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Notes from coffee with Ron: Major bus initiatives

As I noted last week, CTA President Ron Huberman asked me to pull together a small group of CTA Tattler readers to sit down with him over coffee and talk about CTA initiatives and hear their concerns. We did that on March 22. Here's the first of a series of reports, this one on bus initiatives.

Ron_gesturing Huberman said a current project to tackle the bus bunching problem is to measure the “big gaps” between buses and reduce them. A “big gap” would be double the interval time if it’s supposed to be five minutes. But if the interval is supposed to be 15 minutes, a big gap would be more than 15 minutes.

He said the CTA started on the 15 worst routes on the system. He identified four major problems impacting the bunching/gapping problem.

  1. Garage-related. Not pulling out on time or equipment-related problems. Currently getting rid of the worst buses, and not just by model and year. Huberman noted that bus breakdowns have dropped dramatically in the last few months.
  2. Discipline-related. Drivers not leaving on time. GPS systems in each bus measure departure times. Garage general managers are held accountable for on-time performance. In fact, Huberman said he has terminated three of eight general managers since he came on board in May 2007. The other factor is operator behavior. The CTA has begun ranking drivers’ on-time performance relative to their peers, and are looking for ways to reward the top performers. Already there’s a healthy competition among drivers.
  3. Street conditions. There may be trucks blocking a street, causing delays. Or there might be more stops for disabled riders to board.
  4. Scheduling problems. The current schedule may not make sense. For instance, if a bus consistently arrives back at the garage 15 minutes past scheduled time, the CTA would look at and revise the schedule.

Huberman also mentioned the CTA is ramping up hiring to improve bus cleaning efforts. And it’s using innovative methods to hire the 200 people they need.

For instance, this summer it will hire high school kids, as well as ex-offenders. Huberman noted that we wouldn’t truly see the results of stepped-up bus cleaning efforts until the summer.

Finally, the CTA president said by Thanksgiving, the CTA will have retired all of the 4400 and 5300 series buses first put into service in 1991.

Special note: Some of you wondered how you could be invited to this coffee. First, I apologize that I couldn't invite everyone. Obviously, that would be a logistical nightmare. So I first invited a few people I knew personally, and then a few others who comment often here and whose email addresses I have.

Many of you comment here with fake email addresses. That's fine, but I can't contact you personally in case I want to follow up on something. And remember, only I can see the email addresses -- no one else can.

Ron promised he would meet with us at least twice a year. If you'd like to be invited to the next chat with Huberman, please email me and I'll add you to the list.

Comments

Kevin:

I'd like to know if the issues with southbound red/brown/purple line rush hour issues were addressed both pre and post 3 track operation.

This is something that affects alot of riders and doesn't seem to be getting alot of attention or concern...considering how bad it is already, not to mention how much worse its going to get.

My email in my posts is correct. I'd don't have alot of confidence that I'd be picked. I tend to ask the hard questions that people don't want to answer. I'm definitely not one of the "fanboys" although I welcome the chance to be converted when I can get a clean, efficient, mostly ontime train/bus ride.

Again, I don't think I'm asking alot. I'd like to be able to go through one of the underground stations without sloshing though water cause no one can be bothered to clean the drains, or one of the myriad other issues we see on our daily commutes.

I'll have to say it sounds like mostly a PR thing....since it looks like he mostly got to talk about the current things that he's interested in (bus bunching, etc) and not more of the other things that we'd hear about. He's already made comments about the bus bunching being fixed this summer in the media....do we really need to hear about that again?

KevinB

KevinB, in multiple comments now you have referred to 'fanboys,' which sticks out at me, especially since the context you usually use it in seems to indicate that a fanboy thinks that the CTA is the most awesomest thing ever in the history of awesome things, and any criticism is totally unwarranted, because, look at all the awesome!

For what it's worth, I sincerely doubt the CTA has many "The CTA can do no wrong!" true believers who can't see littered aisles or for whom the train always shows up perfectly on time. I just think it's unfair to paint all praise or optimism as undeserved, especially when from what I can tell, most people who post praise in the comments here also post (constructive) criticism.

Note to KevinB: Actually, your name came up at the end of meeting, when Ron said he wanted to do it again, but with the "naysayers." Everyone at the table -- including myself -- immediately said, "Invite KevinB"! So you're up next, buddy.

As for your questions on three-tracking, tune in later in the week. There's more to come.

Well, as a CTA rider since the late.. well, let's just say since I was in elementary school (and i'm in my 40s now), I have to say i'm a little impressed with Huberman addressing the problem in such a basic, but important approach. GPS and computerized data analysis blah blah blah all that is fine, but his basic premise of drivers simply not leaving on time, etc. (garage and discipline related) is refreshing. Sometimes it's as simple as that....

I guess I don't consider myself a naysayer....I guess that anyone who doesn't post a positive comment every time may get that label, but when did doing your job everyday become something that you have to give praise for? I'm more of a truthsayer even when it's inconvenient truth(I'm very good at those).

You get paid to do a job and as unfair as some might see it, its not a special deal. We'd all like to hear it in a perfect world. I say thank you to the bus drivers. I say thanks to the train drivers on the rare occasion that I actually do only take 20-25 minutes for my 20 minute train ride. Should I start tipping them when they do theirjob?

I've always just marveled at some of the comments on here when I've brought up relevant, realistic, sometimes easily fixable issues. I've been told I don't know what I'm talking about, been told that I couldn't do any better, been told that I should come up with alternatives rather than just complaining, etc. Then we have the people who chime in and agree with the issues I bought up....are they naysayers too?

If I know an alternative, I'll suggest it, If I see a problem,I'll identify it. I don't even presume to know everything about transit. I do have a lifetime of pretty decent all-around experience. One of my primary skills if you will has always been problem solving. The first part is indentifying and acknowledging a problem, the second is researching it and coming up with alternatives, the third is look at the pros and cons of the alteratives, the 4th is implementing a solution and the last is always doing a Quality Assurance on the solution and see if its working, if not, why and what can you do about it.


My parents raised me with a high work ethic. I've done things from working at McDonalds to pay for school where a manager taught me one of my first work lessons "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean". I always have high expectations out of people, as they have a right to have high expectations of me.


Having said all that, I have high expectations of the new CTA management. I understand some things take time, but at the same time some things don't. I also look at results.

One of the things that I ask myself is are things better today at the CTA than they were 1, 2 or 3 years ago. I've been rinding the CTA about 5 years ago.


My overall answer is still no. I see that from my perspective of experience, observation and results.

1. Is my morning commute any better than it was 1, 2 or 3 years ago? The answer is no. There have been some incremental improvements, but overall my ride lasts much longer than it should. According to the redline manager trains leave howard every 3 1/2 minutes between 7 and 9am. Even with slow zones at wilson, sheridan, etc, there should still be close to that 3 1/2 time frame there. I have waited sometimes 15 or twenty minutes for a train, and most of the time because of the delays the trains are full. I've offered a few suggestions, but hey. I guess I'll only be happy when my 20 minute commute actually takes 20 minutes most of the time and not the 30-40 it takes now, soon to be 40-60 come March 30th.


2. 22 Clark. This has got to be one of the most unreliable bus lines. They finally got unreliable that they took the sign down at newport/sheffield/clark that showed how often they should be coming by. Bus bunching, muliple buses going one way and not the other, even when supervisors are standing monitoring the buses they don't want to mess with the schedule for fear that it might actually be more convenient for the customer.

3. Station closings/Station appearance. Again I'm back to the underground station flooding, appearance, cleaning etc. Its horrible. Washington when it was open was terrible, Monroe looks like a pit. Clybourn is horrible too...clark and division is not much better. The new station designs are really pretty, but not that functional. Sometime I'll post some pictures of the "new and improved" Sedgwick stop that baffles me with the minimum number of turnstiles and no "exit only" ones so that we can have the pretty metal grating where the space that they should be is..


4. Employees. I can count like clockwork seeing the two station attendants at monroe talking up a storm as I leave work and go to that station so I can actually get on a train. Pity the customer that actually interrupts their conversation to get help. My previous diatribe about the employee being let off at the belmont tower during rush hour so he didn't have to walk the extra 50 feet from the belmont stop. After all, there were only a couple hundred people on the train who were delayed. The "excess personnel" at the administrative offices. The "sleepers" at some of the train stations. I could go on and on...

5. Technology is your friend. Use it. Its about time the CTA had their own "CTA Alerts" with realtime announcements. Its time we know how long of a time the next train tech too at all the stations so we can plan accordingly. Same for buses (and not just out of one garage)...good lord this isn't rocket science. Kevin has managed to do it (no reflections on Kevins intelligence (grin))

I guess I have a long memory though, since I remember back with the legislators actually looked like they wanted to work with the CTA to solve the problems, but got hampered at every turn (remember back when they wanted audits of the CTA and all the drama there. I've always noticed that its easier to get elected officials when they are up for election than it is on the off terms.

But, hey,the world has to have naysayers I guess to keep rest of the world on its toes. I guess if hoping for reliable, efficient, on-time transportation makes me a naysayer, bring it on.

I guess if waiting another 6 months to have tea and crumpets and talk of immediate, ongoing problems that need to be addressed sooner, rather than later works out for everyone, then who am I to say nay...I for one always welcome the opportunity to talk to someone who will listen...that is, if they actually will listen and its not more lip service.

Also, just as a note, my definition of a "fanboy" is someone who either can't or won't ask the questions that need to be asked for fear of losing access or learning that their shining knight has feet of clay. Until proven otherwise, Ron is someone who the mayor handpicked to come in and look like he's making things better. I hope I'm proven wrong.

It sounds from Kevins (the moderator) and Rons perspective that there were no naysayers there at the meeting, just fanboys (see definition above).

Also as I've said, I'll make my prediction now and even further I'll put my money where my mouth is.....that if Chicago doesn't win the Olympic bid, then I'll put up $50 for the next "coffee" that Ron won't be around long if that falls through.

I'm an optimistic pessimist...I assume the worst and when it doesn't happen, I'm pleasantly surprised as opposed to being frequently disappointed.


KevinB

What is being done about the extremely overcrowded blue line trains? They're busier than any red line train I've ever been on, and I've ridden the red/brown/blue consistently as part of my every day commute.

I actually don't feel any need to participate... I just trust you to look at the pool of questions we've contributed and, if mine make the cut, that's fine. If not, hopefully the next CTA honcho will fix 'em. ;)

As for fanboys, I just think they're people who tend to be uncritical. One well-known CTA pundit mentioned on his LJ community earlier this year that "No service cuts are good." That's fanboyism. In general, I'd consider that the fanboys are the ones who went for the quick fix sales tax increase for the bailout.

KevinB,
I often object (strongly) to your ranting, and I'll tell you why.

Not even the most ardent "fanboys" and other such CTA defenders will argue that CTA shouldn't be constantly criticized and challenged to improve. The problem with most of your posts goes beyond even the juvenile tone, but rather in the accusation/assumption of incompetence and laziness behind everything you dislik about CTA. Those are serious charges against people devoting their lives to making the transit system run. If you don't know the cause of something, what's so hard about simply pointing out the problem or negative experience, and wondering aloud or soliciting from experts what might cause it? And if you do feel you know the cause, suggest technical/process/etc related improvements to fix the problem.

Just please don't say "X, Y, Z are wrong with CTA, ergo CTA management is bloated and incompetent. QED." It is not the way to foster positive dialogue, since most people tune you out as a crank and others (like me, for example) get distracted from constructive criticism to set the record straight on your negativity.

Your long post in this thread was pretty good, as KevinB posts go.

Frankly, the one thing I found rather funny, reading this thread, was that this could pretty much encapsulate the page:

KevinB: They'll never invite me. I'm too cool.

Mod: Actually, Huberman specifically asked for naysayers, and you're invited.

KevinB (thinks): Damn, uh, what now?

KevinB (aloud): You know, I'm not a naysayer, just a guy who's worked hard his entire life. My work ethic's so strong you could bounce a quarter off it. I trudged eight miles through the snow so I could mop McDonald's floors, and they didn't even give me water: I had to collect the snow on my boots and wait for it to melt. And here's the problems I think are systemic throughout the whole CTA: some jerk once stopped a train short of a station.

Oh, and how could I have forgotten:

Random Commenter: You know, the CTA really isn't as bad as all that, especially since Huberman took over. It could definitely improve, though.

KevinB: U R TEH CTA FANB0Y!!!!!!!!!!LOL Y DONT U JUST MARRY HOOBERMAN?!?!?!

I promised myself I wouldn't get pulled back into the KevinB quagmire, but here goes. Unless you have worked for a public entity with a unionized workforce, you have no idea how difficult it is to effect real change. I worked in the private sector for ten years and have worked for Chicago Public Schools for the last nine. I cannot tell you how frustrated I am by many of my coworkers and their lack of willingness to change or even do their jobs properly. More frustrating, however, is the belief of many members of the public that CPS could run more efficiently with a few tweaks and that all its employees are incompetent slackers. I have a sense many CTA employees may feel the same way. I prefer to look at the bus being half full rather than half empty in life, so yes, I do feel the necessity to celebrate small victories in CTA operations changes. This doesn't make me a sycophant. I have complaints like any other veteran rider, but they're generally echoed by other posters, so I don't feel the need to repeat.

What I'm curious about is if there was anyone under 25 at the get-together.

Also, one thing that puzzles me is how Ron (no offense to him, i like the guy) is often given the thanks for the slow zone initiative when really it was the 2006 blue line subway derailment and the NTSB that we have to thank.

"Also, one thing that puzzles me is how Ron (no offense to him, i like the guy) is often given the thanks for the slow zone initiative when really it was the 2006 blue line subway derailment and the NTSB that we have to thank. "

I suppose...in a roundabout way. There were few slow zones before the derailment, and as a result of the derailment, many miles of track that SHOULD have been slow zones all along were now marked as slow zones.

It's not so much that he gets credit for fixing the slow zones...it's that he gets credit for GETTING IT DONE, when Kruesi said it would take years and years, and hundreds of millions of $$.

I have a question (semi-serious, semi-snarky), but the schedule for the red line which KevinB seems to be getting a paraphrased quote about, that schedule, hasn't it been amended for the construction (ie the three tracking on that one line [aka the brown line])? Or is that (the schedule on the cta website) what is now current?

I've worked in unionized public agencies as well. There's nothing miraculously different about these workplaces than private ones except that they can require more diligent management.

The mere presence of a union does not, contrary to popular belief, make it impossible to discipline employees or to enforce performance standards. But doing so requires more work, since you more frequently need to be able to justify disciplinary decisions.

And so maybe the CTA's managers have a harder job than their private sector counterparts. And maybe they don't get paid as well as some of their private sector counterparts. But they are compensated fairly well and de facto they have quite a bit of job security. And in any event they hold positions of public trust and ought to hold themselves to high standards.

So this proposition that the public sector and unionized workforces are just intrinsically unmanageable is just a cynical way of giving CTA management a pass. This red herring is far from unique to the CTA, but that does not make it any less unjustifiable.

And, P.S.: what sane person wouldn't have expanded the bus tracker to the #22 bus at the earliest possible moment? If that means having the darned route originate from the southwest side of the city, fine. Heck, if they need to base the #22 buses in Tennessee to make them more predictable, I think we'd all understand.

When you get a large enough group of employees, you'll find both good people, and not-as-good people. Belonging to a union doesn't make the group overall less interested in doing a good job.

Look at UPS drivers, for example. In general, they "bleed brown", and they are great ambasordors for their company. But make no mistake, they are also Teamsters.

Disciplaning a unionized worker for violating a work rule isn't as difficult as the mythology suggests. Changing the rules so they can't help but break them is what's hard. Making up new rules in order to get someone in trouble is hard, too.

I think you'll find that when an organization has good management, when management has a good business reason to change work rules, your typical union will be open to discussion. It's only when management is capricious and pety that a union won't even listen to a plea to make a change for the common good.

The union is there to give the employees a voice. It's there so they can be part of the solution, not part of the problem. It's up to management whether they want to foster a good relationship that benefits everyone, or engage in pety bickering.

From Huberman's accounts, the union has been, in general, a team player when it comes to trying to make the CTA a world-class transit system.

Yes, work rules on minimum shift lengths, and maximum time between breaks sometimes is a big factor in why a very long route under-performs, but what's the alternative? Treat the drivers like they're machines that can be parked, and re-started at anytime? Or operate continuously for dozens of hours at a time? Of course not.

There are no easy answers. Perhaps moving the 8 to a different garage to facilitate better relief points, and pull-in/pull-outs in order to result in a higher percentage of "picked" runs operated by regular drivers may seem like an easy answer. (Although I'm betting that there's quite a few people who don't even grasp what that means.) But moving one big route to a different garage sets off a domino-like reaction. You have to make sure your "easy" answer doesn't have complex unintended ramifications.

But the union isn't the problem here. If anything, they're part of the solution. They're the voice of the drivers. They aren't "yes men" who'll go along with the "easy" fix, and ignore the ramifications. The union is going to ask the hard questions without worrying about who's pet project is actually doomed to failure.

Complex problems don't have simple solutions.

Not sure if I'm ready to deal with ex-offenders and high school kids doing work at the CTA...it's bad enough us riders have to encounter many of them on a daily basis!!

Rusty & tupperware:

I wasn't implying that CTA's unions are the problem. The reason I mentioned the union is that is that KevinB pointed out his wonderous work ethic, his work experience at McDonald's, and his problem-solving skills in the context that he could run the CTA better. There is a different set of rules when managing a unionized workforce that may take more time to implement or may have to be implemented in a different way than with an employment-at-will workforce. I completely agree, Rusty, that effective management is the key and I was astounded and very pleased when the pension and healthcare reforms were executed so quickly last spring. It's obvious that CTA's unions realize that longterm job security depends on working with management rather than against it. In no way did I intend to demean CTA's workforce. To the contrary, I believe there are many dedicated, hard-working individuals who are probably tired of hearing about how much the entire organization sucks when they're trying to be part of the solution.

Wow. I periodically swear this page off as a waste of time. I loved the first incarnation, which was more about stories that Kevin and his friends and family had about the CTA. Then I got turned off by the comments and the extent to which they seemed to drive the page. This is a prime example.

KevinB has been riding FIVE whole years. During that time he has noticed that the system doesn't seem to run as well as it used to. Therefore, his willingness to blather about his fixes make him a truthsayer! This is just silly.

I have been riding the system for 36 years (but I really only remember the last 30 or so). I remember things worse than now (when the Ravenswood trains were always half empty and stops like Paulina were closed), and things better (successful expansion to O'Hare, and creating the Orange line). I remember failed experiments (skip stop anyone?), and experiments that seem to have worked (express buses). What I don't remember is someone like Huberman trying to apply sensible solutions, including things like garage discipline. I guess that makes me a fanboy.

The CTA needs vast improvement, and it is not the system it could or should be. Still, the system did not get this dysfunctional in a year and it will not be fixed in a year. Remember that not every solution that a truthsayer presents will work. For instance, want to end bus bunching? Super. Now my 80 bus sometimes sits for two or three cycles of lights to make sure it does not arrive at the end of the line early, or catch the bus in front of me. That is fine for the anti-bunchers, but it sucks for people sitting on the bus.

I guess I didn't want to go into long posts about how to fix the problems (I'm always willing to offer a suggestion), However part of my evidently skewed work ethic is that I should get paid for the work I do (just one of my moral imperatives). I've offered a few suggestions but if someone at the CTA wants to work up one of those famous high paying "Daleyesque" consulting gigs, I'd be happy to take some time off from my regular work and consult away. :) I'm sure I could do as good a job as some of the Daley cronies who never even show up for work...

As far as work experience, I've dealt with unions before..and deal with them on a daily basis in the job I'm in now....we can still fire people who don't do their job, union or not and I've got the pink slips to prove it. If I were kind of the world I'd definitely have a few places to start progressive discipline, starting with the ladies at the monroe/washington street station and the red line manager who can't seem understand that some people might not believe that trains leave howard street every 3 1/2 minutes. and that he doesn't have to explain just why the red line has such problems keeping trains on time. Just for kicks and grins one day, I'm going to take a mental health day and had down there at 7am on a weekday with my stopwatch .

I'm really a nice guy if you ever get to know me and most of my friends put up with the occasional snarky comment since its usually spot on (and most of the time funny to boot).

I also believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt and the chance to change. Sometimes it's just sufficient to point out the problem. I'd much rather let someone else fix something, especially if its their job that they get paid for doing.

Also, I'm curious...are the admin personnel at CTA headquarters part of the union or just the truck, train, drivers, operators, mechanics, etc?

Also, if you remember, I did make a suggestion for a "citizens council" made up people who use the system on a daily basis and if hell ever froze over, actually even having a member of the CTA board who wasn't a Daley/Blago lapdog, you know like a real person who actually cared about the people...maybe the head of that Citizen Advisory board thing...someone who actually might represent the riders/customers.

So, I can set the record straight, I didn't walk 8 miles to work at MickeyDs, it was only about half a mile, there was hardly any snow and the only trial was being followed by dogs who could smell all the grease on my apron from cooking hamburgers all day. :)

As for the rest, I do not eat small children, beat dogs or otherwise do antisocial things along that same bent...but I am cursed with a gift for observation and a bad habit of trying to fix things that I think are broke.


Kevin

Also, I'll second third and fourth that the #22 Clark should be one of the first to get the bus tracking....I don't care what garage it comes out of either, although another state might be somewhat of a stretch.

KevinB

"22 Clark. This has got to be one of the most unreliable bus lines."

Hmmm, I wonder why that would be. Ah, here's an idea. Perhaps it is because the route goes through more than half the length of the entire city on a busy street with many stoplights and carries many passengers. I have a task for you. Do you think you can figure out why all those factors will contribute to late busses and bus bunching? I will check this thread in a day or two to see if you were able to come up with the correct analysis. And I'll tell you what else. If you can come up with a sensible and innovative solution that would immedietely solve the problem and not cause any major inconveinances to customers (and if you give me your e-mail address) then I will send you a $5 gift certificate to amazon.com.

"They finally got unreliable that they took the sign down at newport/sheffield/clark that showed how often they should be coming by. Bus bunching, muliple buses going one way and not the other, even when supervisors are standing monitoring the buses they don't want to mess with the schedule for fear that it might actually be more convenient for the customer."

Well, if you think that the supervisors standing on the street should be able to immedietely solve all the problems with the Clark Street bus then this should be an easy $5 for you then. Let's hear the solution. After all, you stated that the reason you have rarely mentioned solutions was because you want to get paid to give them (although, for some reason, you don't demand to get paid for spending a great deal of time writing long posts complaining about problems).

CTA needs to announce to all riders that they need to memorize or carry with them at all times the seriel numbers of their CTA cards once purchased cos if as happened in my case my sons student riding permit got swallowed/ irretrievable by the new credit card machine at Jefferson Park Train station and I was asked to call customer service, I was told that since I could not tell her the seriel number she could not possibly assist me in any way(all I needed was my card retrieved from the machine or a refund if necessary). In other woerds my complaint was null and void.... Customers need to know this.... and they need to make sure the attendant gives them a machine number also and files some report cos the attendant I had apprently was supposed to do this according to the customer service rep... this happened at 7am on January 5th 2009.

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