System Thinking

The LA Weekly published an excellent article, “The Subway Mayor”1 detailing the history of Los Angeles area public transportation going back to the “Red Car” days. Berkowitz uses such terms as: bumbling, mismanagement, and incompetence ,in describing the past and present LACMTA. I agree with Berkowitz and I further charge the agency with being dysfunctional, suffering from the NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome and lacking a systems approach to transportation. The dysfunctionality should be apparent from my prior blog posts. The NIH syndrome can be inferred my prior comments in that the agency failed to do due diligence in reviewing how other domestic and foreign transportation systems approach common problems. I believe that the agency is, in truth, comprised of “administrators” who have recourse to few if any staff transportation and/or industrial engineers.

Let us turn to just two examples of how other transportation agencies approach their systems and then compare them to our own LACMTA's world view, as I see it.

Chicago, although “smaller”then Los Angeles has had rail transportation for many years and integrates (please, remember that word) buses into the total system. Here is the CTA (Chicago Transportation Authority) view of their system. Nice, isn't it?
Closer to home, let's visit the San Francisco's Muni for a view of itself. Again we can note that San Francisco has an integrated transportation system.

But alas, when we look at the LACMTA's self view we see separate maps: one for buses and one for rail/subway. Point made. One can almost see the employee cubicals in the Taj Mahal , one grouping for bus another for non-bus, separate, distinct and uncommunicative.

Note, also that unlike, the CTA, which has html maps available, and the Muni, which both have the popular Adobe PDF format available for their maps while metro.net uses “Flash” format, also owned by Adobe since earlier this year – but still less popular- this provides a perfect example of NIH syndrome in action. Although the LACMTA bus/train timetables/schedules are presented in pdf! Reviewing the two system maps and the multiple LACMTA maps demonstrate a lack of “system thinking” I will cite other examples here.

Last week I described the money wasted on bus pads. An example of this waste is the former routes at Westfield Shopping Center in Arcadia. Two years ago there was a transportation center located within the shopping center less than 30 meters from an entrance. When construction started on Phase II of the shopping center, the transit center was relocated out to Huntington Drive approximately two blocks from the nearest store. This was intended to be a temporary move until Phase II was built and was so indicated on the schedules for the Metro buses which severed the area: Bus lines, 79, 264 and 268. The same stop was served each day by Foothill Transit's line 184.

Phase II construction was completed just about a year ago. Two weeks ago the new transit center opened in the shopping center with the only user being: Foothill Transit's line 184 and now only weekdays because the weekend service has been canceled. Although line 79 continues to use the stop on Huntington Drive- with its magnificent bus pad- lines 184, 264 and 268 no longer stop there. The line 264/268 stops have been relocated, close to two blocks away, on Baldwin Avenue! In the past riders had the possible choice of lines 264 OR 268 for a trip to Pasadena, now they must walk across busy streets to take advantage of one or another of the lines. All the while checking the their bus timetables and watches while estimating probabilities that their intended bus is late or that they should start crossing the busy streets to catch another bus. This example simultaneously demonstrates a lack of systems thinking and an extremely thoughtless approach to the people who they “serve”.

Lines 264 and 268 pass near the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station. In this case near means about two blocks. These buses could easily be routed through the Sierra Madre Villa Station as are Metro lines 181 and 267, along with the Montebello line 20 and Foothill Transit lines 184 and 187. But no, our LACMTA wants us to have our two block morning run, which is especially fun on those rare rainy days! Here is integration LACMTA style. Their attitude is: don't worry they can always catch the NEXT Gold Line train and they are not made of sugar so they won't melt in the rain.

Ms Liu2 does an excellent job in pointing out yet another flaw in the LACMTA's planning process in her coverage of the extremely poor linkup of the new Valley Orange Line with the Red Line station in North Hollywood. In short, the lack of a crosswalk forces riders either to detour to the nearest crosswalk or jay-walk. Such a routing, even with a crosswalk, will guarantee that someone will get wet when it rains and seems to make no allowances for the handicapped. It is almost like building only an airport's runways and then as the first planes are landing, attempting to work out the forgotten logistical elements. The Times deserves credit for forcing? embarrassing?? the LACMTA into reconsidering their initial stand against the crosswalk. LACMTA is now squabbling about who will pay for the costs associated with the crosswalk. The piece is illustrative of the the poor planning and lack of systems thinking which seems to permeate the LACMTA.

In nature, many things naturally fall into bifurcated groups. At the LACMTA there appears to be a bus group and a rail/subway group. Each one begins their day exclaiming, in turn, “Buses, the only way!” and Rail/subway rules!”. When in reality they should chant in unison “A Seamlessly Integrated Rational Coherent Transportation System for Los Angeles”. Tim Rutten, also recognizes the bifurcation in his – to me at least – unhelpful piece3. So what the Los Angeles Times contributes in one area, viz., possibly gaining a needed crosswalk, it trivializes in another i.e., belittling those who must rely on public transportation.

Why the new “speedy” bus line was not planned to terminate within feet of the Red Line station is difficult for a thinking person to imagine. Now, time and money is wasted arguing about something, i.e., building a crosswalk so their botched effort has some semblance of user friendliness, which should not have happened in the first place. Once again, the LACMTA has attempted to plan and build unencumbered by the the advice of transportation and/or industrial engineers. My impression is that the LACMTA's Marketing Department was, once again, overly involved in an area in which it has absolutely NO expertise. The most used word at Metro headquarters must be “duh”.

1Berkowitz, Eric.”The Subway Mayor” LA Weekly 19~25 Aug. 2005: 32
2Liu, Caitlin. “Valley Express Busway to Get Crosswalk at Transfer Stop” Los Angeles Times 14 Sept. 2005:B5
3Rutten, Tim. “Don't lead or follow, just get out of the way” Los Angeles Times”15 Sept. 2005: E2.

Next week: Yet more LACMTA money wasting



The Money Wasting LACMTA

LAMCA has completed replacing the “old” logo (M inside an orange ball) with the word “Metro” on the bottom with the “new” logo a stencil type “M” inside a white ball. and the word “MetroTM” on the bottom. While the work was in progress, I observed the process at one bus stop. The worker required fifteen minutes to clean the sign and then overlay the logo portion with a self adhesive decal measuring about 12” X 18”. His truck was idling, radio playing, for the full period, wasting fuel and spewing out pollution. I am certain that those decals were not inexpensive and, at least two are required for each of the 18,000 bus stops served by Metro. The labor involved must exceed 4,500 hours, well over two person years. To me, this is a money wasting project totally without merit. It is the same sort of ill-advised plan as the one to “color code buses”. Bus riders understand that red buses are “Rapid” all other are, well . . ., all others. It is beyond my comprehension as to why such funds would be spent on a project which contributes NOTHING to service and only deepens a deficit which is estimated to be $10 million! Table 1, below, contains my approximations of the costs associated with this money wasting effort .

I believe that the monies wasted could be used to purchase two new buses or to improve the cleanliness and security, v.i., the LACMTA's system.

Speaking of funds, the second level of the Patsaouras Terminal underwent a five week plus period of reconstruction about a month or so ago. This means that a mere eight years after the initial construction in 1996, there was a structural failure. It is of great interest to me as to whether the Catellus Development Company or Los Angeles County paid the bill for the reconstruction. The case can easily be made, that due to either improper design and/or construction the the structure was inadequate for the intended use and that therefore, Catellus should be required to pay.

Also, I have noted that orange decals with general route and schedule information have begun appearing affixed to support poles for bus route number signs at bus stops. These decals are interesting in that they seem to be 1.25 lingual, i.e., the only Spanish indicated is “minutos” (minutes) while days of the week are specified in English only. I submit that it would be an extraordinary Spanish speaker who knew the days of the week in English, yet could not translate “minutes”. This is just another symptom that something is seriously wrong with the staff who develop signage for the LACMTA. It seems to me that the cost benefit of updating 18,000 of these small and likely hard to remove decals is nonexistent.

The Gold Line is over two years old, yet there is neither indication on the track 1 and 2 signs nor over the entrances to the track tunnels that indicates that tracks 1 and 2 belong to the Gold Line. After my original 18 page letter to Snoble (one of my complaints was about the hidden Gold Line), the LACMTA installed LARGE signs over the tunnel entrance on the East side of Union Station. The Sign indicates “Gold Line” in large letters leaving lots of empty space. They failed, however, to indicate that the Gold Line could be found at “tracks 1 and 2”. The also installed large and apparently costly panels just inside the track 1 and 2 entrance which signs can only be read from a sharp angle and then only if your attention is not directed upward . Much less costly, and easier to see from a distance would be to do as I suggested, i.e., place the words “Gold Line” on the bottom of the existing track one and two circular signs. This would make the Gold Line tracks conform to the preexisting standard found on ALL the Union Station track signs and make the Gold Line much easier to find. One of the LACMTA's mottoes surely must be “There is always time and money to do it over but never enough to do it right the first time".

Another challenge that the LACMTA fails to overcome is general signage: The Red Line trains, which have dual termini, have tiny, poorly lighted signs which result in many riders, especially those on a first trip, to end up at the Wilshire and Western terminus rather than in North Hollywood or Universal City.

Although most train operators make an announcement of the train's destination – I have early commented on the quality of the on-board PA systems- someone without an understanding of the physical layout of the Red Line might be open to the misrouting even IF they could understand the announcements. Passengers who make that mistake then have to perform a somewhat confusing return to the Vermont and Wilshire Station and go down one level, a route which has inadequate signage, and are open to the repeating the error unless they take careful note of the train which the board at the Wilshire Station. The solution is simple. The Red Line Stations should use the type of multi-line electronic signs, such as those in use by the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in the San Francisco area Instead of of the single line scrolling signs – with their endless date time or apologies for elevator outages- which we must suffer. The San Francisco signs display the expected time of arrival and destination of the next several trains.

Too, both subway and light rail station signs offer to little information. Had transportation engineers advised the LACMTA on station design, likely we would see station signs similar to those in use throughout Japan and in other world cities. These signs look approximately like this: >-Last Station This Station Next Station-> .

Proper signage makes it possible for a first time user to have some understanding of his position in the real world. But, since LACMTA management and staff do NOT ride the system they are clueless as to what is needed.

Several months ago, after a period of testing, an automatic bus stop announcement system was installed on many buses. While the system was under test under test I commented on it as follows. 'The automatic announcement of bus stops is triggered by bus location as determined by the GPS (Global Positioning System) . In use on several local bus lines, it has its' share of bugs. To mention just one, GPS is NOT instantaneous, therefore if bus stops are closer than the latency of the system (the time which GPS takes to compute a position), then discrete stop announcements CANNOT be made. Such stops are then lumped together as in “Stop X followed by stop Y”, leaving riders unsure whether they are expected to signal for the Y stop at that moment or to try to see if the X stop is passed and then signal. Confused? - riders are too.' After installation on many buses in approximately the June 2005 time frame, inexplicably, it stopped operating on or about the system wide schedule change which occurred on June 26, 2005. Recently I have noticed the announcement system is again in sporadic operation. The under staffing by LACMTA in this area is the likely cause for the delay. Someone described the staffing level for this project as "one guy in the basement of the Taj Mahal (LACMTA headquarters on Vignes Street)".

On June 22, 2005, the Los Angeles Times1 in yet another sample of “stenographic “journalism” (meaning a reprint of the press release without serious analysis), sub heads the piece “... no cost to taxpayers”. I strongly disagree. Had Mr. Wang actually used the MTA as a mode of transportation, he would have noted that these “free” screens impinge upon much needed luggage space. Had he been a true user, not a casual visitor, of public transportation he would have noted than many times, mothers with children and a collapsible baby stroller, use the space now planned for these wonderful free TV screens to stow the stroller. Others, whose only means of transportation is the bus, place their groceries in this space. The providers of this system want access to the potential buying power of the transit passengers. I submit that the providers will be disappointed with the results. Riders on the always crowded 720 line (Downtown to Santa Monica via mainly Wilshire Boulevard) he would have noted the only the passengers immediately in front of the screen could even see them. Also, a screen placed near the rear access would take space into which passengers now squeeze themselves. With respect to the “free” aspect of this system, it ignores the fact that LACMTA personnel will have to mount and maintain these unnecessary devices. Even with their audio set on low there is conflict with the automatic stop announcement system and generally made the ride from Venice Beach to downtown Los Angeles a kid of multi-media hell for me in that I was unable to focus on the book which I was reading. Buses are inherently noisy, in theory radios without headphones are not allowed, BUT, headphone equipped radios are often played loudly and/or with the headphones off the users ears acting as mini, though quite effective, speakers. Walky-Talky telephones, think NextTel, which are apparently legal on METRO, are pervasive and LOUD, exposing all riders to the most uninspired, often profanity laced conversations which only writers for HBO's Deadwood could imagine. On certain lines, foreign languages (not Spanish) are shrieked (no exaggeration) throughout the bus. As far as enhancing the bus riding experience is concerned, I will accept the imperfect automatic announcements as a necessary evil, but can easily live without the 24/7 infomercials spewed out by this latest LACMTA marketing department pipe dream.

Several months ago, concrete slabs slightly longer and wider than a bus were poured at several locations. This expensive effort was undertaken to prevent the buses from breaking down the asphalt streets where multiple lines used a single stop. However, with the June 26, 2005 schedule reshuffle, stops which served four lines now serve only one! Here again is the proverbial left hand not knowing what the right is doing.

After reading “MTA Gift Shop Puts Web Surfers in the Driver's Seat”2, I can only ask: “Is there no limit to the money wasting ideas spawned by the LACMTA's marketing department”. The metro shopping site offers such desirable items as a $53 sweatshirt – sorry no designer label. Go to the METRO site and find a link to the Gift Shop.

Let's perform a rough businesslike ROI (Return On Investment) calculation, based on the “Los Angeles Times”data, on this latest LACMTA pipe dream. If the “web site” has been in operation since April 1, 2005 (an auspicious day upon which to begin such a business) it has averaged 70/91 or 7/9 of an order per day. It returns a total gross sales of $1500, 1500/91 or $16.48 in gross sales per day. And the business costs? Ms Gresko, of the LACMTA, seems not to have considered that important. Perhaps she subscribes to the idea that “we are losing money on every transaction but we hope to make it up in volume”. Let's estimate that it only costs $5000 per month to run the operation, a conservative estimate. The daily LOSS, ignoring the paltry sales, would be 15000/91, i.e., $164.84. On that basis, in terms that even LACMTA can understand, the boarding fares ($1.25) of one hundred thirty one (131) transit riders have just been flushed down the commode. The actual LOSS is even greater, since inventory is involved and designers, producers and handlers of this, mostly, unneeded and unwanted “stuff”, must be paid, even though it gathers dust on the shelf.

The piece was filled with quotes from successful sellers of transit merchandise – but this will not happen here. The LACMTA's marketing department must have been snoozing when the rest of us experienced the dot com bust!

Instead of wasting money on schemes such as this, the LACMTA should improve its' own “Trip Planner” (www.metro.net), e.g., providing an automatic link to schedules after the route is planned. The present design of that portion of the “Trip Planner” is, well, lame. I can come up with many other ways that the LACMTA could save money, improve service or both – but not as fast as their marketing department can come up with ways to waste money. Mayor Villaraigosa can do the city a favor by replacing the LACMTA's marketing department with systems oriented industrial engineers and transportation engineers.

Table I (All values are estimates)

Description Time Cost Cost X 18,000
Labor Loaded $ 0.25 $7.50 $135,000.00
Decals (2 per stop) - $5.00 $90,000.00
Fuel wasted - Unknown ?
Vehicle (Wear & Tear) - Unknown ?
TOTAL - - $225,000.00

  • 1Wang, Andrew. “MTA Offers a New Way to Avoid Eye Contact”. Los Angeles Times 22 June 2005: B2

    2Gresko, Jessica, “MTA Gift Shop Puts Web Surfers in the Driver's Seat ”. Los Angeles Times 2 July 2005: B3

    Next Week: System Thinking


    System “safety”

    I have a number of safety related concerns to discuss today.

    The seven hundred and fifty (750) volt “third rails” in subway stations have safety warnings which are either poorly marked or grime obscured. A careful study of the third rails might allow the searcher to find, as I did, a fairly clean place with a warning. Although, the one I found was in Spanish.

    The system lacks clear subway evacuation procedures which recognize the “third rail” danger. Such Procedures should call for riders to hug the LEFT side of the tunnel when evacuating from the front of a train and traveling FORWARD to the next station and the RIGHT side of the tunnel when evacuating from the rear of a train and traveling BACK to the last station. Such procedures are necessary to position evacuees as far as possible from the “third rails”. Subway tunnels are marked with the distances, in yards, to both stations, i.e., forward and back. Regular subway riders would be advised to carry a small flashlight in order to be prepared, as I can imagine no darker place than a blacked-out subway tunnel. I would also that suggest that riders learn that right is derecha and left is izquierda in Spanish.

    Lately, it seems that subway operators make prescribed announcements, along the lines of: “riders should read the emergency instructions”. The only thing that I could find that could be described as emergency instructions was a brief explanation of how to open a subway car door. Armed with only this information, it would be possible for someone to open the door, jump out of the car directly onto the third rail!

    The bus drivers too seem to want to fight to preserve their freedom
    to ignore proposed work rules while simultaneously putting their
    passengers AND the general public at risk. The Los Angeles Times raises an issue1 which I identified and communicated to the LACMTA earlier this year. Of course, I was “stone-walled” even though I detailed my concerns in writing, on two more occasions. In my last attempt, I raised a number of other of issues in an eighteen page letter directly to Mr. Roger Snoble, the head of agency. Snoble,who is incidentally, with a salary approaching $300,000 annually including benefits and perquisites, the best paid transportation executive in his category in the United States. Snoble did not bother with a personal reply, instead, he delegated -always the mark of a successful executive- someone several levels below him to send me an extremely short acknowledgment of my letter. In my letter, I was critical of “Metro thinking” in that they do not view our transportation system as a “system”, but rather as bus lines and rail lines. Points illustrative of “Metro thinking” and the true lack of understanding of the system by LAMTA executives and staff are brought out in Times piece. A page B3 quote about the bus drivers: “... and that the majority do now [ buckle up] as a result of a training campaign.” My own informal study (10 distinct buses) performed on the day which the article appeared, found that only 30% of the drivers were buckled up. If, indeed, the majority of drivers did use their seat belts after training, then there has been slippage since the the original training campaign. Currently, I believe that only a small fraction of the drivers actually use seat belts.

    How little the drivers seem to understand the concept of safety is embodied in Kamal Sohal's quote in the piece:“A lap belt will hurt more in an accident.” Hoang Pham, in rationalizing his non use of the seat belts, viz., restriction of his movement, further indicts the LACMTA for its failure to consider the driver's environment and ergonomic factors. The same applies to the lack of seat belt adjustments mentioned by a “Santa-like driver”, '“First it's too small. Now, too big.”'.

    Every driver has a “complaint card” for his assigned bus, if something needs fixing he need only to “write it up”. The Industrial Engineering Division of the LACMTA - I actually doubt that they have one- should address these environmental/ ergonomic issues. If the putative Industrial Engineering Division needed to know, on average, how many seat belt extenders they require, a simple survey of an airline will tell them the ratio – number of seatbelt extenders carried:the number of seats on a given aircraft. Of course another option would be to offer Santa-like drivers counseling on weight loss and health.

    The reason we all should care about a LACMTA driver's seat belt habits is simple. If he is thrown out of his seat in an accident, then the bus is free to travel, uncontrolled, where it will with the equal possibility of death or injury to passengers and non-passengers alike.

    This logically leads to the discussion of on board security. Throughout the system, posters, in English and Spanish are seen, which invite the viewer to speculate as to which one of the people pictured is the undercover officer. These posters, like the “Armed Response” signs used by householders without contracting with a security agency, are toothless threats. I have seen every one of the acts (eating, drinking and loud radios and even louder cell phone conversations) which, other than the cell phone usage, supposedly deserve a $250 fine and forty hours of community service, committed numerous times without one of the undercover officer responding. I can only assume that either these officers are superbly trained to sit impassively and watch these minor infractions while being ready to spring into action when something serious occurs. OR, this is really another ploy developed by Metro's Marketing Department.

    The so-called METRO security officers if they are seen at all, are often grouped together, chatting. The Los Angeles Times published photos2 which document this fact. Brian Vander Brug's picture, which straddles the fold, tells a story. In it we see five, count 'em, five, sheriff's deputies and one LACMTA fare inspector, clumped together, chatting, just as I have often seen them on trains and platforms. I suggest that this is not only inefficient but also violates "Moe's Maxim", i.e., -“Spread out!”. Further, these “security officers” only EXTREMELY infrequently check for fare payment - perhaps less than 20% of the times when I have seen them on board trains or grouped together at rail or subway stations. Given these "activities" on the part of the Sheriff's deputies and LACMTA "fare inspectors" causes one to wonder why some sort of automation was not applied to fare validation. I can only recall one other system that allowed unrestricted entry, i.e., the San Jose system. World class transportation systems, which include the Bay Area's BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the JRE (Japan Rail East) in Tokyo have automated entry systems. Such systems have a higher front end cost and of course, a continuing maintenance cost. However systems like the one here in Los Angeles have a high month to month cost. It can be argued that the deputies and fare inspectors provide an element of security but They are not always president and as noted earlier they don't always check for fare payment. I can also make the case as they -this seems to be more the case for the fare inspectors- chat among themselves or on their cell phones, they are less than vigilant.

    1Lui, Catlin. “L. A. Bus Drivers Resist Seat Belts". Los Angeles Times 13 Dec. 2004: B1
    2Vander Brug, Brian. “Subway station security - photo". Los Angeles Times 23 Jul. 2005: B1

    (Next week: The Money Wasting LACMTA)

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