News Article: Chicago Tribune:”Riders speed up CTA-delay info”

In August of 2005 I started a wireless notification group on the free website www.upoc.com that helped alleviate a business problem that has vexed the Chicago Transit Authority for years.My brother Kevin O’Neil runs CTA Tattler, a highly popular site about things “seen and heard on the CTA”. I saw that lots of readers were miffed about lack of communication from the CTA during an emergency/service outage. I also saw that these users had highly detailed information about service conditions that would be useful if they were willing to share them in real time (instead of 5 hours later when posting comments to a weblog)!So I created the wireless alert group so that riders could share what they knew with each other. It was a big hit and got some media attention as well as the attention of the CTA Board, who received testimony from my brother and I at their August board meeting.The next day, the CTA joined the group as a member and began posting high quality info sent directly to the phones, PDAs, and email accounts of the hundreds of subscribers.What did I do? Not much, really. Just signed up for a free account to create a free group on a free wireless notification utility site– an effective, inexpensive solution for solving a very real business problem.Here’s the Chicago Tribune story covering the Board meeting:Chicago Tribune/ Getting Around: Riders speed up CTA-delay infoSkyrocketing Fuel Costs Blow Hole in CTA BudgetAug. 19–The soaring cost of petroleum could force the Chicago Transit Authority to spend $10 million more than expected on diesel fuel for buses and maintenance vehicles this year, transit officials said Thursday.Fare revenues rose in June as more riders used CTA buses and trains–at least some of them seeking relief from gasoline prices.But it was not enough to cover a growing deficit as the price of fuel skyrocketed, the CTA reported.”We obviously are dealing with the same kind of fuel price increases that everybody else is dealing with and that’s a very tough challenge,” said CTA President Frank Kruesi after a board meeting Thursday.It’s too early to say whether fuel prices will hit transit commuters where it hurts, either with fare increases or diminished train and bus schedules, said CTA board Chairwoman Carole Brown.”I’ll reserve judgment,” she said. “We’ll have to see how our other costs come in.”Even as they struggle to make ends meet, however, officials said they remain committed to making the agency more nimble and user-friendly.The CTA said early next year it will offer a free e-mail alert system that sends instant messages to cell phones or other wireless devices, to advise commuters of delays.Passengers have long complained of information blackouts when trains are delayed. Unintelligible messages delivered over the antiquated public-address system have only added to the frustration.New technology can help fill the gap, however, as one transit user has proven with a private text-message service he created that allows users to inform one another about delays. Daniel X. O’Neil, an Internet consultant, launched www.ctatattler.com, which he said now serves about 400 people.The CTA has not endorsed his service but pledged to create a pilot program that officials hope will eventually serve a large portion of its riders.On Thursday, board members approved an $89,000 contract with St. Paul, Minn.-based GovDocs Inc. to develop and maintain an e-mail alert system.CTA officials said they appreciate the work done by O’Neil, who testified before the board Thursday, but it would be more complicated to install similar technology systemwide.”I was impressed by the CTA Tattler, and anyone that can help us get information to our riders, I think that’s a good thing,” Brown said. “But we are working on it and working on it in a way that all our 1.5 million riders can access that information efficiently.”The system by GovDocs will be operated as a pilot program for train riders first and should be rolled out systemwide early next year.Steve Reardon, exiting a Blue Line train at Clark and Lake Streets on Thursday, said he is one of the people who is using mass transit more than he used to and said he would use the new technology.”This type of thing is all over the place and it’s really simple to do,” he said. “I’m a little surprised that this is just happening now, but better late than never.”Reardon, 36, who works at a insurance agency downtown, said he has never driven to work but has stopped taking cabs.Cab fares rose nearly 12 percent in May, but taxi drivers are seeking an additional $1 surcharge to counter rising fuel costs.The cost of fuel may have led a few more people to use mass transit, but it was not the driving factor behind the 800,000 additional trips taken in June, compared with the same period last year, said CTA officials, who also credited service improvements.For the first half of the year, ridership was up 3.2 percent to 226 million, according to the CTA.Revenue generated during those six months from fares was $201.4 million, an increase of $5.1 million, primarily due to higher ridership, according to the CTA.But that was only a part of what the agency needed to offset fuel costs.During the first week of August the price the agency paid for a gallon of diesel fuel hit $1.98 per gallon, better than the price retail customers paid at service stations, but still 58 cents more than what was budgeted by the CTA, officials said.”There’s a problem with structural deficits of the CTA funding and that’s something we’re hopeful gets addressed by the General Assembly,” Kruesi said.