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The Department of Transport (sometimes trading as PTV) struggles to run a website for public transport passenger information. Problems of fragmented and inaccurate information that led to the formation of Metlink in 2003/4 and PTV in 2012 remain unsolved despite promises of "simple connected journeys".
Users reasonably view the PTV website as a single and coherently managed information source.
Reality is different. It is best understood as a thin (and sometimes peeling) veneer for at least three separate processes, namely (i) data upload for timetables which also drive the journey planner, (ii) text for service information and disruptions, and (iii) maps and graphics (which seem to be done by different people to those who write the text and not necessarily coordinated). Then there is social media output like Facebook and Twitter posts.
Inadequacies become most apparent when information is most needed, such as when there are disruptions due to construction works or service cuts due to COVID-19. At best missing or inaccurate information leads to poor passenger experiences and reduced trust in the network. At worst it can cause people to be stranded, especially in outlying areas where services are sparse. If you were going to revamp a website then strengthening the back-end data processes is where you'd start (despite these being a hard sell to senior management).
PTV launched a new beta (ie test) website in May 2018. It became the main website in January 2019. The old ('classic') site remained available at https://classic.ptv.vic.gov.au . Normally you'd have a brief transition period, maybe a month or two, but the classic has lasted nearly two years. This has been a good thing as the old site has features the new one lacks. Once you finished bringing the new site up to scratch you could switch the old one off.
What happened? On Friday users got a warning that the classic PTV site was being switched off on Wednesday September 9. Then everyone would have to use the new site. Functionality that was not carried across would then be lost.
Should the switch off happen? Is the new PTV site a reasonable replacment? Here are six reasons why I don't think it is.
1. Online timetables on new website can't let you show major stops only. If you're travelling between major stops, even if they're a fair distance apart, the chances are that you could see both your departure time and the arrival time without scrolling on the classic website. If you were going to a quieter stop then you'd be able to expand part of the stop list and easily find your destination. The new PTV website has removed that facility. That means a lot more scrolling through stops you're not interested in. That's inconvenient, especially for trips on long SmartBus orbitals with dozens of stops. The same issue arises if you want to look at earlier and later trips as you need to scroll a long way to the bottom of the screen, across and then a long way up again.
Printing out timetables also has problems. In short, don't do it. The new PTV website is a real paper-waster. For example Route 732's pdf on the new site requires 15 sheets (back and front). Whereas on the classic site you can print all trips on just two.
2. New website timetables conceal information like route descriptions or deviations. And the maps you get are different to those at stops. Written route descriptions can be important especially where maps are unclear or there are special complicating features like occasional deviations that cause buses to take a different path, pick up and set-down restrictions, unidirectional running or portions of the route that are demand responsive.
3. New website lacks maps for multi-route corridors and undersells frequency. DoT/PTV has never been good at promoting its frequent services, especially on multi-route corridors. Despite a bus every 10 minutes being vastly more useful than one every hour and the department being responsible for network marketing and growing patronage. The new site is a step back in that it fails to communicate where the useful multi-route corridors are.
4. No more stop specific downloadable timetables. Maybe this is 'old hat' but this is a great feature of the classic website. You could download and print a timetable and map just like what appears at your local stop. Even, in some cases, where there were multiple routes. Same for trains and trams. And we still have a lot of 30 to 60 minute frequencies on the network so timetables remain essential. Who knows how many community centres or seniors clubs put these up? From Wednesday they won't be able to.
5. Network improvements are hardly promoted. Governments shout infrastructure upgrades from the rooftop. In contrast PTV whispers service improvements from the basement. A few months ago Endeavour Hills got a new bus network. It delivered simpler routes, longer hours and better frequencies as described here.
Where do you find out about what changed? Glad you asked. The new PTV website buries it like it was an embarrassment. To find it you must:
(i) Go to the bottom of the site and click "About PTV" (intuitive isn't it?)(ii) Choose "Improvements and Projects"(iii) Choose "Buses and Coaches"(iv) Scroll down
When you get there's just a few paragraphs with no maps or detailed descriptions of the benefits. It was hardly worth the dig. And it's not a one-off either; see these Broadmeadows changes also.
Even though the DoT just needs to attend to transport, while local MPs have a million other things on the go, it's been politicians like Ros Spence MP, Nick Staikos MP, Jordan Crugnale MP, Sarah Connolly MP and Sonya Kilkenny MP who have led local bus promotions. I only half seriously suggest that marketing be outsourced to their offices as they outclass the department.
6. New website maps don't show important details some routes need. OK this only affects some routes but passengers still need to know. Melbourne has several loop routes. Some (like 380 and 443) use the same number for both directions while others (eg 280/282 and 681/682) have different numbers for each direction. Still others (eg 582) just go in one direction only. In any case the map needs to show which direction the bus goes. Routes can also have occasional deviations or extensions. The maps on the classic website are better in this regard with route-specific directional arrows, labelling, and, for occasional deviations, dotted lines.
Then there are the flexible route Telebus services. Unlike the classic site the new PTV website doesn't shade the areas where passengers need to be to get a Telebus pick up or set down. It would be wrong to say that PTV don't publish Telebus maps. They are there on a dedicated page. However it (a) ignores the Telebus portion of Route 672 and (b) fails to include direct links to timetables. So it's only half-useful.
Longer term matters
The above points adversely compared the new with the soon to close classic website. However both have been held back due to periods of indifferent management and an institutional inability to know what information passengers need. This leads to a culture where too often the website is merely a passive publisher of what it gets given when it comes to service changes (which can be incomplete). As opposed to them batting for the passenger by publishing important information, even if it means them badgering operators and agencies until they get it.
Perhaps because it doesn't have a publicly stated directive to increase patronage, nouse in network marketing has the status of a recessive gene within the Department of Transport. Hence we've seen little effective promotion of existing frequent services or strong selling of network improvements. They can't even do basic multimodal information at new stations like Frankston by erecting simple things like multimodal network maps and a list of destinations and routes (like was there many years ago).
Any website is a product of its organisation. That will have biases. Talk of teamwork notwithstanding, sometimes outcomes delivered can be inferior to the smarts of people within it. Here are some issues that have endured with both classic and new PTV websites:
1. An aversion to using maps to explain the network and changes to it. A child draws a picture of a house and scribbles a few words pointing to some of what's in it. Play School stuff. Kids who can draw houses and label what's in them are multimedia geniuses compared to some collective efforts we've seen from DoT/PTV.
How? PTV shy away from diagrams and maps even when they could be useful to explain its core business like changes to bus routes or temporary route diversions. If no one was watching its instinct might be to have none at all, especially if they show multiple modes. There have been times when they have been removed and have to be chastised to bring them back. Even republishing maps already done for another purpose (eg community consultation) and published previously can be too hard.
Not having maps is bad for network marketing and usability, especially for people whose first language is not English. I can only explain the dislike of maps as part of a race to do what is expedient rather than what is good. And organisational rigidities may play their part. There are people there who write. There are people there who do maps. But it seems a problem for one side to ask the other when both are needed to explain something or its significance. And synchronising with data (another responsibility) would be a miracle!
2. A doctrine based on heavy reliance on the journey planner, app and mobile devices. This doctrine holds that website maps and timetables don't matter much. Neither do signs, maps and timetables at stations and stops. That's misguided. Even though journey planning apps sound high-tech, from a marketing point of view it's more akin to the old-fashioned general store where you had to know what you want and not be too embarrassed to ask for it. As opposed to the modern supermarket where packaging is designed to be seen and you pick what you want.
PTV's 'wet blanket' communication style tends to tell people that a timetable is changing but not about benefits such as improved frequency. Instead they rely on people to play 'spot the difference' with its clunky website to compare 'before' and 'after' timetables. Very few will. Instead PTV must be the one to start the story to get people engaged. More on better network marketing here.
3. Website housekeeping is not very good. This is something that PTV website users need to be wary of. Often the easiest way to find something like an area map is to do a Google search. Unfortunately the item that is highest in the search is not necessarily the current map.
This is because PTV don't always remove out of date items as they lack a strong culture of version control. Changing an index page's link to the new map while leaving old ones floating (unlinked but still accessible) is about the limit.
While that's great for enthusiasts, historians and bloggers to have a web server full of old maps, it's not good for the casual user who might come across an out of date version. Good website administrators delete old duplicative material to remove the risk of wrong information and free up space. While there would be a case for both old and new side by side for a period before a change, that need for two has gone when the new version becomes applicable.
Something odd about the newer local area maps is that they've been relabelled 'bus maps'. This is wrong since they show train, tram and bus. While minor this is an indication that when it comes to multimodal networks and the role of maps they don't quite 'get it'.
4. Too many cooks around the big projects. OK this can't be blamed on the website. However information flows are a big problem. Revised organisational structures have failed to deliver "simpler, connected journeys". Projects managed by the following may affect train, tram and bus services.
* Department of Transport* Public Transport Victoria (now the website)* Rail Projects Victoria* Level Crossing Removal Project* Metro Tunnel Authority* Suburban Rail Loop Authority* Victrack* Metro Trains* V/Line
It's not always obvious who is running which. Eg the Level Crossing Removal Authority built the Mernda extension. Information that affects the travelling public can be on websites like LXRP, 'Big Build' or PTV. We're further than ever from the 'one-stop shop' that was promised when PTV was established.
If you want to save anything from the Classic PTV website, eg maps or pdf timetables, do it today. It will be gone in a few days.
Are there things you like about the new PTV website? Should the old site keep going or be turned off? Disagree with any of the points above? Have some more to add? Please mention this in the comments below.
You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topicsBetter Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit
Steven Higashide The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees
Jarrett WalkerTransport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees
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This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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