With TransLoc, Blue Jay Shuttle Works to Improve Student Experience

By Katie Robinson

Here’s the scenario: you’re at an off-campus party, late at night, and want to get home within the safe confines of a Blue Jay Shuttle. You call, make it outside within two minutes of the shuttle’s scheduled arrival time, and wind up chasing the van down the street as it flashes by, not stopping for anything or anyone.

Sound familiar? It is for the majority of Hopkins students, but it’s the exact situation that the transportation department doesn’t want, and exactly what their new app, TransLoc, is helping to prevent.

The transportation department partnered with TransLoc in August of 2015, according to the Johns Hopkins transportation services website. Previously, they were partnered with NextBus, a system with frequently incorrect ETAs, no designated app, and no map interface. It also did not include night ride, leaving a whole group of riders unable to use an app to see how far their shuttle is. TransLoc, on the other hand, is much more user-friendly.

“TransLoc has a designated user app. It’s called TransLoc Rider, and from there it’s very easy to pick and choose which routes you want to look at, which stop you want to look at for ETAs,” Roman Steichen, Johns Hopkins’ transportation manager, said. “The mobile app is light-years ahead of what NextBus had available to mobile users, and that one change pretty much makes TranLoc for us.”

Director of Transportation Greg Smith added that NextBus had the issue of losing any shuttles that had to go off-route, which is problematic in a city like Baltimore, where slight route changes are often made due to roadwork. TransLoc makes it possible for shuttles to go off of designated routes for up to three or four minutes and still make accurate predictions. The interface also provides an interactive map that allows users to see all of the shuttle routes as well as night ride.

With the ability for students to open an app and watch shuttles move across the screen in real-time, rather than only being able to see an all-too-frequently inaccurate time estimate, the likelihood of a student coming outside only to find that their shuttle has driven away is significantly decreased. All a shuttle rider has to do is open the app, look for the yellow circles indicative of night rides (or the appropriately colored circle for a designated shuttle route), and come outside right as the icon nears their location.

But let’s go back to the original situation, pre-TransLoc. You’ve just watched your shuttle drive away without you. Frazzled, you call the dispatcher again. You say that the shuttle left you behind and request another. To your frustration, the dispatcher seems irritated with you for missing the shuttle. You came out before ten minutes–why should you get bumped to the end of the queue, when you were the one left behind?

Looking to learn a little more about what’s going on with the people on the other end, I found myself spending the bulk of one balmy Wednesday evening with the elusive individuals on the other end of the phone line.

Paul Kilduff is one of two lead supervisors for the Blue Jay Shuttle. We met in a shuttle parked in front of Mason Hall. Kilduff sat in the driver’s seat, dressed in business attire and an Orioles cap. He had a phone and some pens tucked away in his shirt pocket, a headset hung around his neck. He’s surprisingly upbeat for someone working the type of hours he works and with amount of responsibilities he has. Kilduff works three to four days a week, splitting the week with his co-supervisor down the middle. He gets in at 4:30 in the afternoon and doesn’t go home until around four in the morning.

Kilduff’s job is a bit of a catchall. You may have had him as a shuttle driver before, or he may have been that voice on the other end when calling for a night ride. While sitting in the stationary shuttle with him, he told me, “Basically just, I drive, I supervise, I give a break to the dispatcher, and just basically whoever’s supervising is kind of responsible for everything… in fact, I thought I was gonna have to drive tonight, but I sort of managed to get things covered. Otherwise you and I would’ve been driving around while we were talking.”

When I asked him about the biggest and most frequent communication problem he encounters with students, he grew quiet for a moment, brow furrowed. “Boy, I’m glad you asked that question,” he said. He had a lot to say on this issue. And his response was echoed by just about every other person in the transportation department that I spoke with, pretty unanimously.

The problem is this: students call before they’re actually ready to get picked up, assuming that this way, the shuttle will be outside waiting for them when they’re ready. This mindset causes shuttle drivers to get stuck waiting for students to come outside, which sets them behind on picking up other students waiting further down the line, and prevents students who may already be in the shuttle from getting home in a timely fashion. This also leads to a high volume of “no-shows,” or students who call for a shuttle and don’t show up outside within a few minutes of the shuttle’s arrival.

Every time a shuttle wastes time waiting for a late student or a no-show, there’s another student in the queue for a pick-up who might be standing outside alone for an extended period of time.

This frustrates the main purpose of the shuttle: to prevent students from getting themselves in unsafe situations, namely being outside (or walking home) alone late at night.

This safety factor is particularly important when so many crimes occur during the hours that the shuttle operates. According to a 2003 study by Marcus Felson and Erika Poulsen, which looked at the hourly patterns of robberies across 13 different cities, the percentage of robberies occurring between 5 PM and 5 AM is somewhere between 65.8 percent and 75.3 percent. Further, the US Department of Justice estimates that around 26 percent of all violent crime committed by adult offenders occurs between 8 PM and midnight.

Certainly around Hopkins, the vast majority of crime appears to happen in the nighttime hours, especially to individuals who are walking alone. Looking back on all the campus security reports I’ve received across the Spring 2016 semester, all but one occurred sometime between 11 PM and 2 AM. Of the ten most recent security reports (discounting one that was proven false and two commercial robberies), seven involved individuals walking alone or in pairs late at night.

The transportation department on the whole seems hopeful that as more students become familiar with TransLoc, no-shows will occur less and student ridership will increase, thus helping the shuttle to achieve their goal of keeping students safe at night. This sentiment is echoed by students, many of whom are excited to know that an app allowing them to track the shuttle exists.

Junior Nina Lerner was excited to learn about the app. She noted having had issues with coming outside just as it was driving away and seemed to feel TransLoc could help with that. Overall, she said the Blue Jay Shuttle is an awesome service to have, even in spite of the communication issues that sometimes occur.

“It eliminates the need to pay for nighttime transportation around campus and Hampden, which we shouldn’t take for granted,” she said in an email. “It just needs its kinks worked out.”

The transportation department knows this as well. A big problem in working out the kinks seems to be the issue of giving time estimates.

“We may give them an ETA so that they have some idea of how long they have to wait, but the ETA is not a promise. It’s an estimate,” says Kilduff. “If we get there, if we tell them ten minutes and we get there in seven and they’re not down… this person back here is going ‘Hey man, come on, I gotta go!’ And the person who still hasn’t been picked up yet is outside going, ‘Man, they told me five minutes and here it’s been ten minutes and they’re still not here.’ So we’re not gonna wait if they’re not downstairs in a reasonable amount of time after we dispatch the van.”

In a world of Uber, where our ETA is changing in real-time, we’re used to ETAs being more fact than estimate. This is exactly what causes situations where a student comes out in eight minutes when the dispatcher said ten and misses the shuttle. I’m certainly guilty of this. Most of us are. It isn’t really anyone’s fault, and a lot of those working for the Blue Jay Shuttle understand this.

During my evening hanging out around the transportation office, I got to ride-along on the red route with shuttle driver, Charles Jackson. If you’re a frequent night rider, you’ve probably already met. Jackson is a funny, soft-spoken man who works six days a week and has been a shuttle driver at Hopkins for 11 years. He’s trained every driver currently working for the shuttle, and knows the streets around campus better than just about anyone. Like Kilduff, he seems in great spirits in spite of the hours he has to work. In fact, he likes the late nights, telling me it bothers him more when he gets off at 11:30 at night than when he’s done at four in the morning, because he’s so conditioned to not going to bed until around 6 AM now.

Jackson expressed that he loves his job and his interactions with students, and doesn’t blame them for not being outside on time.

“The average person, if you say, ‘[I’ll] be there in 10 minutes,’ I’m [as the student] gonna stay where I’m at for at least 9 minutes. And then 10 minutes I start coming down out of these apartments, I gotta wait for the elevator, so now they got the van sitting out there waiting,” said Jackson. “My thing is if you call for a van, tell them to come down right now. Don’t say, ‘Well the van will be there in 15 minutes’ ‘cause for me, it don’t take me 15 minutes or ten minutes to get nowhere on this campus… So I don’t fault the student on that end, I just say they can do better on our end in not telling them the van’ll be there in 10 minutes when I’ll get there in three minutes.”

Down in the transportation office, dispatcher Roseate Maddox understands the challenges giving an ETA can present as well. If you’ve called for a shuttle Monday through Wednesday, she’s likely the voice on the other end. On Fridays, you might catch her driving a shuttle around.

Maddox comes in around 5:30 PM and leaves around 4 AM. She calls dispatching her “relaxation place” – some wind-down time after the day job as a personnel officer for the state of Maryland, which she works on weekdays.

“[Giving an ETA makes it] more likely they gonna come down at the wrong time, being honest,” she tells me. She’s sitting in front of a dual-screen monitor, one screen displaying the TransLoc map, the other an excel sheet of which night ride shuttles are where, picking up whom. In front of her is her dinner: a couple pieces of pizza on a makeshift cardboard plate. When she’s dispatching, she prefers to tell students to come outside immediately, so as to prevent the ETA misunderstanding. She notes that TransLoc helps a lot in terms of getting students outside at the right time.

Maddox says only one dispatcher works at a time. Kilduff describes dispatching as “an octopus job, and we’ve got human beings doing it.” On Friday and Saturday nights, the dispatcher can expect to often receive upwards of 360 calls for night rides. With that quantity of students in need of a shuttle, sending one back to pick up someone who missed their shuttle the first time around can be irritating. So can getting students who call back after five minutes to complain that their shuttle hasn’t arrived yet.

“My whole thing is just understand that this is a shared ride and you have to be a little patient with us,” Maddox said. “We are doing the best we can to get these vans to you very quickly.”

Overall, Maddox thinks the shuttle is running pretty smoothly, as do most others. It has its kinks to work out, as Lerner noted, but for the most part, things are going as planned. TransLoc, all agree, is helping to bridge the communication gap and work those kinks out.

As for the future, management and students seem to have the same hopes. Many students have expressed the desire for an Uber-type model for night ride, allowing them to request point-to-point service through an app. Smith expressed that that’s something he would like to see as well. However, he believes we’re still a ways off from making that happen.

“Blue Jay Shuttle, it’s ever evolving,” Steichen said of the future. “It’s not set in stone and probably never will be set in stone.”

So while an Uber-system may not happen just yet, for now, students can get to know TransLoc, because it’s likely here to stay. If there’s one thing the app is teaching everyone, it’s that we all need to work together for the system to work.

Let’s go back to the scene at a party. This time you’ve got TransLoc. You call your shuttle and get the time estimate. Instead of waiting, you open up your app and peek at it every minute or so while you chat with your friends. After a few minutes, you notice a yellow circle a few blocks away. You gather up your stuff and head to the door, watching the dot get closer. When you get outside, there’s the shuttle, coming up the block toward you. Inside you might find Charles Jackson or Roseate Maddox or even Paul Kilduff. And in spite of the fact that they’ve been driving around since 5:30 and still have hours to go, you getting in that van on time has made their night just a little bit easier, and yours too.