Saturday, August 14, 2004


For many years, SEPTA has had numerous legal run-ins with activist groups representing disabled persons. The lastest controversty is one that doesn't seem to be going away, according to this week's Philadelphia City Paper (a fully paid subsidiary of Michael Moore-on, Inc.):

On a recent trip to SEPTA's Allegheny Avenue station, Pat Grebloski noticed a problem she regularly faces.

Though the Center City woman was getting off the Market-Frankford El at her destination, the voice coming over the loudspeaker announced that the train was three or four stations south. If she hadn't been paying attention, she might have thought she was actually at Berks, York-Dauphin or Huntingdon.

It's amazing taht Ms. Grebloski was able to hear the announcements at all. At times, some passengers struggle to hear the automated stop announcements - which reportedly the operators have no control over - especially when underground.

Luckily, Grebloski had been monitoring the turns in the train tracks. After all, she can't just look out the window to figure out where she is.
When it comes to navigating the public-transportation system, blind passengers have to develop strategies to get where they're going. In many cases, they're left to depend on their own ingenuity or the kindness of strangers, including fellow passengers or drivers who make a point to find out where they're going as they board the bus. Short of assistance, if their concentration lapses for a second, they could get lost. It's not that they mind being cognizant of their surroundings, rather they just want to know why the system designed to announce the proper stops on buses and trains often fails them.

"I pretty [much] know where the stops are," says Grebloski, who uses a cane and sports sunglasses after having lost her vision to glaucoma and cataracts in 1980.

She says she didn't have much of a choice but to intricately learn the line, because SEPTA's station-announcing "enunciation system" is far from spot on.

It's hard to pin down exactly how often that enunciation system gets a glitch, but when it does, the problem trickles down to inaccurate announcements up and down the line. SEPTA spokeswoman Sylvana Hoyos says the recording starts at the beginning of each route when a driver or train conductor enters an identification code. From there, any problems can be a result of a software problem, weather or an inaccurate code, adds Hoyos.

We'll comment on the software problem later in this posting...

If a problem arises on a bus or train, the vehicle must be stopped in order to reset the recording. (For trains, that means it persists until the end of the line. For buses, drivers are encouraged to call out the stops themselves, Hoyos says, noting that those who don't are subject to discipline.)

No comment...

Though Hoyos notes that the transportation agency hasn't fielded many complaints, Jim Antonacci, president of National Federation of the Blind's state chapter, interprets each instance of a blind passenger on a route where the enunciation fails as a slight. He says it results from drivers who don't care, or a transit system that's unwilling to fix its technology.

"A competent blind person knows where they're going," says Antonacci, who also counts the stops each trip. "What I hate is the thought that the driver can control this."

He wants both El and SEPTA bus drivers to take that extra step of helping every blind passenger that boards their vehicles. This wouldn't cost anything and drivers decades ago used to do it anyway, he says.

For the most part, most operators are generally good about that.

In 1991, the federation sued SEPTA because some bus drivers weren't announcing stops, which violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Within three months, SEPTA agreed that bus drivers would announce stops in Center City and at other major intersections, a rule that's still in effect, says Tom Earle, who was involved with the suit as a lawyer with the Disabilities Law Project, a nonprofit Pennsylvania law firm that provides legal help to disabled persons.

Within three years of the settlement, though, the federation had to again sue because compliance was "horrible," says Earle.

All that legal action occurred before SEPTA purchased a new bus fleet that came with the enunciation system. (The system on the El came with new trains around 1996, with employees announcing stops on the Regional Rail and Broad Street lines.) It relies on the Global Positioning System, which uses satellite navigation.

Still, Antonacci says the satellites must have been out of whack when he rode a bus up Chestnut Street not too long ago. Even though there was a detour, the system kept announcing the wrong bus stops, he says.

No surprises here...

SEPTA driver Tom Smith, who drives the Route 5 bus from Front and Market streets to the Frankford Transportation Center, estimates that the system breaks down about once a week.

"Sometimes it'll stop working and then come on by itself," says Smith. He notes that he doesn't have many visually impaired riders, but he says that when he does, he asks them where they are going and tells them when they arrive. Drivers, however, aren't trained to fix it, so they have to wait for someone else to come do the job.

Even so, Antonacci would be happy with an entire crew of drivers that followed Smith's philosophy. He doesn't think they're asking for much more than a little courtesy from a transit agency that doesn't even have firm numbers on its number of blind passengers.

"We do not believe that the environment needs to be changed for a blind person," says Antonacci. "Does the city need to install some talking traffic light and cost the city millions of dollars? Absolutely not."

Fortunately, Mr. Anonacci isn't following the tactics of other activist groups in the city by running directly to court and finding an activist judge who'd sock it to SEPTA or whomever the target of such a suit would be.

That said, though, the problems with the stop announcement systems on buses and the El cars aren't just frustrating to the disabled; it's also frustrating for those able bodied (for lack of a better term) passengers who are riding a route that they're unfamiliar with.

While it's apparent that some software glitches occur on the M-4 cars used on the El, I'd say that they're properly working 8 times out of 10 (which is probably a conservative estimate, but it's not an every-day occurance at least from my observations over the past few years).

The Orbital system used on the bus side, though, is a different story...

For starters, several routes, particularly in the suburbs, still lack correct stop announcements. In some cases, these are newer routes that were initiated prior to any software updates. However:
  • The 123 still does not have any stop announcements at all, despite being in service since the fall of 1998. This is despite the fact that other newer routes, such as the 122 between 69 St Terminal, MacDade Mall, and Springfield Mall, has stop announcements.
  • The same goes for some newer routings on certain lines. The 104 signs for "WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY" have the proper announcements, including stops at High and Market Streets (with no mention of the "West Chester Courthouse" but mentions for connecting routes) and Church St and University Av (the last stop on the line at West Chester University). The 104 signs reading "WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY/EXPRESS TO EAGLE RD" and "NEWTOWN SQUARE CORPORATE CAMPUS" have no such announcements.
  • In Frontier, the Lower Bucks routes didn't have corrected stops after the route changes in 2000 and 2001 as of earlier this spring. However, stop announcements were added within the past year for the 133 between King of Prussia and Exton Square Mall, despite being introduced at same time as the initial routing changes in Lower Bucks.
  • Some Frontier lines still lack any announcements at all; these include the 92 "WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY" signs, the 131, and the 304.
  • In the city, most of the routes do have proper announcements (though there may be a few routes that I may have missed), though there are some exceptions. The 12 lacks any announcements (as of this spring), however, the 23 - which only recently began seeing more NABIs and New Flyers, have announcements. Most of the routes which only saw more newer buses within the past 2-3 years - such as the 3, 31, 40, and G - did have stop announcements added within the last year or so.
There are still a few errors in the announcements themselves. For example:
  • The 104 calls out the Newtown Square Corporate Campus as "West Chester Pike and Campus Blvd., Newtown Square Business Campus."
  • The exterior announcement for the "92 WEST CHESTER" signs still say "Welcome to Route 92, to West Chester, via Chesterbrook and Paoli" despite the Chesterbrook and Paoli service ending with the introduction of the 133.
  • The end of line announcement for 69 St Terminal on the 65 calls out these bus routes "... Routes 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 120 and 121" despite the fact that the 121 doesn't come anywhere near the terminal. The programmers probably meant to refer to Routes 1 and 21, despite the fact that the 1 doesn't go to 69 St anymore.
  • On the Red Arrow routes, the end of line announcement for 69 St Terminal says "Last Stop, 69th Street Terminal to Philadelphia and suburban routes." It would be nice if riders knew that the could connect to the Market-Frankford Line, now wouldn't it?
  • There are even errors in some of the newer signs: The 133 announces the intersection of Phoenixville Pike and King Road as "Phoenixville and King Roads" despite an updated annoucnement for Immaculata University, which was formerly announced as "Immaculata College" before the school changed it's name two years ago. Some routes in the city still call out connections that don't even exist anymore, such as the 21 announcing connections to both the 7 and 12 along Chestnut and Walnut Sts.
And, to top it all off, there are big problems with the Orbital systems on the 5700 and 5800-series New Flyers and on the Champions operated out of Frontier. On most of the newer New Flyers, the stop announcements go off one stop before the actual location. For example, the system will call out "West Chester Pike and State Rd for Routes 110 and 111" even though the bus is at West Chester Pike and Lynn Blvd (or, as the system calls it on eastbound trips, "West Chester Pike and Windsor Avenue"). Plus, the electronic clocks on the 5700s and some 5800s are 3 minutes fast.

The problem on some of the Champion buses is occasionally, the system will crash while en route. While the sign readings are unaffected, once the system reboots itself, the interior signs will often read "TAKE NEXT BUS." This was also a problem on some ElDorados, particularly on the 305, when its stop announcements were added last year.

As for other systems in the area?
  • NJ Transit doesn't have an automatic stop announcement system on its buses, but most operators that I've riden with are good about calling out stops, particularly within Center City Philadelphia.
  • DART First State supposedly has an interior and exterior announcement system; the exterior system calls out the proper route, but I can't ever recall the interior stop announcement system ever working. DART's drivers generally didn't call out stops at all from my past experiences.
  • When they recieved their RTS buses in 1994, BARTA in Reading and Red Rose Transit in Lancaster had simplified announcement systems, however Red Rose removed their devices from their buses recently (I haven't been to Reading in several years, so I can't speak out BARTA).
  • LANTA recently introduced an automatic stop announcement system within the past few years. Unlike BARTA and Red Rose, the system was introduced recently, most likely with the 2001 New Flyers (0121-0140), and was also retrofit onto the 1998 New Flyers (9801-9820). The device is similar to DART's "Talking Bus" console, but the difference it that it actually works. Prior to the addition of that system, LANTA drivers were generally very good about calling out stops, at least for the few times I'd riden the LANTA system.
  • MTA Maryland in Baltimore, WMATA, PATransit in Pittsburgh, and MTA Long Island Bus use the Clever Device systems, which either work exceptionally well (as is the case in Long Island), works most of the time (WMATA), or has several bugs in it (MTA Maryland).
How well as stop announcement system works (or doesn't) often depends on the company that uses it. SEPTA has generally done a decent job, but that doesn't mean they can't do better (ie. making sure the 123 actually has stop announcements). Improvements to the system don't just benefit the disabled, they benefit all riders.

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