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Transit design and Cleveland RTA, contd.

2013 July 15

Since my first commentary on the RTA Red Line, I have had opportunity to make some further direct and indirect observations about the service; my updated conclusion is somewhat more positive, with multiple qualifiers.

Possibly the most significant observation was in the indirect category, as I chose to make the trip downtown by car for the first of three recent visits to Cleveland’s main public library. (Why I had to make three visits is a whole other system-design criticism that I’m not even going to get into.) Having tested the same journey by bike and train, I made similar note of the results by automobile… and while this did not in any way change my objective experience with RTA, it did alter my assessment of the most obvious point of comparison.

I tried to make as much of a no-nonsense, in-and-out visit downtown as possible, aaaaand it just proved difficult to do. I wasted about as little time as I think I ever will in finding parking, and it still took, what, 45-50 minutes from my door to the library’s; basically the same time as a bike/train trip. I think getting back was marginally faster, but only marginally. Even in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday with, so far as I could tell, no particular special event in progress, getting out of downtown and back to the freeway was just a crawl. Meanwhile, I spent eleven dollars on parking; for the brief amount of time I ended up staying, I probably could have done better, but then this would have involved who knows how much more time spent circling…

Realistically, this seems like it was about as good as I can expect, and that turns out to be rather worse than I’d thought. I feel almost certain that downtown Cleveland has quietly become significantly more congested in the past several years, and there is (mostly very positive) reason to regard this as entirely plausible, but in any event it is what it is. Since then, I’ve taken RTA downtown to the library twice more. How is their offering holding up upon repeat exposure?

There is some good news. I’m figuring out their various frustrating idiosyncracies, slowly. I bought a five-fare card at a store, and it displayed an expiration date months away; upon activating the card, however, it also acquired a timestamp little more than an hour into the future, and at that point I thought “oh, I think I get it.” Subsequent experiment confirmed that when you activate a card or pass, it’s stamped each time with how long you have available to finish your travel and swipe out of the system at the other end. Of course, this points to the complexities of their whole “activation” system, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.

First, a few criticisms about the literal design of the fare cards themselves. To begin with, I don’t think it helps anything that the five-fare card, alone, has two different appearances depending on where you purchase it. The stripe side is basically the same on the one I bought from a machine and the one I bought at a store, but their front faces differ considerably:

RTA makes a shambles of the concept of systems

Left: machine-dispensed; right: store-bought

Why? I don’t know. Both are pre-printed in two different inks; the left-hand card has no bleeds, but that doesn’t seem like it would make up for the expense of having two different versions, particularly since each still involves some custom cutting. Then there’s the fact that, as noted, the right-hand card clearly states a distant expiration date; this at least provided a clue about what was going on with the timestamp. But the left-hand card offers no such information on either side. In fact, what it does say (“valid until the expiration date and time printed on the opposite side”) is misleading and distinctly unhelpful!

What absolutely takes the cake, however, is the one consistent feature of both cards’ design, i.e. the prominent triangle. I think that even the most basic and elementary graphic design standard would expect that if you’re going to have a swipe card that is fed into/through machines along its horizontal axis, and you then add to the card’s design a prominent arrow-like triangle pointing along that axis, it had better always point in the direction the card is supposed to go when used!

Not so, here. When you swipe out at the turnstiles upon arriving at Terminal Tower, you have to flip the card around so that the stripe side is facing you… and the arrow, though you don’t see it, is pointing back away from the direction you swipe the card. Brilliant. As for the multiple machines in which one can potentially activate a card, by feeding it into a slot, I’m still not entirely sure what direction the card is supposed to go in, or even if there is a consistent right answer; thus far I have repeatedly ended up trying every direction, seemingly multiple times, before finally getting it “right” through trial and error. Hopefully eventually I’ll figure this out, too…

But, really, it seems like I shouldn’t have to, or at any rate shouldn’t have to work this hard to do so. I will allow that lots of people ride RTA every day and obviously manage, and that if (particularly after that last post) someone therefore wants to snort in derision at my helplessness, so be it. Certain facts remain, however. I am by most objective standards an intelligent and educated person. I am not unfamiliar with transit, having managed to make sense of transit systems in a number of large cities in the United States, Canada and Europe. And if I am judging Cleveland’s system while still inexperienced with it, I think this is nonetheless fair not least because I made considerable effort to inform myself. Quite frankly, I am willing to forgive a lot of complexity and idiosyncracy provided that it is adequately documented so that someone of my fussiness and anxiety can learn the rules ahead of time; despite multiple visits to before and after using the system, however, I have yet to find any information whatsoever about most of the points of confusion I have here noted. Honestly, willing as I am to acknowledge my own failings and fallibility, the main problem here is not me but simply dismally dumb design.

The cards are confusing and misleading, there are too many different machines, the “activation” system seems needlessly complex and neither it nor any of these other aspects is effectively documented. Yes, there is a working service beneath all of this shambles of an interface design, but it’s still a shambles.

Which brings me back to one last point in RTA’s relative favor. For all RTA’s needless complexity and screwiness, here too the main point of comparison is little better. As my last trip downtown by car reminded me, parking in downtown Cleveland is almost as much if not more of a maddening game as riding RTA. At least RTA seems like it has some limited body of consistent rules that one can, eventually, figure out. By contrast, I’m not sure that I will ever discover an end to the Cleveland parking providers’ inventiveness. I swear that if you can think of a way to manage access and payment for parking, it is in use somewhere in downtown Cleveland. It’s like being in a bazaar where every shop not only uses a different currency but a different numerical system. So again, I must give some allowance to RTA that its failings aren’t necessarily any worse than the obvious alternative’s.

Still, that’s a pretty sorry sort of achievement. The fact is that in the RTA Rapid line(s), Cleveland seems to have most of the hard part of a pretty good service up and running. The expensive physical infrastructure is in place. The marginal cost of improving even the worst failings of design seems, by comparison, so small that the failure to do so is embarrassing. Recently, the Chicago Cubs I mean, featured a Plain Dealer editorial lauding the impressive renewal downtown and urging continued efforts to make the city more attractive to newcomers. I don’t know how much it would help, by itself, but it definitely seems like some attempt to rationalize the baffling and simply bad practices of the RTA or the parking companies (or ideally both) belongs somewhere on any resulting “to-do” list.

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