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Making the Most of the Internet
Principal, Schaller Consulting
In just a few years, transit web sites have reached a large and growing audience and become an important communication tool for transit agencies of all sizes. Transit agencies realize a variety of benefits from putting service and other information on the web. Benefits include attracting increased ridership and improving agencies' image in the community. Several keys to successful transit web sites can be identified. Usability-oriented steps include focusing on providing service-related information, easy navigability for users, designing for the different needs of varying audience segments, minimizing download times and designing for user-side technology. It is also important to test the site with actual customers, promote the site and integrate the needs of web site developers with business processes. Next steps for transit web site development include adding trip itinerary planners, real-time information, customer e-mail notifications and wireless capabilities.
INTRODUCTIONAs the Internet permeated nearly every facet of American life over the last half-dozen years, virtually every large and mid-size public transportation agency and many smaller agencies created web sites. Transit web sites offer information on fares, schedules, routes, service disruptions, special events and park and ride services. They also provide employment postings, procurement information, minutes of the governing board, planning studies and a variety of other information. Some transit web sites also provide customized trip-planning services while others can be used to download schedules to handheld mobile devices.
This paper addresses three issues:
OPPORTUNITIES AND BENEFITS OF TRANSIT WEB SITESThe Internet offers unparalleled capabilities to transit agencies to communicate with their customers, potential customers and other stakeholders. These capabilities include:
Second, transit sites can and do reach a large and growing audience. Between 56% and 64% of American adults have access to the Internet and are thus able-if they choose-to visit transit sites. And in fact, many do. Web sites of larger agencies are visited by a half million or more web users per month. Even smaller sites gain a substantial audience. Transit properties with 15,000 to 50,000 average weekday riders typically had 3,000 to 10,000 web visitors a month in mid-2001, for example. Between 8% and 20% of transit users have visited the local transit agency's web site, according to surveys conducted by seven transit agencies of varying size.
Site usage increased rapidly over the past several years, and continued to grow even as Internet access rates leveled off in 2001. Usage data provided by nine transit agencies showed growth of 30% to 110% between November/December 2000 and November/December 2001.
Third, transit sites can reach new audiences and attract new riders. Simply because of the medium involved, transit sites can appeal to tech-savvy travelers who might not otherwise consider using buses or trains. In Los Angeles County, for example, 58% of residents who have Internet access but do not use transit regularly said that they would use their Internet access "to get information on transit service," according to a Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority telephone survey in 2000.
Fourth, transit web sites can polish transit agencies' image in the community and demonstrate that transit is up-to-date. As one web site manager commented, the existence of a good-looking web site "conveys the image that we are part of the modern world, believe it or not."
KEYS TO SUCCESSFUL TRANSIT WEB SITESWhat are the keys to a successful transit web site? Eight guidelines are usefully followed in developing effective web sites:
While service information is by far the most-used part of transit sites, Internet users are also looking for other types of information. This includes information about the transit agency ranging from Board agendas and minutes to expansion information. It also includes "how to ride" information; employment and procurement opportunities; and agency news.
2. Meet the varying needs of different audience segments Many agencies think about the web site audience as an undifferentiated group-"riders." Yet there are in fact different audiences with different needs.
The primary audience is indeed regular bus and rail riders. Regular riders visit the web site to obtain current schedules and other very specific information. They know how the transit system works and want to go directly to the desired information.
This is not the only important audience, however. Another audience is local residents who need help in planning their trip. This group includes non-riders and occasional riders. It may also include regular riders planning an unfamiliar trip. This group needs help in identifying whether transit can serve their trip. Does it go where I want to go? How often will a train or bus come? How much is the fare? Do I need to transfer, and if so, how do transfers work?
A third audience is out of town visitors traveling for either leisure or business. This group is similar to non-riders and occasional riders except that they may not have a firm grasp of local geography. On the other hand, their travel is likely to involve predictable locations such as the airport, train and bus stations, hotels and local attractions.
Other audiences include students, who may be able to avail themselves of pass programs or services designed for their needs; people with disabilities, who need to know about accessible services and status of elevators and escalators; and people moving to the community and looking to be near transit services.
Finally, there are important non-rider audiences as well. These include potential employees, potential vendors and citizens interested in expansion projects, other capital projects, etc. Meeting the needs of these audiences is also important.
Trip planning information illustrates the different needs of these different audiences. A simple listing of links to each route, ordered by route number or name, serves the need of regular riders in quickly going to the particular schedule or route map they want. This listing may have little meaning to non-riders or visitors, however. They need to know what transit services are nearby key destinations. Maps and lists showing these locations and adjacent transit lines can help them plan a trip. As examples, the Cleveland RTA provides a link on the home page that describes their airport service. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) provides a list of key destinations with transit access to each location. Trip itinerary planners are also very helpful.
3. Support easy navigation to information Equally important to providing the desired information is ease of use. To compete for attention against literally thousands of other sites, transit sites must support users in easily and efficiently obtaining desired information.
General guidelines for navigability include:
While transit agencies use a variety of approaches to this question, the trend is toward using a standard navigation bar with 5 to 10 links. This approach has two important advantages. First, users can easily scan a list of 5-10 links. Second, the home page navigation bar can be placed as a standard element on every page.
What should be on this standard navigation bar? First, agencies usually include several links that take users to the most-used service information. These links use specific and transparent terminology such as Maps and Schedules; Fares; Trip Planner. Agencies have moved away from opaque terms such as "Riding the Bus" and "Service Information" as too vague for users to relate to their needs.
Somewhat more general links can cover the rest of the site. These can still clearly indicate content areas, e.g., Other Metro Services and About Metro. Other links that are often included on the standard navigation bar are Jobs, Store, and Contact Us.
A variety of modifications of this basic approach can be employed effectively. Links for topics of strong local interest such as expansion projects may be included. Schedules and route maps are sometimes directly accessible from the home page. DART's home page, for example, prominently displays drop-down menus listing each bus and rail line, identified by number. Visitors looking for a schedule can click on the drop-down menu and go directly from the home page to the desired schedule. Other sites make schedules accessible one or two pages from the home page. These include the Orange County (Calif.) Transportation Authority; the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority in Allentown, Penn.; Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh and the Regional Transit District in Denver. (Domain names for sites mentioned in the text are listed at the end of the paper.)
Agencies with significant planning and/or multimodal responsibilities cannot limit the focus of their home pages to transit service information. These agencies sometimes list each broad responsibility area in the basic navigation element and then utilize pop-up menus with additional links for each of topic areas. On the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's home page, for example, users pointing at the topic area "Metro Transit" have access to specific links for Timetables, Trip Planner, Fare Information, etc.
4. Minimize download times The noted usability expert Jakob Nielsen (3) states that "fast response times are the most important design criterion for web pages." Nielsen recommends a "minimum goal for response times" of 10 seconds "because that's the limit of people's ability to keep their attention focused while waiting." For longer delays, users turn to other tasks while waiting for the computer to respond. Staying within 10 second response times "means that the user can stay focused on navigating the site." Other usability testing supports Nielsen's findings. (4)
Download times of less than 10 seconds appear to be more the exception than the rule, however. Nielsen's sample of corporate home pages downloaded in an average of 19 seconds. (3) Nielsen and Tahir found that 50 popular web sites averaged 26 seconds to download. (5)
On the whole transit web sites appear to download somewhat more slowly than other sites chosen for comparison. One-quarter of the home pages of a sample of 34 transit agencies took longer than 30 seconds and while none took less than 10 seconds.
The comparison group consisted of 13 airlines and intercity rail and bus providers and ten of the most-visited sites on the web. None of these sites took over 30 seconds to download, while 13% downloaded in under 10 seconds. (Tests were conducted using a 56k modem and Celeron 550 processor running Netscape 4.7-a typical set-up for transit web site users. Testing was conducted in the evening, when a typical dial-up user would be on-line.)
Many web managers are taking steps to speed up download times for their sites. Redesigns are in progress or were recently completed at several agencies to reduce the size of graphics and give more emphasis to text-based navigation elements. Among the fastest-loading transit sites in testing were the newly redesigned sites for the Chicago Transit Authority and MARTA, each of which downloaded in 13-17 seconds. Also downloading in 17 seconds or less in testing were sites for the Washington Metro, Bi-State Development Agency in St. Louis, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority in the Cincinnati area, Red Rose Transit in Lancaster, Penn., and C-Tran in Vancouver, Washington. Portland's Tri-Met site was the fastest transit site tested, downloading in 10 seconds.
5. Design for User-Side Technology
In other areas, however, user-side technology creates significant challenges for web designers. Three issues stand out: use of PDF files, accessibility for people with disabilities, and printability of pages.
PDF files. A prime area of concern is use of Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF) files. Many transit sites put schedules, maps, reports and other documents in PDF files. The PDF format permits designers to exercise greater control font styles, font sizes, column formatting and page layout than is the case with html pages.
Unfortunately, many users cannot view these documents. Forty percent of 33 agencies responding to a survey of transit web site managers reported that availability of Acrobat Reader is a problem for some users. Users do not have the Acrobat Reader for a variety of reasons such as Internet connections too slow to download the software, user unfamiliarity or discomfort with installing new software and lack of disk space or time. Others may be using a computer at a school, library or business that prohibits the loading of new software on the machine.
It is therefore important that transit sites make information available on html pages instead of or in addition to PDF format.
People with disabilities. A number of simple steps can make web sites accessible to people with disabilities. These include providing a text equivalent for every non-text element (e.g., use of "ALT" (alternate text) tags for graphical elements); designing pages so that information conveyed with color is also available without color; and providing row and column headers for data tables through use of "TH" (table heading) tags, which permits screen readers to read tables meaningfully to blind persons. (6,7)
PDF files have been a particular concern for people with disabilities. Until recently, screen readers could not read PDF files. Adobe Acrobat 5.0, released in 2001, supports screen readers that use a standard programming interface. PDF files must be tagged using Acrobat 5.0, however, for screen readers to work with PDF files. This process is not automatic and must be carried out with diligence and care.
Printable pages. Many users want to print out schedules, maps and other information for later reference and to take with them. This is not always possible. Some web pages are too wide to print on standard size paper. PDF files are often designed for paper sizes larger than standard 8½ x 11 inch paper. When printing, users must choose between losing critical information on the edges of the page, or shrinking PDF files to an unreadably small size.
PDF files, accessibility for people with disabilities, and printability of pages particularly affect presentation of schedules and maps. For administrative reasons, it is often simplest for agencies to put schedules in PDF files on the web, often in oversize pages. Likewise, system maps and sometimes route maps are usually too large to fit onto standard size paper.
There are ways to avoid these problems however. Schedules can be divided into sections that can be viewed on-screen and printed onto standard size paper. Examples are found on sites for Tri-Met in Portland, Oregon and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). Some agencies offer zoomable maps that preserve detail and ensure printability. Users view the entire system map on their screen and then click on the part of the map of interest to see an enlarged version of that section. The selected section can also be printed if desired. Examples are found on the sites of San Francisco Municipal Railway, Chicago Transit Authority and MARTA.
6. Count the audiences and test the site
Market research can provide valuable information on the size of the current and potential audiences for web sites and directions for further site development. A handful of transit agencies include web site questions in their periodic polling. These questions can show how many people are interested in visiting the site, how many have actually visited, how often they visit, the reasons for visiting and satisfaction with the site. A few agencies have conducted on-line surveys, which can ask about reasons for visiting and satisfaction with the site.
A few agencies have also explored Internet-related information needs in focus group discussions with transit customers or potential customers. These discussions can reveal the types of information that users want and how its availability can spur transit use.
Usability testing, which involves observing respondents as they perform tasks on the site such as planning a trip, is also extremely valuable. Usability testing shows how easily the site can be navigated, whether users can find desired information and what changes need to be made in site content, structure and navigation tools.
Usability testing and market research will become more important as transit agencies move into the challenging areas of e-commerce and customization of information for individual customers.
7. Promote the site
Beyond awareness, usage can be spurred by advertising. Advertising in buses and rail cars is effective in reaching current customers, but out of system advertising is important for reaching non-riders. Advertising can highlight specific features of the site such as availability of updated schedules, trip planners, employment listings, public information, etc. that give people a reason to visit the site.
Effective promotion can also involve targeting the needs of particular audiences such as occasional riders, visitors and new residents. What are their information needs? How can they find information quickly and easily on the site?
The site can also be promoted through links on other sites ranging from the local convention and visitors bureau to the sites for specific attractions. Some agencies have promoted their sites during special events, community events and other occasions.
8. Automate Information Management and Integrate the Web with Business Processes
As agency web sites become more extensive and ambitious, this sort of after-market approach to handling information for the web site becomes very inefficient and burdensome. It becomes clear that the web site must be fully integrated with business processes involving production of schedules, trip planning software development, handling of real-time service information, and the flow of employment information, procurement information, sales of fare media, etc. Systems integration and automation are critical to delivering timely, accurate information on the Internet. Intranets can help in uploading information directly from the departments that generate the information.
NEXT STEPS FOR TRANSIT WEB SITESPerhaps the most important task for individual agencies planning the next steps for their web sites is to examine how well they are doing in each of the areas discussed above. A self-evaluation is likely to show areas of strength and areas needing improvement. Most agencies will find themselves in good shape for focusing on service-related information and for designing for the lowest common denominator browsers and screen resolutions. On the other hand, transit sites often need further development effort in other areas such as:
This evaluation can help agencies prioritize further web site development toward the goal of achieving appealing, easily used sites that offer all the most useful information.
Beyond these meat-and-potato issues for web site content, design and administration, there is widespread interest and activity in developing relatively new web services and features. Four areas of development stand out as the most promising and useful:
CONCLUSIONWhat is the benefit of polishing transit agency web sites? Is there substantial payoff to refining the structure and navigation of the site, reducing download times, providing information in html files and testing the site with customers? If the information on the site is valuable to users, won't they persist through whatever difficulties they encounter?
These questions presuppose that the audience for transit web sites, like the traditional transit rider, consists of people who lack alternatives. The assumption underlying this type of question is that people who take the bus or train do so because they have no other way to get around town. Fortunately or not, the transit-dependent population is dwindling in size, and in fact is not entirely transit-dependent anyway. As a base for transit ridership or as the main audience for transit web sites, relying on people's lack of alternatives is not a promising strategy.
On the other hand, transit agencies across the country-and in the past few years the transit industry in the U.S. as a whole-have experienced ridership growth. This growth has come not among the transit-dependent population but among people who have alternative means of transportation but have decided to choose transit.
These new riders are looking for the fastest way to travel to their destinations and an acceptable experience along the way. When they go to the Internet they want the same type of experience-information they need, quickly and in a form that is usable to them. Meeting their needs will make them more likely to use transit. Transit agencies thus have the opportunity to demonstrate speed and ease of use on-line-the same qualities they strive to provide on-board.
AcknowledgementThis paper is based on research conducted for the Transit Cooperative Research Program Synthesis Project SB-8, "Effective Use of Transit Web Sites."
Endnotes1. Texas Transportation Institute, South West Transit Association and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "A Handbook of Proven Marketing Strategies for Public Transit," Transit Cooperative Research Program Report 50, Washington, DC 1999.
2. Transportation Research Board, Making Transit Work, Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States, Transportation Research Board Special Report 257, Washington, DC, 2001.
3. Jakob Nielsen, Designing Web Usability, New Riders, Indianapolis, Ind., 2000.
4. "Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines," National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md., 2001 [Online". Available: http://www.usability.gov/guidelines/index.html [2001, September 10].
5. Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir, Homepage Usability, 50 Websites Deconstructed, New Riders, Indianapolis, Ind., 2002.
6. "Section 508 Accessibility Checklist," WebAIM. [Online]. Available: http://www.webaim.org/info/intro [2001, September 27].
7. "Section 508 Standards," Section 508: The Road to Accessibility. [Online]. Available: http://www.section508.gov/final_text.html#Software [2001, September 27].