Tracking SafeTrack: What data to count during the single-tracking

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s SafeTrack maintenance program rolled into effect this week, with continuous single-tracking between East Falls Church and Ballston, and accompanying service decreases along the Orange and Silver lines.

SafeTrack logoWhile Arlington, the District of Columbia, and the other regional jurisdictions have enacted a number of changes to manage demand during the SafeTrack maintenance periods, the scale of the plan is largely unprecedented and there’s much to learn about how exactly commuters are responding.

The mitigation plans cover numerous aspects of the region’s transportation system. In Arlington, “bike trains” run along the Orange/Silver Metro corridor, temporary bus bays are located near Metro stops for transfers, and the county is running larger buses. Washington, D.C., is extending rush-hour parking restrictions along major bus routes and is placing more traffic control officers at intersections. Capital Bikeshare is adding corrals in Ballston and Farragut Square and introduced a $2 one-trip fare.

Amid all the work devoted to keeping travelers moving, using scarce resources for data collection and analysis may seem like a low priority for everyone involved. Yet there are three important reasons why it is important to track what agencies are doing during this unique period and monitor how individuals are travelling. Monitoring will:

  1. Provide jurisdictions with the evidence necessary to determine what’s working with their mitigation strategies, determine what isn’t, and then adapt their plans accordingly.
  2. Allow WMATA, other transit providers, and local governments to report back to the public on how they are minimizing the inconvenience of the SafeTrack program.
  3. Supply planners and decision-makers with data that may allow temporary changes to become permanent. It is possible that the District’s extended rush-hour parking restrictions improve the flow of people so much that it would be wise to keep them around after SafeTrack has ended, but how will we know unless we monitor its effects?

There are a number of data points to collect over the next year. Some of these are automatically compiled, while others would require on-the-ground observation. Certain types of data, particularly those based on employer transportation management programs, would be collected later through surveys.

Here are some things that we might measure, organized in broad categories of how the data can be collected.

Automatically collected data

These data come from the digital systems that support our transportation network. Since they are already collected, there is no data-collection cost, but someone needs to be able to compile and interpret the data.

Measures Potential data sources
Pedestrian, vehicle, and bicycle volume counts Existing and temporary vehicle, bike, and pedestrian counters
Transit boardings Fare-payment systems used by WMATA and other transit agencies
Trips per Capital Bikeshare dock Reports from Motivate and/or Capital Bikeshare API
Travel time before, during, and after surges Bus automatic vehicle location (AVL) data, Uber/Lyft GPS data, taxi GPS data.
Number of Capital Bikeshare one-way fare trips Reports from Motivate
Crowding in shuttle-bus-to-train transfer points Counts of individuals from CCTV video footage
Trips made to/from jurisdictions and by taxi, Uber, and Lyft Ride data from Uber, Lyft, taxi companies
Vehicle occupancy in Uber, Lyft, and taxi rides

Data collected as agencies and organizations provide services to travelers

WMATA, other transit agencies, and local jurisdictions are ramping up information and outreach efforts to the public that will help the region’s transit riders deal with SafeTrack. A little extra record keeping by these agencies and the individuals providing service will help them capture the size and reach of these efforts.

Measures Potential data sources
Number of individuals helped with transit directions Counts of interactions with travelers made by extra customer-service staff stationed around the region
Number of requests for information/assistance with flextime, telework, carpooling, and vanpooling Records of requests for information received and clicks on informational materials provided through commuter information web sites
Informational brochures/other materials distributed
Number of temporary wayfinding signs installed Reports from transportation departments on signage installed
Funds expended on SafeTrack-related programs and projects Jurisdictional accounting records
Number of participants in special services like bike trains Participation tallies for services such as bike trains and informational workshops given by commuter-information services
New carpools and vanpools formed Reports from ridematching systems maintained by the regional Commuter Connections program and others
Illegal parking complaints received 311 services
Illegal parking tickets issued Police and parking-enforcement records
Number of injuries or deaths due to collisions Police records

Data collected through in-person observation

Sending out staff and volunteers may be the only way to collect some kinds of data. Since manual data collection is time consuming and expensive, jurisdictions might focus their energy around key stations and peak periods.

Measures Potential data sources
On-street parking occupancy In-person counts
Bicycle parking occupancy
Kiss-and-Ride passengers dropped off
Counts of slug-line passengers waiting for pickups

Data collected through follow-up surveys of travelers

Surveys will be necessary in order to answer questions like “how many Metrorail passengers started teleworking in response to SafeTrack” or “how many employers started offering flexible-schedule arrangements for their employees?” Distributing surveys and incentivizing people to take them can be costly and difficult, but they are key for gathering the kind of before-and-after data that will give a complete picture of how SafeTrack and related measures are affecting the region.

Measures Potential data sources
Number of employers who institute new programs in response to SafeTrack Follow-up surveys employers receiving SafeTrack-related information and outreach
Number of individuals participating in carpools, teleworking, and using flextime following as a result of an employer’s program
Modes of transportation used before, during, and after SafeTrack Follow-up surveys of individuals taking advantage of SafeTrack services and receiving related outreach. Random samples of the region’s residents.

While the scale of SafeTrack disruptions is unprecedented, so is the opportunity to learn from it. By thinking proactively in terms of data collection, the region can better work to adapt its SafeTrack mitigation efforts during the coming year and to improve the entire network in the years to come.

Photo: Commuters wait to board a Metro train at the Ballston station (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

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