Friday, November 20, 2015

Four things the T has done well

I throw a lot of shade at the T. They deserve it. But every so often it's good to remember that while there are lot of things the T does poorly, there are certainly things they've excelled at, things that are done well, and things that are way ahead of other transit agencies. Here are four:

  • In-Tunnel cell service.
    Go to New York. Get on the Subway. Try to send a message to someone. Unless you're at the brand new Fulton Street Transit Center (which cost, uh, a lot) there's basically no service. Maybe once in a while you get a little through a subway grate, and a few stations have wifi. But the T has had service in the tunnels for years (I think it was in 2012 when the Red Line in Cambridge got service) and there are only a few short segments (the E Line at Prudential and Symphony, the Silver Line) left to go. And I've seen some of the strongest signal ever in T stops, standing right by (read: getting zapped by) the antenna.

    The T also had the first Commuter Rail wifi service, but that's never been terribly reliable (although it launched in 2008, which was the dawn of the iPhone). Now everyone can tether anyway.
  • Mobile Commuter Rail ticketing.

    It's now been three years since the MBTA introduced mobile ticketing. As far as I can tell, it works pretty darned well. You can buy single tickets pretty easily, and even get a discount on a monthly pass (since you don't get a subway/bus pass as well). The T was the first to have it, and other cities are catching up. Chicago just launched their app for Metra and it's, well, not perfect. The mTicket app was inexpensive for the T to launch (free, I think, but it takes a cut of each transaction, which makes sense) and works well. And ahead of other agencies. It's hard to argue with that.
  • Countdown Clocks.

    No, the Green Line doesn't quite have countdown clocks everywhere. But they're coming; and the T has done a pretty good job of getting the data and the infrastructure for a relatively low cost. But before you complain, go to New York. Except for the A Division (the IRT lines, or the lines with numbers) and the L train, none of the trains have countdown clocks. The reasons why are certainly very complex, but the Green Line also lacks infrastructure to tell where a train is (except on a much smaller scale). New York has sort of taken a "wait and see" approach, adding the data when signal upgrades are made. The T realized that people might want this information, and made it happen.
  • Open data.

    The T is really, really good about open data. Back in the dark ages (7 years ago, when the DOT was EOT) transit agencies were very protective of their data, wanting licensing fees to release it (really). No one wanted to tell anyone where a train might actually be, and when it might actually get there. Credit to Jim Aloisi for calling everyone out and basically opening up all the data. Within hours of the open data, there were apps.

    Now pretty much everyone has open data, but the T's is actually pretty good, with bus and train locations for all vehicles in the system, useful data aggregation, and a ton of third-party apps. Turns out, it's cheaper to give the data away for free than to try to make your own apps. Shocker.

    Plus, you get some amazing visualizations.

So when you get pissed off at the T because their train schedules are a mess, or their bus schedules are a mess, or they procure untested technology for high prices, remember that there are at least some things that they get right.

And if all else fails, remember: it took the T 120 years to wreck the transit infrastructure. DC has done it in 35.

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