which is good for a laugh. I’ve deliberately blurred the company’s name, location, and sales telephone number.

Speed and reliability don't make me think of this

The photo in the background is nice, and gives you the impression of a fast-moving train. That is, until you take a closer look at it, and realize that it is unmistakably a picture from the London Underground.

Trust me, Unnamed Company, you don’t want to associate your services with the Tube, especially its speed and reliability.

I started riding the Tube about 15 years ago. Back then, the novelty of an underground railway that went everywhere made me think it was cool beyond belief. As far as I can tell, the government has barely invested in upkeep since that time. In January, I was in London for an IEEE meeting, and I loathed taking the thing. Most of the stations are only a half-step above decrepit, deferred maintenence kept good chunks of the system from running, even during weekdays, and it takes more than an hour to cross central London if you need to do something stupid, like transfer. One day, the network was even completely shut down to to “high winds.” (Bonus points for anybody who can tell me why high winds can almost completely shut down an train system, even the underground parts.)

All that said, it could have been worse. A few days after I left London, I was on a Belfast-Amsterdam flight delayed by snow over London. It apparently could have been worse: I could have been trying to ride the tube. Here are two precious photos: TFL’s delay apology and the service update.

EZ-Rider is not EZ when you lose your credit card

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

Last week, I received a call from the bank telling me that had revoked a credit card due to fraud. Unfortunately, it was the main credit card that I use, and most automatic payments are set up to charge that card.

Almost every account update was easy. You find the service provider, go to the web site, log in (thanks for remembering everything, Password Safe!), and change the credit card. When I remembered that I needed to update my FastTrak toll tag, it turns out that I had been smart enough to store even that information in Password Safe. Total time per account: approximately one minute. Total time for all affected accounts: less than ten minutes.

Then, I got to the last item on the list: the BART EZ-Rider card. It’s still a pilot program, which means that everything is still paper-based. Therefore, I needed to (1) find the right spot on the web site, (2) learn that updating my credit card requires filling out a form, (3) download the forms, (4) find out that all the account forms are in the PDF, so print out the correct one, (5) carefully fill out the form, since not all items in the form are required, (6) send the EZ Rider service center an e-mail to let them know the form will be coming, (7) note that there is no fax number on the form, and find it on the web site, (8) wait until Monday to send them the form, and (9) hope that the information can be updated reasonably promptly, because what happens if the form isn’t processed right away? Total time to update: ask me when the process is complete.

(The major reason I got an EZ Rider is that discount tickets are not available in stations, and you’re left with a pile of sub-$1.00 tickets that are useless. If I have to specially seek out a discount ticket because of this, I’ll be mad.)

At this point, I could make an unfavorable comparison of the EZ Rider service to FasTrak (which is run by Caltrans, hardly a pinnacle of efficiency or customer service), but that would be mean, so I won’t.

Initial impressions of Wi-Fi Rail’s BART service

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Last week, I learned about the Wi-Fi service on the downtown corridor for BART. I’ve been riding BART all week, in part due to the collapse of the freeway that runs between my home and the office. As a result, I’ve used the service quite a bit this week.

Wi-Fi Rail claims to cover the platforms at the four stations in the downtown corridor (Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero), plus the tunnel between Civic Center and Powell. To put this in proper context, consult the BART system map.

After using for the network for a week, here’s a few notes on how to use it to its best advantage:

  • Stay on the platform side of the train. In the downtown corridor, all the stations have a center platform, so the doors on the left side of the train open. I have sat on both the left side and the right side of the train, and I have noticed that the network performs better when I sit on the left, presumably because it it closer to the access points covering the platform, and it is closer to the metal walls of the train.
  • Sit on the first car of the train. If you’re in the lead car of the train, your 802.11 device can look for the access point as the train enters the station, not as it finishes pulling in to the station. There may also be an advantage to sitting in the first car because the signal only needs to penetrate the front of one car and not multiple cars, but that’s a speculative theory without knowing more about the placement of access points.
  • Don’t count on the network when moving. I’m not sure where the access points are, but I doubt they are on the train. There are no new devices that are apparent on the trains themselves, and the signal strength fluctuates wildly enough that it seems like the the access points are placed along the train line and not on the train cars. 802.11 doesn’t do vehicular speeds between devices all that well, unless you’ve engineered a wide area network.
  • Don’t expect anything in the tunnels. Although Wi-Fi Rail has specifically stated that they tried to cover the tunnel between Civic Center and Powell stations, I don’t see a qualitative difference between it and the other two tunnel segments. I’m able to use the network to get work done by paying attention to when the signal is good and sending data, or by queuing up data to go when a connection is restored.

Coverage is not great once you leave the platform, which restricts the buyers to BART riders who have a long wait on the platform at one of the four stations. A passenger like me who rides through the stops would hardly notice, since it’s scheduled as a five-minute trip. (Are business travelers riding to the airport a big market for Wi-Fi services?)

From a practical perspective, it seems like the only people who would be willing to spend the money are those waiting for a train, not those getting off. If you are getting off because you live close and were willing to pay the high price, a broadband connection is probably a few minutes away at home. If you’re transfering to a bus, there are hot spots at street level. If you’re transfering to the to the Muni Metro subway, forget about using electronic devices at rush-hour because the trains are so crowded.

I’ll stick with my unlimited cell data plan from T-Mobile, which offers continuous EDGE service through the downtown tunnels, and adds the ability to use any T-Mobile hot spot in the country.

Wi-Fi on BART

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

I’ve been out of the country, so I can only watch from afar, but Glenn ran a story about getting 802.11 on BART, provided by a company called Wi-Fi Rail.

I was interested, so I clicked through to find out more about the network. According to the WiFi Rail site, the network covers “Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street, and Civic Center, and the the tubes between Civic Center and Powell Street.” That’s not quite as good as the existing area covered by the cellular network between Civic Center and Embarcadero that I have been using with my T-Mobile data subscription. (I certainly hope that the speeds are better.)

Wi-Fi Rail is asking a hefty amount ($10/day, $30/month, or $300/year). For just four stations (and the tube link between only two of them), there’s no point in buying the service a higher price than my T-Mobile HotSpot subscription. For one subscription, I would prefer to work continuously through the hour-long train ride. The cell data connection is available in the downtown corridor and in the above-ground areas of the East Bay, so it covers a bit more than half of my journey. To pry open my wallet, WiFi Rail will need to get coverage for more than half of the journey, perhaps by partnering with other hot spot networks. (They will also need a better roll-out schedule than was promised in this November 2005 San Francisco Chronicle story on the cellular network.)

The big problem for the train deployments is how to connect train riders to the Internet as they move. Typically, a train deployment will use Wi-Fi on the inside, linked up to one of a variety of backhaul technologies. The WiFi Rail web site doesn’t talk about how the train riders are linked up. My guess, given that I haven’t seen antennas in the trains, is that in-train service is provided by the APs on the platform, perhaps with antennas to get coverage down the tunnel. Spacing between the downtown stations is about half a mile, and the tunnel is nice and straight. If WiFi Rail is using the APs to provide service in tunnels, they will probably use a a fancy antenna (either a distributed antenna system or a “leaky coaxial” antenna) to get good-size coverage from a single AP.

Service is apparently free during the trial period. When I tried to sign-up, here’s what I saw when I handed over an e-mail address:

Wi-Fi Rail sign-up error

I hope the service is provided more robustly than the sign-up…

Early experience with the BART (not-so-)EZ Rider card

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Last month, I signed up for one of BART’s EZ Rider cards. My experience has been pretty good. Even though the instructions on the card say that you have to touch the card directly on the reader, I am able to touch in without pulling the card out of my wallet. I couldn’t use the card when it was buried in the inside of the wallet, but when I moved it to the bill-area so the card is right next to the outer surface of the wallet, everything started working fine.

My wife’s experience, on the other hand, suggests you should hope and pray that your card never breaks. She carried her first EZ Rider card in the same way that she carried paper tickets, in a pouch designed for such things on her backpack. As is standard practice, on first use, the card was automatically loaded with $48 of value. Just as the card dipped below $40 (to $39.60, I think), it stopped working. According to the station agent, the card no longer responded to the reader and needed to be replaced. The only way to contact BART is through the EZ Rider “service center,” which is a single telephone number usually answered by a machine. After a little more than two weeks of calling and leaving voice messages that were never returned, she finally reached a live human who agreed to send out a replacement card.

I can only hope this isn’t a harbinger of things to come when the program leaves the pilot stage and goes live. Two weeks to get a person on the phone is ridiculous. I can understand the expense of staffing a call center, but it should be possible to leave a message and see some concrete action taken. I’m morbidly curious as to see whether they can successfully transfer the balance from the broken card account on to its replacement, largely because experience shows that it will likely be tremendously painful to contact the service center again to fix any potential errors.