Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
“Five-minute headways are what we were promised. But we’re not getting them.”
Over the past week, more than 1,500 trains were scheduled to pass through downtown Miami’s Government Center Metrorail station. As of Thursday afternoon, just 383 arrived on time. The vast majority—927, to be exact—arrived late or bunched too closely to a previous train. And the remaining 208 never came at all.
That’s according to the Metrorail Audit, a new visualization of Miami Dade County’s struggling transit rail line, developed by TransitAlliance, a rider advocacy group for Miami. As a graphic depiction of a somewhat dysfunctional transit system, it’s elegant and oddly beautiful: Blinking, multi-colored dots unfurl across the top of the screen in real time, each one representing a train arrival (or lack thereof) so that the viewer can check in on the system’s performance every day.
Green means on time. Yellow: 2-5 minutes late. Orange: 5-10. Black: more than 10 minutes late. Other trains are marked with a half-moon; that means they bunched. Empty circles stand for “ghost trains”—scheduled service that failed to appear.
Below, the performances of the previous days are manifested in telling hues.
“This is a way to hold the administration accountable,” Marta Viciedo, the co-director of TransitAlliance, said.
Like so many urban transit systems in the U.S., Metrorail, which opened in the 1980s and now serves around 70,000 riders on an average weekday, has been experiencing a steady state of decline. Most of its cars, which travel north to Miami International Airport and Hialeah and south to Dadeland, are so “vintage” that the county has had trouble finding replacement parts, according to the Miami Herald.
Thanks to a shortage of functional trains, and a slimmed budget brought about by lower fare revenues and a sales tax decline, the two-line system has suffered acutely in recent years. In March 2017, county commissioners cut service hours and spread out scheduled wait-times between trains from five to seven-and-a-half minutes.
Things may be starting to turn around. In late November, Miami-Dade welcomed its first new train since Metrorail opened back in 1984. Another new train was brought into service this week. More are on the way. And the March 2017 budget cuts were reversed in September.
But Miami riders aren’t seeing better service yet. The replacement of the rest of the fleet has now fallen months behind schedule. County commissioners are still saying they need more time to pull new trains into service, bring back frequent arrivals, and accommodate longer hours.
“We’re not seeing any real progress,” Viciedo said. “Five-minute headways are where we were in the past, what we’re paying for, and what we were promised. But we’re not getting them.”
Day after day, TransitAlliance’s visualization documents this, with the majority of trains arriving after the five-minute headway mark. Apart from validating the frustrations of fed-up riders, Viciedo and her co-director, Azhar Chougle, hope that the project will help inform county commissioners (de-facto transportation planners in Miami-Dade County) make critical funding decisions. “For all they know, Metrorail is running completely fine,” Chougle said.
As declining rail and bus systems are leaving riders stranded and delayed in cities around the country, newspapers, advocacy groups, and transit agencies themselves frequently publish static graphics that illustrate subway and bus service performance over time. A designer by training, Chougle developed the TransitAlliance visualization to help cut through the usual slumping line graphs and get the group’s message across as vividly as possible. He doesn’t think anything like a real-time “audit” has been done before.
“I can’t say I was inspired by anything in particular, “ he said, “except the tragedy of our own rail system.”