Friday, May 27, 2011

Mass Intelligence‏

Sometimes, efficiencies are obvious, yet difficult to realize. Case in point: one of the things that I've noticed about King County Metro and Sound Transit is that they seem to move a LOT of empty buses, even during rush hour. And while buses are an efficient means of transporting a large number of people, a single-occupancy bus is significantly less efficient than a single-occupancy car. I'm going to contrast this with Chicago for a moment. There, when I rode the bus, I would often find myself changing buses at a bus barn, where the bus that I was riding would be taken out of service. Now, I suspect that the Chicago Transit Authority had a good deal more flexibility then Metro or Sound Transit as to where to put their bus barns. I've seen a couple of the Metro bases, and they're not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but they manage to be off the beaten track, even though they're in fairly built-up areas.

But no matter how they came to that point, the fact remains that moving empty buses around is likely a fairly expensive proposition, even when gasoline prices are fairly tame. After all, it's not as if an articulated bus could manage 30 miles to the gallon in city driving. And even setting that aside, the more miles driven the higher the risk of an accident, and the more wear-and-tear on the vehicles. These add costs that aren't being offset by paying riders. And when it's only the driver, I don't see the buses in the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, so what you end up with is a really big single-occupancy vehicle crawling along in stop-and-go traffic along with everyone else. To my mind, this calls for a contest. Let people know where the Bus Barns are, give them the lowdown on what areas need to be served, offer up a bit of cash as a prize and let the magic of crowdsourcing do the brainstorming for you.

This isn't to say that Metro and Sound Transit haven't put quite a bit of effort into keeping the simple shuffling of buses around the metropolitan area to a minimum. But it doesn't require a lot of looking to find a bus that's out of service, even during times when you'd think that the buses would be full. I'm curious to see if they can wring some more efficiency out of the system. A few thousand heads working that problem could be just the ticket.

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