More Icing, Less Cake (Updated)

Today the TTC announced the creation of a Customer Liaison Panel following up from the 2010 report of the Customer Service Advisory Panel.

Updated October 13, 2011 at 11:45pm:  The TTC has confirmed that the November Town Hall meeting will occur in the Council Chamber, and they are hoping for live coverage via Rogers Cable 10 and/or Internet in the same manner as Council meetings.

Chair Karen Stintz observed that “customers make our system what it is”, an intriguing comment considering what City Council and the Commission are forcing on customers in response to City funding cuts.  Yes, customers are the heart of any organization and without them, there is little raison-d’être, no matter how lofty a mission statement one might concoct.

To engage customers better, the TTC will conduct quarterly “town halls” beginning on Thursday, November 24 at City Hall.  I hope that they use Council Chambers [this has now been confirmed by the TTC], not a small committee room with limits on numbers and speakers so appallingly shown by Toronto’s Executive Committee.  TTC’s new Chief Customer Service Officer, Chris Upfold, observed that it is “dangerous to meet customers en masse … you don’t know what they will say”.  That’s precisely why you need to meet them — if you already know, or presuppose, what comments riders might have, or prejudge which ones were worthy of attention, then why meet at all?

Stintz noted that “it would take some time” to implement recommendations as “culture change” is not an overnight thing in an old organization.  This statement is odd on two counts. The age of an organization should not condemn it to bureaucratic paralysis — that’s the outcome of a lack of direction and focus on quality and improvement, an assumption that the TTC is the best on the planet.

Moreover, this doesn’t address the issue of frontline staff versus management attitudes and support.  Customers have many complaints about the staff they meet every day.  However, the way the system is operated, the priorities for improvement and the dedication to follow-through beyond photo ops and notices, these are issues for management and the Commission.  Managers must manage, and Commissioners must provide resources to match expectations.

Stintz listed five goals for improving customer service:

  • feedback to customers
  • cleanliness in stations and vehicles
  • a mission statement
  • changing practices to have a customer focus
  • encouraging customers to be advocates for transit

Stintz went on to list various projects such as the new subway cars, the York-U/Vaughan subway extension and the Eglinton line as examples of what the TTC is doing for its customers.  That’s fine, but the real issue is that in only two months, the TTC will cut service in response to budget constraints at the City.  We will get baubles, a few new lines, one almost a decade in the future, but meanwhile don’t try to get on the Dufferin bus.

Chris Upfold spoke in more detail about the TTC’s engagement with its customers.  There will be more surveys, the Town Halls mentioned earlier and the liaison panel.  A few issues are already being addressed:

  • Fare and ticket/transfer policies will be reviewed to eliminate nuisances and to prepare for the transition to the Presto smart card system.  The intent is to look at what works for customers (a novel idea in many technology implementation projects).  There are no specifics, and what might be a “nuisance” obviously varies depending on who you talk to and what form of ticket they already use.  Transfer rules, for example, have no effect on passholders.
  • The Customer Service Centre hours will be extended to reflect when people actually need information and assistance with support available via phone and online, including social media, from 0700 to 2200 daily.  The TTC will actively attempt to follow up with timely callbacks in response to problems.
  • The Request Stop Program, formerly available only to women, will now be offered to all riders looking for a safer or more convenient drop off from buses at night.

Upfold hopes that riders will recommend the TTC to their friends and family, a hope that implies considerable improvement in the typical rider experience at a time when the quality of that experience is being cut back.  Stintz tried to make the best of the situation by hoping that improvements such as cleaner stations would offset issues with wider headways and crowding.  If she really believes that, then there’s little hope for the TTC.

Stintz argues that the City has told the TTC to operate with less subsidy, but she ignores the fact that there has been no public debate about the effects and benefits of alternatives including fare increases or freezes, service standards, and the long-term problems of handling growing ridership.  The TTC may save 1% or so on its 2012 budget with the revised loading standards, but that’s at best a one-year fix.  When buses are full, they are full.  What will the TTC do in 2013?

Indeed, it’s the unseen demand, the would-be riders the passenger counts completely miss, who are the problem.  They’re the equivalent of the “silent majority” of voters who, some claim, feel that transit is oversubsidized.  These lost riders vote with their feet, their bicycles, their cars.  Their potential political support for transit is squandered in the name of municipal economy.

Steve O’Brien (who chaired the 2010 advisory panel and will sit on the liaison panel for 2012-13) was asked if he was satisfied with the rate of implementation of his reports recommendations.  He claims to be “impressed”, that the panel didn’t “expect instant results” and that he is “very proud” the TTC took the recommendations seriously.  Chris Upfold noted that about 20 of the 78 recommendations would be implemented by yearend, and that a further 25 would be rolled out in 2012.

What nobody mentioned is that most of these recommendations address problems of communication in a broad sense, but the report is silent about system management and service quality.

There has been no discussion of the service implications of the budget cuts beyond the general policy change in loading standards — we don’t yet know which routes and time periods will be affected, or how much more crowded they will be.  Chair Stintz stated that the proposed cuts, in detail, would be part of the budget process at the TTC and Council.

Chief General Manager Gary Webster confirmed that the cuts would go into effect in January 2012 to get the greatest benefit for the budget year.  Verification of riding counts is now in progress and schedule design will follow shortly.  By mid-November, the details of January service levels will be known, certainly in time for the first Town Hall.  However, if any Fairy Godmother plans to rescue the TTC from service cuts, they will have to do so quickly.  Stintz may talk about this as part of the budget discussions, but the City won’t finalize its budget until February, long after the service cuts are already on the street.

The currently proposed fare increase of 10¢ per token will only offset the roughly $29-million hole in the TTC’s budget which already includes service cuts.  If current services are to be funded through fares, then an increase of at least another 5¢ would be required.  Looking ahead, the TTC’s total operating costs will grow by about $100m annually.  This implies an ongoing need for about $67m more in subsidies and $33m more in fares (equivalent to a dime every year) just to keep the system as it is.

At a time when the world needs serious, informed discussions about finances, Toronto is again papering over its transit cracks with one-time fixes.  Those who argue for better service, even for retaining what we have, are portrayed as whiners, special interest groups who do not represent the broad voice of taxpayers.  We must wait three years for those taxpayers, those voters, to vent their true feelings on City policies.

Better Customer Service is a good idea.  Adding this to an already excellent and improving system (dare I say it, one with the kind of pro-transit outlook that brought us the Ridership Growth Strategy) would be icing on an already rich and delicious cake.  In the face of service cuts, greater crowding and an inevitable decline in staff-to-customer relations, that cake will be small, thin and bitter no matter how happy a smiling face sits on the thick icing above.