Chicago Metra Redesign Could Better Support Mobile Use and Accessibility

Chicago’s suburban mass transit agency recently launched a new website design that could better support a few important audiences among its riders — people using mobile devices and users of adaptive technologies.

The new Metra website offers some long-needed enhancements, such as online ticket sales, finally accepting credit cards for ticket purchases, and email alerts for service delays and disruptions. But a feature that every transportation agency should offer, a smartphone friendly website, was not part of the relaunch.

By comparison the San Francisco Bay area public transit system (BART) offers riders numerous mobile options including support for the iPhone, Blackberry, Android, SMS, and even open access to BART schedule data for third-party app developers.

BART Homepage
BART Homepage
BART Search Screen
BART Search Screen
BART System Map
BART System Map
Metra Search Screen
Metra Search Screen

On the BART site, a visitor using an iPhone sees the normal homepage in Safari with an additional link in red text prompting the user to visit the BART mobile site. The link is hidden for people using regular web browsers. This leads users to a simple screen of seven text links from which the person can get to the BART search screen. While it’s better than what Metra does (or doesn’t do), it should just take you to the mobile site since that is what most mobile users likely want and then provide a link back to the regular site for people who end up there by mistake.

BART also provides a fairly easy to read system map for iPhone users. The Metra map for just one route is useless on the iPhone since it was designed for regular browsers and includes shading for municipal areas, lakes, and forest preserves. All important things to know when your train is unexpectedly stopped on the way home from work and you have to make a change to your travel arrangements. You’ll have to view the site in a regular browser to see the map in detail.

Even if you enlarged the portion of the screen with the start and destination station select menus, the results page is impossible to work with on a two-inch screen.

In yet another omission for users of alternative means of browsing, the accessibility features of the new Metra site leave a lot to be desired. The only skip navigation takes a user from the top of the page to the center content column. On the homepage this skips all the repetitive main header and utility header links but also takes you past the site search, search by route, and search by address or zip code utilities. The skip navigation on the BART site takes you to the Quick Planner, which resides in the left most column like on the Metra site.

Metra also dropped the footer link to web accessibility information that the previous site had and makes no mention of web accessibility on its system accessibility page. BART in contrast provides information on web accessibility as well as contact information for its website manager.

To be fair, both sites do make use of HTML label tags and standards compliant coding, which should improve the experience for users of adaptive technologies. Yet both sites also lack support for accesskeys.

The BART site is not perfect, as no site is. The homepage link for the system map takes you a page with one link that reads “View System Map” and includes a disclaimer saying some mobile browsers won’t be able to display the map. So an iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android user has to go through two pages to get to the map.

Metra’s new site is definitely a step in the right direction after years of a lackluster presence, but ignoring mobile users and the limited accessibility features are a huge disservice to the people who pay its bills everyday. More time spent walking through real use scenarios with a diverse set of users could have prevented much of this.