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Testing Inter-System Usability of Opt Out Transit Systems and Transportation, Minneapolis - Saint Paul, Minnesota MN

The Balkanization of the Metro Transit System is a barrier to use and probably was intended as an instrument to curtail viable transit in the Minneapolis - St. Paul metro area. In 1986 the cities in the Metropolitan Council region were give an option to "Opt Out" of Metro Transit and provide their own transit systems, a half dozen or so Opt Out systems exist, only two actually provide very much service, in the South and SouthWest suburbs. The University of Minnesota also provides a bus system, but was not an "Opt Out" system. The systems outside of Metro Transit provide about 10% of transit services in the Metropolitan Council region, (Minneapolis - St. Paul and "metropolitan" counties.)

Reasons to Create "Opt Out" Transit Systems Existed

Metro Transit cut a lot of service to the suburbs in the 1980's and did not have any interest in inside the suburb service or suburb to suburb service. Suburbs still paid for service but got little, this created pressure in the state legislature to create the "Opt Out" law as suburban cities wanted to use the money to have transit services in their own area. There of course was another reason to create Opt Out transit systems, that was to nibble away at the Metro Transit system, and possibly curtail its growth as the suburban sprawl cities may have been an area of transit growth and income and a larger more powerful Metro Transit system. The larger Opt Out systems were in the areas of larger suburban growth.

Differences Create Usability Problems

Lack of any service is of course unusable. But a bunch of little transit services also present usability problems. Fare systems, fare sale and collection, vehicles, vehicle colors (livery), signage, route designation, schedules, stations, wayfinding, maps, web sites, telephone information, etc., all can be different and many time are different. Different is not good for the user, especially when going to a place that is not familiar. I recently noticed just how many "opt out" systems there are, and I do not really recall the exact names of the opt out systems to find schedules and routes. These little systems are just more friction in the "fog of transit" to paraphrase Clauswitz.

There are fare agreements that I have seen between some of the "opt out" systems and Metro Transit but the new RFID cards may or may not be accepted by the smaller transit systems, and the rest of the differences violate so many system usability issues and the resulting negotiations of standards and reciprocity and the rest of it throws up many barriers. The rest of the standards in signage, maps, wayfinding, stops, etc., could be tested and compared, they are probably also a mess.

Many negotiations of standards between "equals" tend to move to a "lowest common denominator", in other words, the crappiest standard of any of the transit systems negotiating becomes the regional standard. This is also not a good thing for usability of the transportation system. It will drive standards down, delay improvements and make things even more unusable as new technology (like the RFID fare card fiasco) or commuter rail, BRT or other systems come into play with the Balkanization strategy of hobbling the Metro Transit system.

As commuter rail comes into play there will be a push to make it separate, with a separate fare system, separate uncoordinated schedule, separate signage, stations, maps, uncoordinated routing, even organized as a separate system altogether. This is, of course, the old divide and conquer strategy by the anti-public infrastructure politics. The stupidity of not having the LRT system accept the magnetic strip pre-paid fare cards and instead accept the still non-working RFID cards is already beyond belief. I cannot believe that in the future Metro Transit or its anti-transit masters will not monkey with any coordinated effort to add services in the future.

Suggestions to Remove Usability Problems

Standards are one way to help usability problems. Signage, fares, infrastructure, wayfinding, maps, schedules, printed materials, and other things should be standard across the region. But there must be a legislative financial incentive for standards to make them actually happen. The main standards that operate seem to be the fare agreements, this shows that cash is a powerful incentive to standardize practices and policy. The rest of the items above do not have much of a money push and there the standards lack.

Another path to usability is the reabsorption of Opt Out transit systems.

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