Does The Bus Company Have A Blind Spot?

by Steve Jacobson

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: Like other things of value, a good--even an adequate--mass transit system must not be taken for granted. Those of us who have access to bus service must use it and establish contact with its officials to insure that our needs are met and our point of view considered. Even so, problems will arise, and the sooner they are tackled, the more likely are we to be satisfied with the conclusion. The Metro Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota is energetic and active. Its members take their responsibilities seriously, and they are prepared to work for what they want and need. Steve Jacobson is one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and an active member of the Metro Chapter. Here is his account of the group's most recent tangle with the local transit system:

          "How can you ride a bus if you don't know when to catch it?" is a question being asked by many members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota's Metro Chapter. As is the case with most chapters of the NFB, we have more than a passing interest in matters concerning our bus service. In particular, several actions of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) have caused the dialogue between them and our chapter leaders to become, shall we say, warm. However, strong leadership and dedicated chapter members appear to be bringing about some very positive results.

          Several years ago an information service called CityLine was created to allow access to various types of information, using a touchtone telephone. News, weather, sports, stock market quotes and even job openings can be played back through the telephone by pressing a few buttons. The MTC decided to make available bus schedule information through this service, freeing their operators to answer more complex questions. In general the system worked well, and we had more immediate access to schedule information than ever before. Although there was no cost to the public, the Metropolitan Transit Commission paid a fee for each request for bus information. It was not long before it seemed advisable for the MTC to develop its own automated bus information system, and that is what has now been done.

          Early in June, 1991, we began hearing about a new bus information system, and we were a little taken aback. At an earlier chapter meeting representatives of MTC and its governing body, the Regional Transit Board, had promised that our input would be sought if major changes to the existing system were being contemplated. With this in mind, we arranged to have a representative from the Metropolitan Transit Commission speak at our July chapter meeting about the changes in their information service and how we would be involved in the development of that system. However, things changed rapidly.

          In late June several of our members were informed that the new service, called BusLine, had already been developed and tested, and it would replace the previous system on July 1, 1991. Unlike the CityLine system, which permitted questions about schedules for any day and time, the new system could only be used to get bus schedules for the current day after the current time. Information for the following day could only be received by calling the human operators at the Transit Information Center, and only after spending several minutes waiting on hold. At the same time a reduction of Transit Information Center hours resulted in the elimination of Saturday evening hours altogether, making it impossible to plan one's Sunday travel without paper schedules. The original CityLine system would have permitted such planning. Yet we were told that the changes being made would result in no reduction of service.

          Peggy Chong, President of the Metro Chapter, wrote a letter to Dee Molean, the director of the Transit Information Center, changing the focus of our July meeting. Instead of discussing the way in which we would be involved in the development of the new system, we now wanted to know why we were not involved. Instead of listening to an explanation of how the new system would be an improvement, we intended to ask why it was a step back.

          An MTC representative came to that chapter meeting, and the new BusLine service was thoroughly discussed. Although we had heard earlier that the system had been streamlined for budgetary reasons, we were now told that the so-called other day schedule information was dropped to make the system easier to use. An MTC survey revealed that "only twenty percent of inquiries" were for this type of information. Our members were shocked that the MTC considered twenty percent to be an insignificant number. To no one's surprise, our July meeting with the MTC representative was polite but fruitless.

          In response to President Chong's letter and questions raised at our chapter meeting, Ms. Molean subsequently wrote a memo to the Chief Administrator of the MTC. Even though the subject of her July 25 memo was "Response to Complaints about BusLine--Letter from Peggy Chong dated July 9," we were not included on the copy list. In fact, the NFB of Minnesota Metro Chapter learned of its existence indirectly. This prompted the following letter from Peggy Chong to Mr. Christenson. Besides summarizing what to us were troubling events, it brought to light other facts that were difficult to understand. Here is President Chong's letter:

Minneapolis, Minnesota
August 2, 1991

Mr. Mike Christenson
Chief Administrator, Metropolitan Transit Commission
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dear Mr. Christenson:

          I have obtained a copy of the July 25 memorandum to you from Dee Molean, Transit Information Center (TIC) Manager, responding to issues raised by the National Federation of the Blind about the inadequacies of your new BusLine system. It is noteworthy that Ms. Molean has chosen not to address her remarks directly to the National Federation of the Blind, nor has she seen fit to list the Federation as an organization to which a copy of the memorandum should be sent. Alas, such sanctimonious and discourteous behavior typifies the way MTC has been dealing with the blind community of late.

          Perhaps a little background information would be in order. About eighteen months ago representatives from the Metropolitan Transit Commission came to our monthly meeting. One of the issues discussed at that time was an effort by the MTC to transfer bus schedule information from CityLine to an in-house system. We expressed a strong desire to work with the MTC to help make this new system useful to the blind. We were told that the system was still in the formative stage but that we would certainly be consulted when a specific design was to be developed.

          Incidentally, we did commend MTC for using CityLine to provide an automated bus scheduling information system. We said that, although CityLine could stand some improvement, it was certainly better than calling the Transit Information Center and waiting thirty minutes to speak with a live operator. We took it for granted that the goal of the designers was to put together a system that would represent an improvement over CityLine.

          Time passed. Last fall we joined with others to express concern over an MTC proposal to eliminate some suburban bus routes. In the spring of this year we testified at an MTC public hearing in support of proposed fare increases. With respect to the latter, we emphasized the importance of adequate and timely bus service to the blind, pointing out, however, that fare increases could only be justified if bus service was not cut.

          Between the time of our meeting with MTC representatives more than a year and a half ago and the first public unveiling of BusLine, no one from the MTC approached the Federation to solicit our suggestions about how the system should work. Suddenly, in early June, BusLine appeared on the scene; and we discovered that the MTC was terminating its contract with CityLine, effective July 15. Naturally, we were more than a little concerned. What, we wondered, had become of MTC's promises to consult with the blind community?

          When a number of our members actually experimented with the BusLine system, they discovered that it was far less useful to the blind than CityLine had ever been. I therefore undertook to arrange for a representative from MTC to attend our July meeting. To clarify our concerns with respect to BusLine and to prepare the MTC representative who would attend our meeting, I wrote a letter to Dee Molean, TIC Manager, explaining that for the blind BusLine represented a significant reduction in service compared to CityLine. I said that our primary concern was that we could only use BusLine to obtain bus schedule information for the current day and only from the time of the call forward. By comparison, CityLine permitted us to examine three different schedules: Monday through Friday, Saturday, and Sundays and Holidays.

          Our July meeting took place on Saturday, July 20, and an MTC representative did come: Steve Gran, TIC Supervisor. It was quickly apparent, both to him and to the members present, that he was not in a position to address our concerns in any substantive way. However, we treated Mr. Gran with courtesy and respect, asking only that he communicate our frustration with MTC and its new BusLine system to his superiors in the strongest possible terms. In other words, we told him to tell his superiors that the members of the National Federation of the Blind were outraged by MTC's failure to consult with blind people about BusLine and by its blatant attempt to foist off a clearly inferior system on the public.

          Turning to Dee Molean's memorandum to you, there are a number of comments that one could make, not the least of which is an objection to her disrespectful allusions to the National Federation of the Blind and our legitimate concerns about a clear cutback in service.

          Ms. Molean states that an important goal of the BusLine project is to make the system more user-friendly. She says that the chief complaint MTC received about CityLine was that it was too confusing. I submit that BusLine is neither less confusing nor more user-friendly than CityLine.

          If CityLine was actually too confusing for a substantial number of people, why is it that in January, according to Ms. Molean's own figures, CityLine received more than 120,000 calls? Arguably, these 120,000 callers were able to profit from the service. Certainly blind people did not find CityLine to be confusing. And what about the goal of making the system more user-friendly? As far as the blind are concerned, BusLine is less user-friendly than CityLine. We can't use the system to plan our bus travel for the next day, and many of the messages are far too verbose. For experienced bus travelers, BusLine actually takes longer to extract information from than did CityLine.

          Ms. Molean says that the work group responsible for the design of BusLine decided to eliminate the questions giving customers the choice of obtaining bus schedule information about other days and times based upon a survey conducted over CityLine. According to her, survey results indicated that twenty percent of the respondents said they were using the system to plan later bus travel. Based on Ms. Molean's figure of 120,000 calls during the month of January, I calculate that during that time 24,000 individuals used the automated bus schedule information system to plan travel for another day. Now that BusLine has replaced CityLine, these 24,000 calls will be made to the Transit Information Center's live operators.

          At our July meeting Steve Gran gave us the following cost figures:

Cost Per Call using BusLine: $ .11
Cost Per Call Using CityLine: $ .19
Cost Per Call Using Live Operators: $1.85

          Assuming Ms. Molean's figures to be correct, we can project that 24,000 individuals per month will now have to call the live operators in the TIC as opposed to using BusLine. So, instead of incurring a cost of $2,640 ($.11 times 24,000) to provide these callers with the information they require, MTC will now incur a cost of $44,400 ($1.85 times 24,000). In other words, by switching to BusLine, MTC is now losing $41,760 per month, which works out to $501,120 per year, more than a half million dollars.

          When you consider the magnitude of this loss, one has to ask the question: How much did MTC actually save by switching from CityLine to BusLine? Assuming a per-call cost reduction of $.08 and an annual call volume to BusLine of 1,152,000, the total savings comes to $92,160. So, in order to save $92,160 per year, the MTC is apparently willing to incur a loss of over a half a million dollars. In my book this makes no economic sense.

          Aside from the dollar costs themselves, how much is MTC prepared to lose in the way of good will and public support, simply to have a system that it can manage in-house? You have already lost a great deal of good will and public support from the blind community over this issue. Are you prepared to ignore the problem and let matters stand as they are, or will you take steps to regain the support and trust that have been lost?

          I am not advocating that MTC scrap BusLine in favor of CityLine. Given the time and money that have gone into the project, I doubt that anyone would seriously consider such a proposition. However, I strongly urge MTC to take some positive action to repair the damage that has already been done by its failure to consult with the National Federation of the Blind. At the very least, representatives of the Federation should be appointed to your Transportation Advisory Committee. In addition, MTC should immediately begin to address the problem of BusLine's not providing bus schedule information for other days and times. For the blind, this is a serious shortcoming in the system, and it has already eroded our ability to travel independently. I look forward to your positive response to what we perceive as a major cutback in our ability to use public mass transit.

Peggy Chong
President, Metro Chapter
National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota

          There you have Mrs. Chong's letter, and it and letters like it together with headlines in the press such as "MTC HAS BLIND SPOT" led to several subsequent meetings between MTC officials and members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. On the evening of October 7, 1991, more than twenty members of our chapter met with Mr. Christenson, Ms. Molean, and several other MTC representatives at our state office. It was clear at the outset that they did not understand the way in which we had used the bus information service provided by CityLine. Various members described innovative techniques for planning their routes that had been rendered useless by the limitations of the new service. As the meeting progressed, their understanding of our position broadened. Near the end of the meeting, Mr. Christenson asked us to provide the name of an individual to serve on the Transit Advisory Committee, a committee to address all transit issues, not just those involving the disabled. One of our members, Tim Aune, will be representing us on that committee, and we have a renewed pledge from the MTC to work more closely with us.

          It is still too early to tell whether the needed improvements to BusLine will be made. However, several positive steps have been taken, and this would not have happened without the National Federation of the Blind.

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