Service, Courtesy, Safety (Part III)

In this final installment of the series, I will review proposals for improving customer service as they relate to payment of fares, the TTC’s role in the community and the responsibilities of the TTC and its customers.

Please note that some comments submitted to previous articles that dealt with primarily these issues have been moved to this thread.

Fare Media and Payment Systems

The advisory panel’s report begins by noting that the current fare system is “both inconsistent and inconvenient”, but they also observe that “many, if not all, of these issues will disappear when a new payment system is implemented”.  This may be true, but it should be remembered that the biggest problems usually stem from bad policies rather than from technology.

For example, some systems (even the TTC on the 512 St. Clair route) use a time-based fare rather than depending on arcane transfer rules.  If a transfer (which could be either the existing paper form or an electronic equilavent) is valid for two hours, then any consideration about stopovers, doubling back and other no-no’s of the current policy would disappear.  The panel recommends that transfers be simplified so that their validity is easily apparent, but does not explain what scheme might be used to achieve this.

TTC management created a needless crisis during the last fare increase by failing to recognize the problems that token hoarding would create.  Their response that people would just have to pay full cash fare showed a wanton disregard for good customer relations.

Why did they go down this path?  The new Metropasses (complete with new preprinted prices) would not be available until a month after the fare increase was approved.  Therefore no fares could go up until the new media were available.  The idea that Metropass users might get one month at the cheaper rate while token fares went up immediately was not considered, even though there have been staggered increases like this in the past.

There will be at least one more fare increase before the system fully converts to smart card technology where these issues won’t apply, and TTC management need to provide a transition scheme that does not penalize riders for their own poor planning.

The panel recommends that passengers be able to pay with alternate media and give examples such as credit/debit cards.  The larger question of fare policy is not touched.

The Day Pass come in for criticism because of its scratch coating, but with no recommendation about how it would actually work.

TTC “Spaces”, Volunteers and Communities

This is the weakest part of the report, by far.  The advisory panel suggests that communities need to feel ownership of their stations with local artwork, maps with details of local points of interest, and participation in station audits.

One short paragraph is devoted to the issue of maintenance standards for stations, “healthy food options” and water fountains.  The TTC, of course, already has a station cleaning blitz in progress, longer-term plans for additional, sustained maintenance efforts, and reconstruction projects to address the deterioration of station structures and finishes.  The cleaning of trains is not mentioned.

Finally, there are suggestions about embracing the community including “Friends of the TTC” and using interested members of the community as TTC ambassadors.  As someone who has spent decades on transit advocacy, I can only say that the best ad for the TTC is reliable service, politely delivered in vehicles and stations that look as if the system cares about itself.

Responsibilities of the TTC and its Customers

The panel proposes a service charter for TTC staff including 12 separate items, the last of which is actually an expectation that customers will behave appropriately onboard and let the TTC know how it can improve services.  That leaves 11 items actually as TTC goals.

Nothing here is unusual, but also nothing addresses the need to look inward and find those organizational practices that are barriers to good customer service.  TTC staff will smile a lot, and the many goals outlined in previous sections are recognized as an integral part of providing good service.

Customers, on the other hand have no fewer than 26 responsibilities listed, not including the 1 that was included under the staff’s list above.  Right away, this tells me that “blaming the customer” has not vanished from TTC culture.  It has even infected the advisory committee.

Most points address the occupancy of space by riders, and they are all common sense.  Two points talk about food and drink asking riders not to use open containers or cans, nor to eat cooked or prepared foods.  This issue came up years ago when the TTC attempted to ban “food” from the subway only shortly after opening a MacDonalds in Dundas West Station.  Anyone who actually rode the TTC would know that there are many food vendors in the system who sell drinks in tins, and various forms of prepared food.  If the TTC is really serious about banning this sort of item, they should stop trying to make money by leasing space to those who sell them.

Customers are warned not to run for buses or streetcars.  Possibly if service were more reliable, people would not treat every vehicle as if it were the last one of the day.

Far too much of the list assumes that we are all hopeless dolts.  This is rather like putting up a sign over the 401 saying “please don’t speed, and make lane changes with care”.  Just as most drivers play “by the rules”, so most customers, most of the time, are well-behaved.  We do not need a lecture in TTC behaviour, especially one that is over twice the length of the one for the TTC itself.

This entire section is insulting to passengers, and coming at the very end of the advisory committee’s report, shows just how out of touch that committee really is, or how badly their mandate might have been compromised by TTC management’s spin.

Amusingly, the panel hopes to find a way “to encourage … customers to read through and better comply with By-law No. 1.”  They might start by ensuring that all copies of the by-law are current, and that staff are familiar with the contents.  For example, despite two separate web pages on the TTC’s site that clearly state (as does the by-law) that photography for personal use is permitted, TTC staff routinely harass members of the public who try to use cameras on the system.

3.17 No person shall operate any camera, video recording device, movie camera or any similar device for commercial purposes upon the transit system without authorization.

An excellent example of problems with customer service arises when TTC staff (or, worse, supervisors or Special Constables) approach a patron who is taking pictures and, already ignorant of the by-law, start the conversation in an aggressive, negative way saying “You can’t take pictures here”.  Some TTC staff claim that taking photos violates their privacy rights even though there is widespread legal precedent for situations where people appear in photos taken by others as “part of the scenery”.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse for intemperate, hostile behaviour.

By-law No. 1 broadly covers the following areas:

  1. Definitions, all 20 of them.  There will be test at the end.
  2. Fares.  You have to pay.  You must use fare media as intended.  Did I mention you have to pay?
  3. No person shall do just about anything other than ride and behave.  This goes on for 34 paragraphs and many sub-paragraphs.  If you pass the test on definitions, we will move on to this section.
  4. Penalties.  You will behave, or you will pay, and we will take away your Metropass even though you already bought it.

Possibly the TTC can install video screens with this information in a scrolling text, or a short instructional video (possibly with John Cleese) explaining how to behave on the TTC.

This report starts out with some good ideas and at least a recognition, if not a focus, that there are severe problems with the organization and with its inability to convey information to customers or to staff.  Internal isolation begets turf wars and “it’s not my job” attitudes that have as much, if not more, to do with managerial inertia and ego than with any bars to improved practices by unionized staff (which is not even an issue for many items).  However, the report peters out into a classic TTC pose of blaming external issues, in this case the very customers for whom service improvements are intended.

Yes, there are stupid, ignorant, boorish customers, but they are far from the majority.  I should not be treated with disrespect or lectured on my behaviour for the sins of others.  Every customer is a unique chance for the TTC to win over and improve its image with a rider, a concept basic to good service.  An organization improves itself, shows it cares, and does not blame its clientele for the stale bread in the window, the unmade bed in the hotel.

18 thoughts on “Service, Courtesy, Safety (Part III)

  1. Though I too think that the Report is rather too defensive it is, in my opinion, a good first step but I think it should have addressed more directly the fact that front-line staff are supposed to enforce rules that are, to many, silly. One major point of friction is the transfer system and on this the Panel says: “Many of the issues related to transfers may disappear with the adoption of a new fare system, particularly if transfers are phased out. However, in the interim, the transfer design and system could be simplified so that validity is easily apparent to both customers and employees at the time of boarding.”

    I suggest they should have simply said that transfers should all be time-based. A time-based transfer would make their validity clearer and would stop the constant irritant to people who give up waiting for a 501 and start walking and then one approaching and they try to get on at the next stop.


  2. I have read the report and am not impressed with it. First, there was insufficient contact with the customers to be able to properly assess things. Second, it is clear this report was written by people who don’t use the system. Otherwise they would have hit upon the major cause of friction between the customer and the Operator. Namely, the idiotic transfer restrictions including one that prohibits using it anywhere other than the stop at the actual transfer point. It even states on the back of the transfer that you cannot walk to the next stop. STUPID.

    When the daily Metropass was introduced it was made transferrable it was stated a major reason was to eliminate arguments over its use. There is abuse of the rules for using it yet it remains unchanged. Same thing applies to the transfer, big time. A time expired transfer such as that used by MI (Mi Way) Mississauga Transit is like a mini-pass for two hours. Use it in any direction with stopover to shop etc. and board at ANY stop. I love it. I shop in Mississauga in preference to Toronto for just that reason. And, if you want a real treat as a transit customer go ride Mi Way (there is a catchy name) and see how the drivers treat passengers, greeting them, helping them, waiting for them and even wishing you a nice day when you depart! And, the customers respond likewise. Oh yes, the buses are not pig pens inside either.


  3. On bad riders: 85% of riders ride the TTC without causing a problem. I’d say that 85% of the problems, come from the 15% of riders who do not ride with care. The TTC needs to find some way to get the attention of this 15%.

    This, BTW, seems from my experience to be universal. 15% of people tend to cause 85% of the problems, weather they are riders, operators, managers, etc. Not just in the TTC either. The companies that do the best are the ones who can properly deal with the 15%.


  4. I wonder if the TTC ever quantifies and tracks their customer service issues in a meaningful way. Do they do random phone surveys to gauge customer satisfaction? Do they keep track of things like average and standard deviation of headway? Do they look at short-turn frequencies?

    The quality-control people say that “what gets measured gets done” — i.e. no improvement comes without measurement. Sounds like advice the TTC should be taking. (Steve — I know this is something you do periodically for streetcar headways, but I think you’d agree that it’s something they should be bringing in-house.)


  5. An electronic payment card would be nice, but the TTC has already spent an obscene sum of money on investigating it, and proposes to spend even more to implement it. Enough money to build an entire Transit City line.

    This leads to the conclusion that implementing an electronic payment card is a bad idea. It simply costs far more money than it is worth. And for many people, tokens are far more convenient than an electronic payment card.

    As to token hoarding issues, the TTC should follow the example of the post office. Before the last stamp price increase, the post office printed a gazillion extra stamps and actively flogged them “buy now before the price goes up.” Buying a stamp is, of course, an interest-free loan to the government until one actually uses the stamp.

    The TTC should do the same. Before the next fare increase, mint a massive amount of extra tokens. Then actively sell them “buy now before the price goes up.” This is, of course, an interest-free loan to the TTC. And I would be willing to wager that many people will lose the extra tokens – an outright gift to the TTC.


  6. I’m really surprised that such supposed customer service gurus came up with so many recommendations to do with keeping the customers in line.

    In every customer service position, there is only one maxim, and its not the one most people think of.

    The customer does not care about your back story, about your management issues, about how tough it is to do your job – they only care about how they are being served.

    When the TTC is told by somebody powerful enough to ignore the current management culture, and then understands and accepts this maxim, then there will be change. Until that unfortunately radical idea takes hold, the TTC will continue to deteriorate, blaming its customers for not understanding how hard it is to run such a system, when, to be blunt, we don’t care because we know it is possible to do this well.


  7. It is not completely ridiculous to propose that riders learn what the bylaw says. But the way the bylaw is presented makes it look like fine print, i.e., a scam somebody with more authority is trying to pull on you. (All fine print, in the accepted sense of the term, gives that impression, everywhere from your credit-card bill to the back of a movie ticket.)

    You know those giant rectilinear black columns right behind the driver’s seat on diesel Orion VIIs? Where a smaller-than-letter-sized sticker attempts to document the full Bylaw 1? Give me 80% of that width and less then three feet of height and I promise you my friends and I could make the whole thing so readable and understandable people would stand there reading and understanding it.

    That cannot be said of staff, management, or the riding public at present. It’s fixable.

    Superfun bonus anecdote: I have had more than one supervisor adamantly refuse to double-check, i.e., read, the bylaw after quoting it to me. On what topic? Taking pictures, of course. The next time it happens I’m going to demand that their supervisor be called over.


  8. I personally disagree with the “inconvenient” attitude about the fare system. I do not use the TTC everyday, so a metropass is not cost-efficient. However tokens are. Yes, there are other options to allow customers to pay their fare, but it’s not like the current system does not work.

    Token hoarding can be a problem, but the one token at a time policy is absurd in my humble opinion. I prefer to get a batch (8 from a machine, 10 from a booth) at one time. I am not likely to hoard, but get my 8-10 when required. I once at a collector at a booth about getting 10 tokens and told rather inpolitely that he did not have any. I had forgotten that the TTC was going to raising the fare soon so was on the one-token-at-a-time routine, but the collector could have politely reminded me of this as well. So, as others have stated, it is not always the customer that is the problem.

    As for the customer issue, I can understand an individual not wanting their picture taken without their permission – however most pictures I have seen of TTC property, vehicles, etc. are not centred on the people as the photogrphers do not want a picture of the people, but rather the object. I polite request to be careful when taking pictures should be sufficient if TTC personnel are concerned about this.


  9. “Token hoarding can be a problem, but the one token at a time policy is absurd in my humble opinion. ”

    It’s only the most recent fare increase which has had a problem, and it should have been obvious that there would have been. In every previous fare increase (that I’m aware of), there has been the same process. They sell tokens until they run out, then sell tickets only. People can still buy ten fares at a time, and the number of hoarded tokens is contained. The management might not like tickets, but they’re going to have to accept that at fare increase time they’re going to have to have them.


  10. One thing the TTC has been good at is getting us to lower our expectations. The report is described here as a good first step, and as containing some good ideas. To my mind, the only good first step would have been to deal immediately with the problems that were raised in a way that would have noticeably improved service. Then maybe you commission a report. But we know the TTC — the fact that they even deign to acknowledge there’s a problem with service seems like a victory to us, because usually complaining to the TTC is like bashing your head against a brick wall.

    We need a march on the TTC. But then people might have to miss <I<So You THink You Can Dance?.


  11. There are three things that businesses have to keep in mind, and when you have boards and consultants these should be printed in 9m high letters:

    1) The customer is always right.
    2) If the customer is wrong, see #1.
    3) Keep It Simple Stupid.

    Electronic fare media, this could be so simple, you buy a card, you put money on it. When you get on, the machine deducts money from your card and stamps it with the date/time. Any additional boardings within 2 hours after that date/time are free. How about frequent flyer discounts, rather then fixed passes. The more you ride the bigger the discount, based on a percentage, say 1% for every 10 rides….


  12. I will accept that tokens are a convenient fare medium when someone can explain to me where the hell I am supposed to put them. Any suggestions which involve buying an using a totally extraneous accessory just for the privilege of getting on public transit will be assumed to come from TTC staff.

    I think I’ve gifted the TTC enough money in lost tokens to build a new subway extension.


  13. Rishi, you want to get a token holder. Any of the newstands will sell them. They’re like little blue cartridges. Nominally they hold 10 tokens (5 each side), but 8 is more realistic.

    Test the token holder before paying; the new tokens won’t fit in old-design token holders.

    I would not call it an “extraneous accessory”, and the last time I checked they cost a buck. I haven’t lost a single one in years and years, and I know at all times how many tokens I have in my possession by simply hefting the holder.


  14. But what I’d really like as a gesture from the TTC is for them to re-record their audio propaganda without the nagging, hectoring, nanny-state tone. Even when service is good those announcements make me hate TTC management.

    P.S. Ditto on parts 1, 2 & 3 of your comments, Steve.


  15. The current limiting factor on TTC passenger numbers is (in general) capacity. There are very few buses transporting nothing but air in rush hour. If TTC’s customer service became perfect overnight, then there wouldn’t be the capacity to carry the extra people attracted to use TTC.


  16. I found some of the advice to riders not just insulting but impossible to follow when the TTC is as crowded as it is in the downtown rush hour. You can’t take your knapsack off if you’re packed in so tightly that you can’t move your arms. You can’t step behind the white line or avoid blocking the doors if you’re immobilized in a corner next to the front door. You can’t hold on to handrails if you can’t reach them for all the people in the way. (I’ve had some rides where the only thing holding me up was the other passengers.) If you’re under 5’6″ or so, the handrails that run parallel to the ceilings of TTC vehicles are difficult to reach. I have to stand on tiptoe to maintain a grip.

    As Tom West says, it’s an issue of capacity. IIRC, the report didn’t even acknowledge the overcrowding, which made it seem rather beside the point.

    Steve: At least part of the so-called “Customer Service” panel was co-opted by TTC management and the “advice” is entirely self-serving. What is quite clear is that any idea that someone put on the table made it into the report without any thought of how it would be received by the public. Once again, the TTC shows that it’s more interested in patting itself on the back than in really addressing customer problems.


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