The MTA Needs to Measure Service in a Way That People Understand

This is how Transport for London communicates the impact of bus delays on riders — in minutes, a metric everyone can grasp. Image: Mark O’Donovan/TfL

What if I told you that in the past year, the 4 train had a weekday “wait assessment” of 70 percent, down 1 percent from the previous year? Unless you’re a dyed in the wool transit geek, your eyes would probably glaze over.

But what if I told you that on average, 4 train riders lose three minutes to delays on the morning commute, and the delays are getting longer? That would probably stick with you.

The MTA only uses one of these metrics to communicate service reliability to the public, and it’s not the one that the public actually cares about.

In a post yesterday, TransitCenter made the case for the MTA to move beyond “wait assessment,” which measures the percentage of trains with significant delays, but doesn’t say much about the extent and impact of those delays. Instead, TransitCenter recommends tracking “excess journey time,” which they say is industry best practice because it’s both more precise and easier for transit riders to understand.

As TransitCenter’s Zak Accuardi wrote in May:

Wait assessment is indifferent to how late a train is or how many riders are affected by its lateness. On a line with service every four minutes, a gap of six minutes between trains in the Bronx at 6 A.M. is equally as ‘bad’ as a gap of 15 minutes between trains passing through Grand Central at rush hour.

In contrast, excess journey time (and its variant, “excess wait time”), paints a clearer picture of how much time the average rider loses to delays.

Compared to wait assessment, TransitCenter says, excess journey time is more legible to the public, because it is measured in minutes, not percentages, and more accurately reflects the fact that not all delays are created equal:

If excess journey time for the 6 Train is two minutes, then that means the average 6 Train rider loses two minutes of time on each ride due to delays. And a rush-hour melt-down affecting thousands would reflect more strongly than construction-related delay at 3 a.m.

The MTA uses "wait assessment" as its primary metric for system performance, but TransitCenter says "eexcess journey" is more precise and easier to understand. Image: MTA
…and this is how the MTA communicates service delays — in percentages that are difficult to understand. Image: MTA

But the MTA has defied advocates’ push for a more coherent metric. In July, agency spokesperson Kevin Ortiz defended wait assessment as the “primary indicator” of system performance. “Our service delivery focus is on evenness of service,” he told DNAinfo. “This is our focus because, generally speaking, our customers — relatively few of whom travel all the way to a terminal station — are more significantly affected by the time they wait for a train at a station along the route rather than the difference between the actual and scheduled arrival time at terminal stations.”

This excuse conveniently obscures the fact that “wait assessment” fails to communicate the time passengers “wait for a train at a station,” because it doesn’t communicate time at all. It also gives the misleading impression that “excess journey time” is only a reflection of delays for passengers traveling to the end of a line, when the metric can convey average delays for all passengers on a line.

Other transit agencies have adopted excess journey time, and developers in New York have figured out how to apply it to MTA bus routes using Bus Time data. When will the MTA catch up?

  • Joe R.

    I can think of an even better metric. Compare actual travel times to potential minimum travel times which assume train performance and track geometry are the only constraints. The MTA’s performance would be even more pathetic if we did that. They can’t even hold to what amounts to grossly padded schedules in many cases, let alone to anything better.

    To be fair they’re not the only ones. NJTransit for one is another entity infamous for padded schedules. Trenton locals used to take an hour and 10 minutes back when I rode the trains in the mid 1980s. Now most take at least 15 minutes longer, despite having all high platforms which in theory speed up loading.

  • Lincoln

    Statistics are designed to be meaningful. Whether or not an outsider understands the information is much less important than whether it is actually a metric of service quality. Good for the MTA.

  • fdtutf

    No. If you’re communicating this to outsiders, which the MTA is, then giving them something they can understand is as important as making sure it’s accurate.

  • Joe R.

    Not to mention it seems like the MTA whitewashing a problem by using a statistic which makes it sound better than it really is. Average excess journey time lets the public (and the MTA) calculate the true cost of delays. Once we do that, we might finally see that it costs less to put money into the system to reduce these delays than it does to accept them as just a fact of life.

  • fdtutf

    I kind of doubt it’s that much of a conspiracy. I suspect that, instead, MTA staff have developed an instinctive sense of what wait assessment numbers mean, and don’t realize that the general public has no such instinctive understanding.

  • Joe R.

    You may be right. It might be a case of just being in their own ivory tower. I tend to use a lot of technical jargon and assume others will know what I mean. Often they don’t.

  • Hux

    Maybe they don’t want us to understand. I don’t like the “100+ yrs old” excuse. There are plenty of older things that are fine because they are maintained. Are we going to start saying that Harvard University is hundreds of years old and the buildings are falling apart? Wall Street? The White House? Nope, because they are maintained. Government is bad at maintenance. When the system unified, costs zoomed out of control. No incentive to control them, or to really care about service. So CBTC takes forever to implement, etc. We can only hope for people to care about service and do the right thing, but the incentives all pull people in the direction of spending time trying to look good by blaming the situation on things outside of their control or by simply removing bad numbers and cherry picking good news.

    A private company would bring costs down, would care about service, would try to innovate and find solutions… if people couldn’t afford the fare, maybe they could get a subsidy like a food stamp, rather than give a subsidy directly to the company. If an airline has delays, do we just pour billions more into the company and hope things get better? Investors would not pour more money into a failing system!

    I think costs are so high here, even compared to Europe, which also has unions and environmental rules and NIMBYs and property rights, because things are even more unionized in the transit industry. Many European cities contract out services. Also, Europe is generally poorer (PPP), so they have less money to spend.

    We could do so much better. So much potential – be it all of the land that we could be leasing or selling, or all of the technology we haven’t adapted… But, the unions will fight any technology that threatens their power (and they’ll want more and more rules to have more heads and more union dues/money). And even though we’re a state authority and we don’t need to follow local zoning, we’re going to follow it because we’re governed by politicians and we don’t have the capacity or expertise to self-certify projects without the Dept. of Buildings (which follows local zoning). The City doesn’t govern the MTA, so I think they’d rather use zoning incentives for affordable housing, instead of for transit funding. NIMBYists will always fear more density, and true, many far-flung yards wouldn’t be feasible to be decked, even if the tracks were laid to fit columns, due to the costs of ventilation, etc. Anyways I can go on about real estate but that’s not the purpose of your articles.



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