May 25, 2004

Shuttle debate needs statistics

One friend says, "Oh my God, it's so not safe for the school to make us wait 40 minutes for the Garfield!"

Another says, "Dude, that's so ridiculous. It comes every 20 minutes. Learn how to wait for the freakin' public bus."

In my opinion, neither of them have any idea what they're talking about.

The arguments over whether the school should provide a shuttle from the Reynolds Club to the Garfield stop on the Red Line turns on the reliability or unreliability of the #55 bus which accomplishes more or less the same task. Yet no one knows exactly how reliable or unreliable the #55 bus actually is.

The evidence thus far detailing the reliability of the #55 is based entirely on anecdotal evidence of how often individuals think the bus comes. The reliability of a bus is not something that can be accurately determined by riding it once or twice a weekend, no matter how often one claims to have waited for the #55.

The problem with this type of subjective evidence is that some people are used to waiting for public transportation, and some aren't. Some people feel the cold more than others, some people are more dubious than others about waiting for the bus in a sketchy part of the city, and some people feel safe if they simply have their cash and cards in their sock. Some people just hate waiting.

Some people remember only that one time they got off the Red Line after a great dinner with their girlfriend to find the bus sitting right there waiting to chauffeur them back to campus. Others remember the time that they were with someone they really didn't like and after an hour of the South Side's February flavor, three buses arrived at once.

I submit that the reliability of the Garfield bus is something that can only be measured and analyzed correctly by statistics. The results can then be held up to the student body, which can decide whether it wants to wait that long for the public bus.

This can be done in several different ways. First, the CTA likely knows exactly how frequently the #55 bus runs. By this I mean the CTA knows the status and reliability in much more detail than whatever the sign posted by the Red Line stop says.

According to Cheryl Gutman, deputy dean of housing and dining services, when the CTA sends planning employees on the buses to find out how on-time their routes are, they do not find the kind of extreme wait times that some have said they have waited. However, she did say that by Cicero Avenue there is a freight train track that is only used late at night—after midnight, in an effort to affect the least amount of traffic. These trains can take 20-25 to pass an intersection. If a #55 bus gets stuck, the route can become backed up.

I imagine that there are many individuals who would not trust the CTA's assertions about the reliability of the #55. This is probably a healthy reaction to the statements of any public agency. If people want better data than the CTA data, then Student Government should allocate funds for collecting this data.

A College Council member said last night that the executive slate and the College and Graduate Councils have discretionary funds that could be used to fund such a fact-finding mission. He did say that it would probably be better for the executive slate to fund it, because the slate was elected by the entire student body. The Council member also suggested that the anti-shuttle Students for Sensible Transportation group might sponsor an effort to get that information.

Conveniently, the statistics department has a consulting program for which there is no fee, which can determine whether the data actually point to a consistent wait time at certain hours of the night. The program can determine whether the sample size is large enough as to be conclusive, run t-tests and chi-squared tests, compute confidence intervals, and do all the other stuff I didn't retain from STAT 220.

The issues drawn out by the prospect of a University shuttle to the Red Line are important. But the final decision should be based at least in part on how reliable the existing service is, and this cannot be determined by casual student observations.