In the first part of this series, I looked at the background of the TTC’s Customer Service Advisory Panel, and reviewed the first set of their recommendations dealing, broadly, with organizational issues.
In this second part, I will review the three sections dealing with communications: TTC to customers, customers to TTC and within the TTC itself.
Communicating With Customers
This section includes many recommendations given that the absence of good information flow is a fundamental problem between the TTC and its riders. Of particular note in this section (pp 19-30) is the random order in which the recommendations are placed. Some are duplicates, related items are separated from each other, and generally one gets the feeling of some very hasty editing. The practicality of some proposals has not been thought through. Coupled with the chaotic editing, this gives the impression that the Advisory Panel fell victim to some of the same “communication” problems that they highlight at the TTC.
First up is a proposal for information kiosks at busy stations where “staff and volunteers” could answer questions and provide basic travelling assistance. This is a great idea, although the idea of volunteers will guarantee that just when you most need someone, nobody will be available. Has the transit system come to the point where it needs volunteer help?
In an attempt to get away from the isolating nature of collectors’ booths, the report recommends that the kiosks be open with no glass barrier. The panel should try hanging out in some of the draftier stations in mid-February or the scorching heat of July to see just how foolish that proposal is.
Screens, signs and wayfinding need many improvements. Definitely no surprise to anyone who actually rides the system. The recommendations include a consistent, system-wide wayfinding process, improved signage throughout stations, overrides on platform screens to ensure major announcements get the prominence they deserve, screens at station entrances and collectors’ booths to avoid problems with people entering the subway and then finding it’s not operating.
I was surprised at what the panel missed in this shopping list. First off, the single biggest problem with platform screens is that there are not enough of them. When they were installed, they were 1:1 replacements of the old “Metron” text-based signs. However, for clear visibility on platforms, at least two and possibly three separate screens per platform are needed. Screens at street level would be nice, but complaints that those in the subway enter, pay, and then get no service ignore the fact that the TTC once issued “subway emergency transfers”. Of course if the collectors don’t know there is an emergency … well, you can see where that leads.
There is a suggestion that surface routes have a mechanism for notifications of major disruptions including on connecting services. While technically possible, this could lead to information overload and a “crawl” of text that takes forever to make one cycle through its messages. What we do not need, but which I wouldn’t be surprised someone in TTC will suggest, is full-size video screens scattered through surface vehicles ostensibly as informative displays but actually filled with advertising.
Operators might deal with a rider whose questions they could not answer with a customer service “contact card”. The panel seems to miss their own point, articulated elsewhere, that operators have more to do than hand out info, and in any event a contact card may only send a customer to the information line (which is only staffed during business hours). Operators on the new streetcars will not interact with the passengers, for the most part.
A new display “Bus Full” is proposed for the destination sign to explain to riders why the bus is not stopping for them. This is a nice touch, but it does not address cases where the real problem is with service bunching and uneven vehicle loads.
“How to use the system” posters are proposed to assist with newcomers, but there is no mention of how many languages this might be done in. In vehicle ads for the same purpose are also suggested, although the new streetcars will not have any advertising frames.
The report recommends that the vicinity maps, recently updated be reviewed for accuracy and completeness. I cannot help wondering why the new maps omit locations of special interest to tourists, but tell us where all of the schools are. Some of the info is just plain wrong having been copied, without real understanding of the neighbourhood, from Google Maps judging by spot comparisons. This was a good example of the TTC persisting in producing in house a product that should have been contracted to professional map makers who have all of the base data needed for complete and accurate maps.
On the subway, the general route map , which has severe problems with scale in the north-south direction, may be “iconic”, but the report recommends that individual line maps be created such as in other cities. These could include info about connecting surface routes. Similar maps are proposed for streetcar routes, although this ignores the fact that streetcars don’t stay on one route from day to day, or even within one day (for example, some 510 Spadina cars at midday were 504 King cars in the AM peak). Also, as mentioned before, there is no place to put such a map within the new streetcars.
Other recommendations include exhorting customers to not block subway doorways and to respect the priority seating. This touches on the more general premise that customers are part of the problem. You can put up all the signs you like, but some people will just get in the way be it those who stand or sit inappropriately, those with backpacks, strollers and shopping carts. The people who block movement in vehicles like this are not going to react to yet another sign.
Short turns are a perennial complaint, and the panel suggests that operators make ongoing announcements advising that a short turn will occur, why and how soon the next vehicle/train will show up. This is a nice idea in theory, but in practice, many short turns are ordered only moments before they occur. The panel suggests that if passengers know why they are being kicked off a bus, streetcar or train, they will understand what is going on better. No, they will be annoyed that once again they have boarded a vehicle that advertised one destination, but didn’t actually go there.
People always complain about the public address system, but the TTC seems to forget that the “new” system installed in a previous burst of customer service activity was supposed to fix all of the then-existing problems. When it works, the system is quite adequate, but a common problem is that the volume is set too low and announcements are inaudible, or that the amplifier in a car or station distorts the signal. This is a maintenance issue, not a question of a wholesale replacement (again).
A number of proposals touch on information technology (IT) issues. We have already seen the glacial pace at which the TTC incorporates functionality in its website (they even got an “award of distinction” for it this week!), and there is no reason to believe that the organization will improve in its exploitation of IT generally. Of equal importance, however, is that old IT maxim “garbage in, garbage out”. You can have the most elegant systems to convey information to passengers, but if the information is not provided on a timely basis, all of the technology is useless. It is not uncommon, for example, for major delays not to be announced on weekends via existing channels. This speaks to a staffing and procedure problem, not one of technology.
Finally, the panel suggests that the TTC conduct a marketing campaign to explain “why they do what they do”. This relates to a concept, shown in full flower later in the report, that if only customers “understood” the TTC, they would not criticize it. That is self-serving junk akin to a florist expecting me to buy a wilted bouquet while hearing about the problems of keeping fresh stock.
Customers Communicating With The TTC
The advisory panel suggests regular “town hall” meetings where people could come to learn what’s new at the TTC, and to speak about their concerns. A useful idea, but one that like so many others will only work if there is ongoing review of complaints, suggestions and management actions to address them.
Several recommendations relate to the complaints process including the difficulty of use for the existing system, the prioritization and routing of comments/complaints, and the lack of thorough tracking and response.
The customer service centre is only open during business hours, a change made several years ago as a money-saving tactic. The panel notes that Toronto’s 311 service already operates 7×24, the same as the TTC network. From my own view, TTC information should be provided through the 311 centre, but I understand that such an amalgamation would overload the 311 operators. This suggests that there is a very large, and probably unmet demand for TTC phone information.
Despite attempts (some more successful than others) to shift requests to other media such as web and text message interfaces, many riders either do not know they exist (despite advertising), cannot use them, or find them difficult. The TTC has still not advertised the NextBus web interface which is vastly superior to the text message service because one does not need to know a stop’s index number to query service at the location.
A large group of recommendations involve training proposals for TTC staff. What is totally missing here is the sense that an organization responsibility exists to provide a supportive workplace. If operators don’t have access to up-to-date information, if their suggestions go into a black hole, if the best information they can give riders is “I don’t know what’s going on”, then there is a problem that no training exercise can repair. Indeed “staff development” programs that are out of sync with the day-to-day experience of employees will be mocked and ignored, seen, at best, as a chance for a few paid days without having to drive.
The panel recommends that the Station Collector position be revised so that competencies for it will ensure staffing with strongly customer-focussed staff. The problem here is that there are few actual qualifications required for admission to this group (compared to drivers), and it is also used as a place for staff who are unable due to short or long term disabilities to drive. The TTC itself fought against an upgrading of the pay category for collectors at arbitration (they lost) based on the duties and responsibilities defined for this job. It is not a place simply to “park” employees. Moreover, the role of “collector” will in time vanish or be severely curtailed as the system moves to self-service fares with smart cards, and the new Station Agents take on monitoring duties for stations. Any move to rethink a collector’s role and qualifications needs to occur in the context of future station operating strategies, not the current model.
More front-line supervision is recommended for TTC routes. Of course, years ago, the magic of IT was going to make the need for on-street monitoring obsolete, but this didn’t actually pan out. The big problem is finding supervisors who actually understand what they are doing and will actively manage the line. In that regard, I have yet to see any supervisor with a hand-held display showing the location of vehicles based on GPS data, even though this information is already available. Supervisors need to manage headways, not just scramble to keep cars on a schedule that is impractical under certain conditions.
Once again we see a recommendation for even more running time. This has been going on for years, and there are routes and operating periods where the length of terminal layovers is quite substantial. This is not a catch-all repair. Indeed, the biggest issue facing the TTC (and its operators’ union) is the development of headway-based rather than schedule-based line management. This has big implications for how operator shifts would be managed, and yet the provision of regularly spaced service is the single best way to get more even loading and better effective capacity out of the fleet.
Coming in Part III
In the last part of this series (coming later this week), I will turn to issues with Fare Systems, the TTC’s role in the community, and responsibilities for TTC staff and customers.