Unsuck Golden Gate Transit

For those of you that don’t know, I’m a Marinite that lives in Washington, DC, so commuting by GGT isn’t exactly normal for me.  (If you’re wondering why I blog on Marin issues while living across the country, my FAQ has a bit more detail.)  But, I’m home in Marin for the next two weeks for Christmas, giving me a golden opportunity to try the GGT.  I've written about maximizing our bus system before, but there's nothing quite like on-the-ground experience.  My few days have been eye-opening.

There were a number of general problems with GGT that I noticed immediately.  As one that lives on transit – I don’t own a car – proper wayfinding, signage, and branding is really important to me.  For the same reason some people want nice cars, I want nice transit that’s clean, efficient, pleasing to look at, and a pleasing experience to wait for.  What I got instead was this:

  • Poor signage.  The transit pylons are ugly, not weatherproof, and the signage typically consists of timetables printed on office paper, which melts when the rain gets inside and turns brown when in the sun too long.  There are often no route maps, no system maps, and no regional maps.  There were system maps at the San Rafael Transit Center and the Lucas Valley Bus Pad, but GGT had printed them so small I almost needed a magnifying glass to see where routes stopped.  As well, there were no timetables for routes that didn't come to that stop, forcing me to check on when the various exceptions to routing occur and leaving me in the dark as to whether I could switch to that service.
  • Poor shelter.  I boarded GGT at Polk & McAllister, which is the last primary stop for the service in San Francisco, but here is no shelter and no bench.  Despite its prominent position in timetables and relatively high volume of traffic, GGT treats the stop like an afterthought.  All they gave us was a pylon on the sidewalk with water-damaged route numbers and timetables.
  • Poor lighting.  I stopped by the Transit Center Saturday night and found the advertising far superior and better lit than the cheapo signage.
  • Lack of next bus departures.  Although I had brought with me a departure timetable, I had no way of getting this information otherwise, nor did I know if the bus had been early and I had missed it.
  • Lack of next stop information.  Despite long distances between stops and long headways, GGT chooses not to have its buses display which stop is next.  Given that the technology that enables this is the same technology that enables next bus departure information, this should be a top technology priority for the system.
  • Slow boarding and exiting.  The back doors of some GGT buses are almost vestigial, as they are not for boarding – despite the presence of Clipper readers – and they have signs imploring customers not to exit via them.  This means all boarding and exiting must occur at the front, forcing boarding passengers to wait for exiting ones to exit and forcing Clipper owners to wait while other passengers fumble for proper change.  Frustratingly, the buses that do allow rear exiting don't have Clipper readers, so Clipper users still need to exit the front to tag out.

Why is it like this?  GGT sells a valuable commodity – mobility – but it treats its customers like a burden.  The cheap and ugly signage screams to customers that the service is similarly cheap and ugly.  The lack of shelter tells customers they aren’t wanted.  The poor lighting says GGT doesn't even care about what signage is there.  The incredibly inefficient boarding and exiting tells me that they either prioritize the needs of the bus driver over those of the passenger or that they bought the wrong buses.

Many bus stops have shelters, but some of the major ones don’t.  There is money to buy shelters, but the distribution seems haphazard.  The same goes for lighting – properly lighting one’s signs and shelters goes a long way to ensuring the experience is pleasant for the passengers.

Real-time arrival (next bus) kiosks are inexplicably absent.  Although GGT equipped its buses with GPS to enable accurate Clipper Card payments and with WiFi internet, two major parts of a next bus system, the back-end infrastructure to enable next bus information is not in place.  GGT makes up for this by being highly punctual, which could, in theory, enable next bus displays to count down to the next scheduled departures instead.  MTC uses just such a display using GGT information in its style guide examples, but the district ignores what MTC developed and I saw no next bus kiosks anywhere except MUNI and BART.

The most advanced and useful piece of technology used is the booklet available on every bus, complete with route information and system maps.  While better than nothing, the maps don’t include a regional transit map or even a list of other transit services, rendering them less useful than they might otherwise be.  In addition, the schedules are inconsistent as to which stops are listed.  For example, the Lucas Valley Road bus pad is listed in some routes (the 49) but not others (the 70, 71, 80, and 101), leading the inexperienced passenger to believe those other routes bypass the pad when that's not the case.  GGT should choose which stops appear in the schedules and list them consistently.

This is made all the more frustrating because it doesn’t need to be this way.  MTC has a signage design document (PDF) that includes the Transit Center in its examples, so something better already exists on the MTC servers.  GGT need only spend a little money to have it installed, which would be part of the MTC Hub Signage project.  Other information, such as route numbers and timetables, could at least be laminated to prevent destruction by water and sunshine; using translucent plastic tiles would be even better.  Installing monitors to count down the next arrivals and departures would enable passengers to wait in peace rather than in trepidation.  Allowing Clipper Card holders to enter through the back door would encourage adoption of the card, and allowing passengers to exit through the back to speed boarding and offloading.

GGT isn’t trying.  Although it is the only possibility for good access to Marin, although it is the only way for carless San Franciscans to find Marin and although it is the cheapest way for Marinites to move around the Bay Area, GGT seems to deliberately ignore or overlook simple solutions, many of which MTC has already developed.  Indeed, some of the recommendations here were made five years ago by MTC itself (PDF).  The return on investment could be huge, but for some reason the Board relies on cheap half-measures and ignores the effects on its image.  Marin and Sonoma are incredibly wealthy counties, lands of the Cadillac, but their transit service sells itself as a Gremlin.  The North Bay deserves better.