Customer Service was a big issue in Toronto’s transit discussions over the past year. Transit touches a wide group of users, and even those who drive listen to horror stories about bad transit trips if only to reinforce their own choice. “Choice” is an important word for transit, and as with any business, customers are hard-won and easily lost. The “product” isn’t just “getting there”, but doing so dependably in reasonable comfort. Everyone knows that real products often fail to live up to the glossy brochure, and the beautiful merchandise in the shop window or online may not match personal experience.
Three different reactions were published in past months, and the contrast between them says a lot about their origins.
- TTC’s Customer Service Advisory Panel produced a long, if not particularly well-edited report full of recommendations, but ending with an injunction to riders that they should mind their P’s & Q’s if they expect good service.
- GO Transit announced its Passenger Charter, a much simpler set of goals developed in cooperation with GO’s Customer Service Advisory Committee and employees. This charter is supported by a number of web pages where riders can track GO’s delivery of what it has promised.
- The RCCAO (Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario) funded a report by Dr. Richard Soberman which recommends, among other things, a strong customer service focus in the provision of transit.
TTC’s Customer Service Advisory Panel
Back in August 2010, I reviewed the TTC report in detail and will not dwell on it here beyond noting that its vast collection of recommendations creates a “can’t see the forest for the trees” situation. TTC management produced a preliminary response to the report including a table cross-referencing many issues scattered through the advisory’s committee’s recommendations. A more detailed response is expected for consideration by the new Commission early in 2011.
Consolidation of recommendations and goals will be essential to any meaningful change and measurement within the organization. For example, if a goal is to “provide reliable service”, this will have many components ranging from adequacy of scheduled service to line management to vehicle breakdown rates and more. Some of these can be reported directly as an index to be tracked (how often does a bus fail in service, and why) while others are the result of management philosophy (how much service reaches its advertised destination and on how reliable a headway).
The TTC’s big challenge will be to provide an open view of what is going on. There is a long-standing organization culture that not only resists change, but attempts to maintain the fantasy of an ideal TTC, the one people used to visit to see how things are done right. This organization fought public exposure of the NextBus maps showing vehicle locations and irregular service. The first part of any customer service improvement is to acknowledge what could be improved and work on this in a demonstrable way rather than finding excuses or hiding the evidence.
Some of that evidence is directly available from vehicle monitoring systems. Automated digestion and publication of information about service reliability is within the TTC’s grasp, should they choose to provide it. Through the Open Data initiative, the detailed raw data should be available in January 2011, and this will give the bit-twiddlers like me lots to chew on. However, routine reporting on service quality shouldn’t be down to the efforts of pro bono amateurs.
Although it is easy to monitor vehicles, it is less simple to monitor passengers. How many of them are crammed on one bus while two half-empty ones follow a few hundred feet behind? How often are they forced to transfer when vehicles are short-turned, or to endure much longer than advertised wait times when service does not reach the end of the line?
Such analysis, of course, begs the question of what is good service? What are we trying to measure? Will there be a measure of “cost effectiveness” that produces a happy balance sheet, but unhappy would-be transit riders?
GO Transit’s Passenger Charter
GO has much simpler aims, and announced them as a starting point complete with a number of online tools. GO has five simple goals: be on time, be safe, keep passengers informed, provide a comfortable trip and provided assistance when it is needed. “Simple” could easily become “simplistic” if the goals ended at such an abstract level, but GO has set up a number of tracked measures that anyone — riders, GO management, politicians, the media — can use to see what they have achieved.
Sadly, GO has already fallen behind in posting updates to their figures, and the monthly stats for October are still not online as I write this near the end of November. However, detailed information about major delays is up to date.
Any system that claims it will report metrics regularly needs to stick to that schedule. If we have a terrible snowbound winter, we need to have those stats — good or bad — available before people are sunning on the beach. Nothing exposes a lack of interest in passengers better than outdated information be it on web pages or the dog-eared, long expired service notices so common on the TTC .
The largest collection of data details on time performance by GO Rail services. Within these pages, a reader can investigate overall on time stats or drill down to individual routes. Some of the stats are accumulated over a one-year interval and it is impossible to see what the seasonal fluctuation might be.
Another problem is that statistics are mingled between the periods before and after GO adjusted its schedules to reflect actual operating conditions — it’s easier to be on time when you pad the schedules. Given the infrequent nature of GO service, being “on time” means being “on schedule”, as compared to frequent TTC services where reliable headways are far more important. At the very least, charts should include footnotes indicating when major changes that could affect reliability were implemented.
The metrics for some of the five goals are rather simple, and boil down to asking “do more people like us this year than last year”. To be fair, this sort of thing is hard to measure, and the all-too-prevalent modern management fetish for reducing everything to an index can trivialize a much more complex process. Customer service demands an organizational culture that ranks this as an important part of overall operations. It’s not just about the trains, but the people who are in them. Parts of that experience don’t easily translate to a number.
GO is working to overcome a record of indifference and, at times, outright hostility in its treatment of the public. Whether this effort will be sustained remains to be seen, to be tested by a season of bad weather and the inevitable deterioration in service.
GO’s public face is relentlessly a sunny one. News is always good. Employees always smile. The numbers this year always look better than last. While transit success stories are encouraging, I can’t help wondering what will happen when things turn sour, when funding constrains service growth, when maintenance practices and equipment age start to affect reliability.
Will GO evolve into another TTC, desperate to defend its fading glory, or will it address problems when they emerge head on? Will GO’s ability to provide detailed information about its performance, about the underlying causes of problems, be compromised by the sheer volume of information as the system grows, or worse by a desire to keep the good news flowing? That’s a challenge for any organization, doubly so for the very public political environment of a transit agency.
Scaling Up GO Metrics To The TTC
The idea that I can check on whether a specific train will have empty seats at my station is, in a TTC context, almost quaint. TTC passengers have very different interests, and the system is far bigger than GO. Reporting on service quality will be challenging, but it should be done and, to the extent possible, be automated so that information is current.
The TTC already has a log of major delays, although its content depends on information posted on FaceBook by TTC Communications staff. If they don’t hear about a delay, or don’t consider it worth sending out an alert, it just vanishes. Given the degree to which the TTC depends on the excuse that their service is unreliable thanks to external events, a more complete log of such events would be useful to make their case.
Service depends on vehicle reliability, but we never see breakdown or availability statistics even in regular public reports to the Commission. How many service disruptions are caused by vehicles failing in service? How much service never gets out of the garage because there is no available vehicle (or no available operator)?
The TTC reports “on time” statistics, but these are meaningless on two counts. A vehicle is considered “on time” if it is within three minutes of schedule, but on many routes, this window is greater than a headway. Two or three vehicles can be running in a pack, but they are all “on time”. What riders care about is regularity of service. Do buses and streetcars arrive roughly on the spacing advertised? Do they all go to their destinations? Even if some are short turned, are there large, unpredictable gaps at the terminals, or is a regular service maintained beyond the turnbacks?
Which routes are overcrowded? “Crowding” needs to be measured not just on average vehicle load — a full bus and an empty one are, on average, half-loaded — but on the experience of a typical rider. Bunching and short turns can cause uneven demands on vehicles, and the “average rider” does not experience the “average load”. TTC riding counts estimate the occupancy of each vehicle, but merge this together as an average — the data are available, but they are not reported.
Maintenance projects that take escalators and elevators out of service are a continuing annoyance, not least because they rarely meet their advertised end dates. The TTC’s website includes information on such projects, and some of it is even accurate, but the reasons for completion dates receding into the mists of the future are never stated. Customers will understand if there is some force majeure delay, but they tire of repeatedly updated end dates and no sign of progress.
What the TTC is selling is service. Smiling faces are nice, but more employees will smile and more riders will smile back if their day-to-day environment improves.
Dr. Soberman’s Recipe for Better Transit
Richard Soberman’s report for the RCCAO argues that good transit service is essential to attracting the “choice riders”, those who could drive, but for whom transit really is “the better way”. Three components of transit are essential, in his view, for this to happen: customer service, revised governance and reliable financing.
Many components within the “customer service” list involve the environment in which employees work and include encouragement of innovation, better labour-management relations, and empowering staff to behave in ways that make for good customer relations. Sadly, this reads like text cribbed from a generic tome on customer service, and does not address the real situation in which transit systems operate.
Without question, the TTC is very much a command-based organization where innovation is not exactly the order of the day, especially down at the operating level. This is a managerial problem and a deep part of “TTC culture”. At the front line, the fine words about serving customers ring hollow if there aren’t enough buses on the street and the service is disorganized more often than not.
If being “on time” is more valued than providing “good service”, the front line staff will respond accordingly, if not appropriately from a customer service perspective. If departmental rivalries and priorities get in the way of overall organizational performance, then “innovation” is unlikely to flourish.
Soberman argues that a transit board should not include politicians, but instead should have informed professionals who bring a variety of skills to their position. This model presumes that boards would actually be chosen with a view to these skills, and not to the political leanings of the members. Moreover, it presumes that management itself is competent and would do a spectacular job of running the transit system if only the politicians would get out of the way. Years of experience at TTC and GO have shown that these assumptions are deeply flawed.
Boards are supposed to set policy and strategic directions, but too often the choices placed before them are limited to what management wishes to advocate or to what the politics of the day will support. TTC and GO management both have their views of how transit should evolve in the GTA, and they don’t want to be bothered by pesky folks questioning their professional judgement. If a Board is politically accountable, then there is hope that management will be held to account in a public forum.
One need only look at recent debacles such as the Georgetown South project on GO which took escalation to Ottawa to force responsible behaviour at a major construction site, or the proposed changes at east end subway stations that appeared out of nowhere. Those are only a few examples of transit management in action.
GO/Metrolinx has a Board that does not deign to take deputations at its rare meetings, and provides only tightly managed, out-of-the-public-eye opportunities for interaction between staff and communities. Board members rarely dirty their hands with the business end of “customer service”, and may discover only too late that a problem has escalated out of control. TTC as a political Board is more visible, and provides, when a member chooses to support an issue, a mechanism for public input and comment.
Neither Board is actively involved in day-to-day issues, although TTC members certainly hear on a daily basis about what’s wrong with their system. Most GO riders probably don’t even know who the Metrolinx board members are.
Reliable financing is easily the most political of the issues facing the GTA. Soberman argues that this will likely come from some form of road pricing given the low appeal of taxes in the current environment. That’s an odd statement considering that the word “toll” sends politicians running for cover. The real problem is one of advocacy, of developing political support in the electorate for spending money on transit. This will not be done by an anonymous Board of “experts” hiding away in an office building, but by people who get out into the communities and change public opinion. By definition, those people are politicians.
Soberman flags “effective public consultation” as part of his recipe for better customer service, and cites the St. Clair project as an example of flawed consultation. Regardless of one’s opinion on the process or the eventual result, this is fundamentally a political discussion. Staff cannot be expected to mediate between competing views of such projects, but they should be expected to present the options and examine alternatives in a fair manner. The moment the public feels that “the fix is in”, consultation stops and bitter political battles begin.
I cannot help feeling that governance discussions are a hobby-horse, and a Trojan one at that, aimed at diverting us from the real issues: adequate funding and responsive, responsible management. Changing the makeup of the TTC will not make the Queen car run reliably and could endanger the only real mechanism long-suffering riders have today to vent their complaints. Bluntly, looking at the experience of the Metrolinx Board, I would not expect robust discussions about how the system operated, day to day, at a reconstituted TTC even though such debates are central to good customer service. This may be seen as “micromanaging” by some, but that’s too much the “we know what’s best for you” management attitude despised by many in the recent election.
Soberman has, I feel, scored about 50% here. Customer service is vital, but that’s almost a free point on any exam — would anyone seriously advocate something else? The real problem is how to bring about the environment, the culture in which that service is actually experienced by the riders. Financing is another free point, but I would deduct marks for the presumption that road pricing is the only answer. Governance changes are a non-starter. The real control will always be at the political level, and we risk losing the benefit of Councillors who actually have to learn, painfully at times, something about the transit system they govern.
These three views of Customer Service are intriguing for their contrasts. The real issue through all of them is delivery. Writing reports is the easy part, but making real changes is much harder. Measuring and reporting on success — and on failure — is important if we are to know what works, and if we are to convince those who must change practices and, possibly, spend more money that the effort and cost were worthwhile.
GO and TTC are vastly different agencies in size and in type of service, and what works for one will almost certainly not scale up to the other. Regardless of size, however, is the need to change, to be better. This could descend into a battle for funding or a debate about the role of labour in aiding or thwarting better service. If that’s the only result, then customers will sit on platforms and street corners, waiting as they have for so long, while nothing substantive happens.
Real change requires political will to understand what transit can be, to debate openly the tradeoffs needed to improve it, to advocate and commit to a higher standard rather than just enough to get by.