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Commuters Take Action’s Brandon McFadden discusses “Data Science and Transit” with UChicago Transit Enthusiasts

McFadden discussed CTAction's success using statistics to turn up the heat on CTA officials to improve service.

McFadden addresses the crowd at the UChicago Transit Enthusiasts event. Photo: Cameron Bolton

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

Last week during the talk "Data Science and Transit", Brandon McFadden, a data whiz with the grassroots group Commuters Take Action, discussed how statistics can be used to hold public transportation officials accountable. The discussion, co-hosted by UChicago Transit Enthusiasts, was held at the Chicago Studies Urban Lounge, 1155 E. 60th Street on the University of Chicago campus.

Image from the flier for the talk.

While McFadden works as cyber security analyst at American Airlines, he also serves on the board of directors for the Chicago chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation. Since June 2022, he’s been publishing the CTA Rail Reliability Tracker. Commuters Take Action (CTAction) uses that report for their daily tweets about the percentage of scheduled 'L' runs that actually materialized on each line the previous day.

McFadden discussed CTAction's success using statistics to turn up the heat on CTA officials to improve service.
When McFadden launched the reliability tracker, low percentages of scheduled CTA 'L' runs showed up. Image: Brandon McFadden

"Just collecting data isn't that helpful though," McFadden said during his presentation. "You can have all of the data in the world but if you don't use it, then it's useless. It's just taking up space. So finding a way to make it easy to digest is even more important. One way to get that information out to the public is via Twitter bots. Each bot brings the same information in the easily digestible format. It tells you what agency, how much service, and the amount of service that was completed as what percentage it ran on time."

Examples of Twitter bots. Image: Brandon McFadden

Next McFadden discussed complaints CTAction has heard from riders. The most important one, he said, was the lack of reliable train trackers in 'L' stations, which results in the dreaded "ghost train" phenomenon. "They would show a train is coming, but the train wouldn’t show up." According to McFadden, the CTA still uses GTFS Static Schedules, which can't be adjusted if there's an issue, like a lack of employees to staff a run. Third-party tracking apps like Transit App and Google Maps fall back to scheduled service when real-time data is not available. In addition, buses and trains don’t provide tracking data if they’re not moving.

Image: Brandon McFadden

Dariel Cruz Rodriguez, a U. of C. sophomore who’s co-president of UChicago Transit Enthusiasts, said he was very pleased by the turnout to McFadden's talk. Usually only about half the people who RSVP for such events actually attend, but this time they expected about 30 people, and 48 showed up.

"We targeted this event to policy and political majors, and data science and computer science majors, in particular, hoping to cross them over a little bit," Cruz Rodriguez added. "It's a common thing at UChicago to double major. For example, I'm double majoring in data science and policy. We were hoping to expose students to different ways that their major could apply that they may not have thought of."

Image: Brandon McFadden

According to Cruz Rodriguez, data science is a very new field that many people don’t really know how to use yet. He said highlighting it to data science majors could perhaps bring them over into activism and into more of a politically motivated field. Or, for majors that have more to do with politics, those students could start thinking more about quantitative analysis.

"So that crossover is the biggest thing about this event," Cruz Rodriguez said. "But also exposing students... to how to engage with the city. The problems that the city has, what the city is doing well, how they can get involved, respect our neighbors, and make sure that we're [advocating for improved] transit for everybody. Including our neighbors from the South Side, our neighbors from the North Side, the West Side."

The CTA recently announced that 29 bus routes will be getting increased service. Image: Brandon McFadden

Attendee Davis Turner is majoring in economics and urban studies, and is a board member of UChicago Transit Enthusiasts. He gave McFadden's presentation high marks. "The CTA definitely needs to improve their management and transparency, and they need to publish data more often," Turner said. "They need to improve their own tracking systems and publish that data more frequently. They need to make it more readily available. They also need to improve their hiring. Whatever they're doing right now is not working. They don’t have enough bus drivers, they don’t have enough train operators, and it really shows."

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