Customer Service Excellence Our Goal: TTC

On January 27, the TTC announced a number of new programs and policies designed to substantially improve all aspects of customer service.  I won’t go into all of the details, but for those who have not seen them, you can follow the links below.

TTC Site

Spacing Toronto

The Toronto Star

This will probably be the last transit announcement by Adam Giambrone who is widely expected to announce his candidacy for Mayor of Toronto next Monday.   Once that happens, he cannot maintain a high-profile position and use the TTC for electoral good news.

In his introduction of the new program, Giambrone talked about four essential parts of TTC customer service:  courtesy, information, responsiveness and reliability.  Some of these are “people skills”, some are technical, but many require changes to organizational culture.  Just making the trains run on time isn’t enough (although I suspect many riders would be happy just for that small miracle).

The TTC will create an external panel of customers, employees, and others outside the TTC with a customer service background.  The work plan sounds depressingly like so much public consultation.  First there will be a terms of reference, then the panel will review current plans, consult the public and draft a “bill of rights” for transit customers.  This process is hoped to wrap up by June 30 — an unusually fast schedule for consultation and reporting. 

For the record, I have neither applied for nor been invited to be a member of the panel.

The TTC plans a number of technology-related changes to improve information flow including screens showing information about service status at subway entrances, real-time vehicle information via SMS (text) messages, new microphones at collectors’ booths to improve conversational quality between staff and passengers, an internet trip planner, and completion of next vehicle information throughout the subway.

We know that the GPS-based line displays have been available internally for some time.  The TTC included a view of one as part of a recent presentation, and real time trip information cannot work without the underlying data.  Why are these not available to the public?

A significant omission in the vehicle tracking system is knowledge of the advertised destination of a vehicle.  Like so much else in TTC operations, the only available information is the scehduled destination.  However, this is meaningless on routes with frequent short-turns and ad-hoc service restructuring.  Someone waiting for a car wants to know where it is really going, not where it is scheduled to be.

(One amusing note about the TTC presentation:  If you scroll down to the “Backgrounder” section, there is a picture of a “next car” info sign saying that a car is now “due” and coming in 1 minute.  The streetcar in the background is a 504 signed for Dufferin, a short turn.  The information system has no way of knowing it is advertising the arrival of a car that may not go where the rider wants.)

The trip planner is still at a beta-testing stage (comment threads on other sites have talked about various peculiarities in early versions), but it will be released with the clear intent of getting customer feedback.  This will be an early test of the TTC’s intentions because bug fixes and enhancements will be essential to having a really good product.

I will not discuss the relative merits of the TTC’s system and other available software, although one wonders why the TTC went down the “roll your own” path on this project. Once the TTC version has actually been up for a while and had some fine tuning, then we can get into comparative discussions about other products.

The TTC plans to add 50 new pass vending machines at locations in the system and to expand the use of debit/credit car transactions.  I hope that, while they are rewiring stations, they take into account future needs for Presto so that they don’t have to tear everything apart in a few years’ time.  Indeed, the idea of provisioning new equipment when we are close to a system-wide conversion to automated fare collection begs the question of how serious the TTC really is about the latter.

One big complaint about TTC information services is their availability during business hours only.  The TTC hopes to incorporate a complaints line into the City’s 311 service so that customers can call in immediately when an incident occurs.  The TTC should simply ditch its own info line and make transit information part of 311, transferring staff if necessary to the City operation.

Passengers expect cleaner stations.  Report after report showing how Toronto’s mythical “station cleanliness index” is inching up year by year simply are not enough.  There are now plans in the TTC budget to beef up the cleaning staff, but even this is a multi-year scheme.  Don’t expect spotless stations soon.

Good customer service is to be an organizational goal.  After several years’ focus on safety and absenteeism, the TTC will now look to its customers.   They should never have looked away.

Particularly striking in the list of goals is “reliability”.  This is the heart of good transit service, and it removes many of the annoyances that plague both riders and operators.  The TTC must stop finding excuses for poorly managed and operated services.

If changes in scheduling rules are needed to substantially reduce short turns, then find out how to make this work.

Don’t tell us about all the added route supervision, show us the service evenly spaced out rather than running in packs.  The operation of the St. Clair car since it reopened to Lansdowne is a disgrace.  This was not even mentioned during the press conference.

The TTC did talk about the subway shutdown brought on by Enbridge Gas construction work.  This incident revealed not only a problem with clear communications, but with emergency preparations in general.  Certainly, buses can never replace the subway particularly at the peak time.  However, the first thing that should happen in this type of situation is the closure of an affected street like Yonge to all non-essential traffic so that buses can move as quickly as possible.  The TTC, City and Police do not appear to have a standard protocol for this type of situation, and it’s badly needed.

Without question, there are employees whose public manner leaves much to desire, but they are, in my experience, a minority.  Both passengers and employees are made all the more sensitive and aggressive when they must deal with irregular service and an almost total lack of information.  Fix those problems, and some of the contention between riders and staff will disappear.  It won’t be perfect, but those employees who want to do a good job need to see that management is actively trying to improve their lot.

Many of these initiatives will take time to be implemented on the street, and a review committee must exist long enough to compare promises to reality.  The TTC is not a credible evaluator of its own success, if only because it has ignored its problems far too long.