I was recently in Chicago and found something delightful about riding that city's buses — something I haven't found here in King County riding Metro Transit. Buses there clearly and consistently let you know where you're going. What a concept.
Here's how it works. There is a very friendly audio recording announcing each stop ("This bus is arriving Clark Avenue and North Street") along with some local landmarks ("The Chicago History Museum is on your right"). And it reinforces that message with a scrolling digital sign for all to see.
You won't find either of those services on Metro. Instead, it's left to drivers to announce where they are and where they are going. The results are pretty uneven, to say the least.
Take the bus I ride each morning. The drivers vary, and so does the "commentary." Some announce what stop is next, some announce landmarks, but I would say that most do neither. Even the ones who do make an attempt are, in my experience, often difficult to understand. What is it about Metro's microphone system that makes announcements so muffled?
On my regular bus, I don't really need to know what stop is next. But when I ride a different line, a clear audio and visual message sure would help. And with Metro buses getting ever more crowded because of gas prices, such user-friendly services might just help turn temporary riders into permanent ones. Tourists and out-of-towners would be obvious beneficiaries as well.
Chicago also uses the in-bus audio system for important transportation announcements. I was there for the Fourth of July, and on the handful of buses I rode you could hear which streets were going to be closed for the festivities, which alternate routes to take, etc.
A Metro spokesperson says our buses are scheduled to look and sound more like Chicago's in the next couple of years. Automated audio and digital readerboards will begin showing up in 2010.
I'm glad all that's coming, but it's a shame we're so behind the curve on this one. It can't be that hard to implement, can it? Aren't we like the tech capital of the world?