Waiting, waiting: Port Authority riders need more on-time service

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This will be cold comfort for Port Authority riders waiting outside for late buses this winter, but new technology soon may make it easier for customers to find out when their ride actually will arrive.

Although the technology is welcome, nothing satisfies like a bus that comes on time.

The latest figures from the Allegheny County transit agency show that, on average, one of every five buses is late. On the other end of the spectrum, 11 percent of the routes run early, getting their patrons to their destinations faster than the schedules predict.

Those figures constitute a systemwide on-time performance rate of 68 percent, based on a generous industry formula that considers a bus “on time” if it arrives between two minutes before and five minutes after its scheduled arrival. The on-time rate is lower than the Port Authority’s internal goal of 90 percent and those of some other urban transit systems, including Seattle and Atlanta.

No wonder patrons who use the agency’s schedules to plan their travel are left fuming.

Explanations from Port Authority officials — that traffic, weather and the number of riders boarding at any given stop are to blame for late buses — are not entirely persuasive. Factors like traffic and ridership should go into producing schedules that are reliable, with obvious exceptions for unusual circumstances like blizzards and ice storms. The current method of updating schedules four times a year isn't producing satisfactory results.

The flip side of the dismal results is the improved data collection that generated the recent report. The Port Authority now uses global positioning satellite units in its vehicles to track delays, a big upgrade from the previous method of relying on people watching buses and jotting down run times.

Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean said the new method already has been used to adjust some route schedules that will be released in March, and more modifications will come in September.

In the future, the agency hopes to use the same devices to provide accurate information to customers on their smartphone and computers. That’s a helpful benefit, but the most crucial upgrade is to ensure that buses get to their stops on time.

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