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.
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