abc27 exclusive: CAT busing routes are confusing, but changes are coming

Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Bus trips are significantly more difficult to plan on Capital Area Transit (CAT), the Harrisburg-based bus agency serving parts of Dauphin and Cumberland counties, than on other Midstate PA transit agencies.

That’s the finding of an abc27 assessment — a finding with which CAT’s own executive director, Rich Farr, agrees and detailed plans to fix the problems. 

Farr concurrently remains the longer-tenured executive director of the York-based agency that brands itself “Rabbit Transit,” officially the Central Pennsylvania Transportation authority, which performed significantly better in the abc27 assessment. “So what we’re really taking are the lessons learned in York and applying them here at CAT,” Farr said. 

CAT’s problems are both high-tech and low-tech. Google Maps, a common platform for planning car and transit trips alike in cities throughout the world, couldn’t identify a nearly door-to-door, single-bus, no-transfer itinerary that existed within the city limits of Harrisburg. Riders who rely on printed schedules, meanwhile, told abc27 these are unreliable too. 

“All this is off,” Harrisburg resident Pedro Quijano said, gesturing to a laminated schedule affixed to a bus shelter on North 6th Street in Harrisburg. “It doesn’t come at these times.” 

“If people don’t know when the bus is coming, then they’re not going to be able to ride the bus,” said Nat Lownes of the Philly Transit Riders Union, a transit advocate who studies best practices in other cities. Lownes noted that smaller transit systems like Harrisburg’s tend to have infrequent service, meaning accurate schedules are more important, not less important, than in a city like Philadelphia, where a bus is more likely to come before long regardless of the accuracy of a schedule. 

A source familiar with Google’s method for obtaining transit data told abc27 the company relies on what’s called General Transit Feed Specification, or GTFS, data supplied by agencies, and speculated CAT’s relatively rudimentary website, complete with printable maps, suggests the agency doesn’t use that standard. Farr confirmed CAT doesn’t yet supply that data to Google, as would be necessary for CAT’s buses to appear properly in search results. “Every bus stop, every route, every time point — it’s all a code, and it all fits together,” Farr explained. But not yet between CAT and Google, which Farr said has “a process of quality assurance like I’ve never seen before.” 

“To get perfect for Google, it’s going to be a lot of work on our end,” Farr said. “But we’ve done it well at Rabbit Transit, and we’re going to do it well here at CAT.”

Reached by abc27, a Google Maps spokesperson wouldn’t comment specifically on CAT but provided this statement: “Google Maps works directly with transit agencies around the world to display accurate schedule and routing information for their transit lines. Transit agencies can submit their data through our help center, which we then integrate into Google Maps.” 

Farr said in the meantime, riders can generally get real-time bus information in an app called simply “Transit,” identifiable by a green-and-white icon and available in the Google and Android app stores. Unlike Google Maps, Transit accepts an older generation of data that CAT is able to supply.

As for riders like Pedro Quijano and 71-year-old Harvey Morris — sharing a bus shelter, and a lack of enthusiasm for technology, with Quijano — Farr said CAT is planning to replace its array of route-specific paper schedules with a consolidated booklet, complete with a system map, similar to one already available in York. York, in turn, “stole” that idea from Lancaster’s Red Rose Transit Authority, Farr joked. 

“If there’s a good idea somewhere, why recreate the wheel?” he explained, adding of users like Quijano and Morris: “We really have to be mindful of our customer and the way they prefer to get information.” 

On the other hand, he characterized as a somewhat-inaccurate stereotype the idea that most senior citizens, in particular, aren’t interested in embracing technology. Regarding a pre-booked, shared-ride program provided by CAT, Farr said seniors “are asking us, ‘Isn’t there a way to be able to book these trips online?’ These are senior citizens who typically are framed as not being able to be tech savvy.” 

Farr said the high-tech and low-tech improvements alike are due to begin rolling out in March 2021, with completion by late summer. 

He added that although CAT’s provision of information lags its peers, its reliability, measured by metrics such as punctuality, has improved, as has its technology, such as modern magnetic-read farecards and a mobile app. 

Although the dream among some transit advocates and riders of one seamless Midstate-wide transit system might never come to fruition, Farr said a seamless regional fare collection system — multiple agencies but one farecard — is possible in the coming years. 

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