With a modest fanfare (but no flourishing of trumpets), the TTC proclaimed its Customer Service Charter on February 28, 2013, at a press conference held at the busy Bloor-Yonge Station. This is a “good news” story, at least for the TTC for whom “customer service” is the new mantra. Senior management at the TTC seem to be headed in the right direction, but I couldn’t help feeling that I had been offered a banquet and found, instead, a snack.
The question of customer service reaches back into the days of the Miller/Giambrone administration. I have written at some length on this issue before.
- Service, Courtesy, Safety (Parts I, II and III)
- Three Views of Customer Service
- Has TTC Management Hijacked “Customer Service”?
- More Icing, Less Cake
Although the earlier exercises were well-meaning, this process has been underway for over three years. In August 2010, an advisory panel produced a report that included more recommendations for ways TTC passengers could improve their behaviour than ways the TTC could provide better service to riders. The effort had all the earmarks of a self-serving justification for inaction from an organization far too set in its ways. Indeed, a panel member confirmed to me that TTC management had a large influence in the report, an obvious conflict where the customer viewpoint should be paramount.
In October 2011, TTC Chair Karen Stintz said that “it would take some time” to implement recommendations as “culture change” is not an overnight thing in an old organization. That’s a fair comment, but this argument cannot be trotted out forever to imply that some changes will come eventually, just not now. “TTC culture” is a phrase I have heard for years well back into Adam Giambrone’s term as chair, and it is wearing rather thin after so long.
Those of us who have a long history of TTC watching are inevitably suspicious of this process, and it is with that background I approached the announcement.
On February 28, an op-ed piece from TTC CEO Andy Byford appeared in the Toronto Star. Byford opens with this important statement:
I’m under no illusions about the need to improve all aspects of our service. In fact, I have called for a five-year modernization of the TTC, including a culture transformation of its people, processes and equipment. I want the TTC to continue to show that it’s serious about delivering improvements for its customers.
My culture mantra is to challenge mediocrity and to focus on delivering improvement that demonstrates that we are serious about change …
We have already achieved some quick wins …
But there remain issues that need fundamental addressing if we are to sustain this.
The TTC’s base product — the service on the street and on the rails — needs improvement …
The TTC, of course, faces capacity and funding constraints that hinder some of our ability to deliver improved, expanded service. I will continue to press the TTC’s case for much-needed sustainable funding.
This is a recognition that what we have now does not meet the city’s expectations, a call to action to regain the TTC’s status in the premier league of transit systems.
On March 1, CBC’s Metro Morning ran an interview with the TTC’s Chris Upfold. It began by a chat with TTC riders out on the street, and their responses almost universally spoke of the need for better service. Cleanliness and security are nice, but we need more service. The concluding remark — “Show us” — is an essential counterpart to the TTC’s goal of being “a transit system Toronto can be proud of”.
The TTC (both Upfold and Byford), a bit touchy on this subject, have spoken of people who say “don’t waste money on cleaning up the system, give us service”. That misrepresents the position taken by me and many others for whom the general decrepitude of the system showed a lack of care, of pride and hinted at much more serious “under the covers” problems with maintenance.
We have been here before during the reign of former Chief General Manager Al Leach and a series of budget cuts each of which was accepted by management who said, in effect, that they could make do, and nothing critical would be compromised. Putting up with a little less every year might work for the short term as an ever popular “diet” for public service agencies, but eventually a culture of just getting by translates to just keeping the wheels on, and sometimes even that is not possible.
The question is not one of clean buses or good service, but of both. TTC efforts and publicity must show that both are priorities. Making the Queen car and the Dufferin bus provide reliable service should be as deserving of press conferences and photo ops as opening a refurbished washroom in the subway.
It’s About Service
To the TTC’s credit, the Charter’s first commitment relates to service:
We will deliver a reliable and punctual streetcar, bus and subway service. Our success will be measured through our daily and monthly scorecards, and our overall performance will be better in 2013 than in 2012.
Statistics that are now averaged across the system monthly will be reported at the route level and on a daily basis. This is a good first step, and the TTC plans to fine tune the model it now uses:
In the fourth quarter, we will introduce a new and more accurate way to reflect the experience of our customers and the reliability of service …
The questions remain of whether “punctual” is measured relative to schedule or to planned headway, not to mention what the TTC will do to resolve service quality problems so that “punctuality” is meaningful over entire routes at all times of the day and night. Fine-grained reporting should improve the visibility of “problem” routes.
- Daily route-level reporting should appear, not just quarterly updates, and this should include weekends, not just weekdays.
- Include a mechanism for displaying historical data, not just “yesterday” so that comparisons over time are easy to make.
Keeping Riders Informed
Several items in the Charter speak of ways that information will be made available to riders. Screens at some station entrances will announce disruptions that might make a rider think twice about entering the subway. NextBus information screens are now available at some major subway-surface interchanges so that riders know when their connecting vehicle might appear. NextBus text displays at some streetcar stops let riders know when to expect a streetcar.
This is a good start, but much more, especially the stop-level displays, is needed. In the subway, there is a gap between the information provided at entrances (where the displays have been installed) and the platform (where passengers accumulate and many arrive from connecting vehicles without ever passing the station entrance). On platform displays are limited to the number of devices the advertising company who owns them will install, and there are holes in coverage (most amusingly at TTC head office, Davisville Station, which only recently gained a display at mezzanine level). Information availability should not be hostage to whether an advertising company can make a profit selling space on the display.
New displays for stop poles and shelters are now in test on the 94 Wellesley route as discussed in a previous article here, and a redesigned route map will appear in late 2013. (Of course, this map will have disappeared from transit shelters, but that’s another story.)
Absent from the Charter is any reference to the TTC’s website. Information about routes is scattered through multiple pages, and availability differs between standard browser and mobile access.
WiFi and cellular service will be implemented as a trial at Bloor-Yonge and St. George Stations. Once the TTC verifies that this does not interfere with any existing critical systems such as their own radios and train signals, this service will be expanded throughout the network. (Service between stations is a separate, future project.)
By the summer, the TTC will have a new plan in place for major emergencies. This will redeploy TTC staff into the subway for passenger assistance during periods when part of the system will be shut down for an extended period.
- The TTC should establish a rollout plan and budget for expanding real-time information at stations and shelters system-wide together with target dates for completion of sections of the network.
- The TTC should review the structure of information on its website and implement a single point of access for schedules, real-time performance and other stop, route and local neighbourhood information. This should be co-ordinated with initiatives by other agencies such as the City of Toronto for a unified wayfinding and information system.
Responding to Riders
The TTC has increased the hours of its call centre so that it is now available 7:00am to 10:00pm every day, and they plan to get “answer times” down to 90 seconds, maximum.
The Group Station Managers have been appointed, and they will be announced soon. Six managers will be responsible for all aspects of groups of stations including knowing the “why” of everything taking place there and ensuring that maintenance projects don’t get lost in the shuffle.
- Find a way to track station information online and make it accessible to riders who want to know what is happening at their station without having to chase someone for an answer (or worse, “we don’t know”). If the TTC can provide detailed information about major construction projects at stations, surely they can do this for routine status updates. The Group Station Managers should be responsible for this.
In the second quarter of 2013, the TTC plans to
“reinvigorate the security model so that we can provide a safer working environment for our employees and a safer travelling environment”.
To what extent this might be entwined with the TTC’s desire to regain “Special Constable” status for its security group, or any plans to expand that group, are unclear. Feedback from customer surveys indicates that riders feel safe riding on the TTC even with occasional incidents such as a recent onboard stabbing. The quick identification and apprehension of a suspect shows the value of surveillance systems.
The Charter includes a commitment to install luggage racks on the 192 Airport Rocket buses, something that in fact has already taken place. This is a long-overdue improvement that should not have required “Charter” status to implement.
The TTC plans to update its staff uniforms:
We are creating a new uniform to modernize our image and help our staff and customers feel proud of the TTC.
I am not sure that this counts as “Customer Charter” material beyond the idea that staff and riders should be proud of the system. However, much more is involved with that issue including service quality and working conditions. Notable by their absence from the Charter’s launch were any representatives from the employee unions.
Renewing the System
New vehicles are the focus of this section. The TTC has 28 of the new Toronto Rocket (TR) trains on the system, and plans to receive the remaining 42 at a rate of five per quarter. This will bring the project to a close in early 2015. The last 10 of these trains are for the Spadina extension, and full conversion of the Yonge-University-Spadina line to TR operation should be possible in mid-2014.
The first prototype streetcar will begin on-street testing in March 2013, and two more prototypes will be delivered in the second and third quarters. Production models will begin to arrive late in 2013 for in-service rollout in 2014. The issue of where and how this rollout should occur, and the disposition of the older cars, is already a matter of debate at the political level. I will turn to this in a future article.
Articulated diesel buses will make a return to Toronto this year with the majority of the deliveries in 2014 and early 2015 (the order was recently extended to 153 buses, a fact not reflected in the Charter). The TTC hopes to move to all-door loading to reduce dwell time at stops and improve utilization of space within vehicles.
Although the TTC notes that these will “will help us meet ridership demand on some of our busiest bus routes”, there is no suggestion of whether the artics will be a net addition to system capacity, or will merely replace existing vehicles. During the 2012 budget planning, the TTC downgraded its Service Standards to allow a greater degree of crowding. This also eliminated the need for one order of new buses and for a garage to hold them. If all that the new artics accomplish is a reduction in TTC costs by raising the ratio of riders to operators, their value relative to “ridership demand” will be limited.
- TTC’s surface vehicle fleet plans need to be reviewed, updated and published to show the requirements of serving expected growth.
- Service plans should be reviewed for the benefit of express services and of the creation of a frequent service network as proposed in the Transit City Bus Plan.
- Streetcar service plans should be reviewed so that the rollout of new cars enhances the capacity and quality of existing services.
- Service Standards should be reviewed to reflect the cost of overcrowding on service reliability and attractiveness, and the benefit of increased capacity to attract riders to the system.
- Subway fleet plans should be reviewed to establish the requirements for additional trains needed to increase capacity once the new signal system is completed in 2016-17.
Infrastructure renewal is also part of the Charter including work on accessibility at some subway stations. The TTC commits to completing the long-running project at Pape Station by the end of 2013. Although site conditions delayed the project, there was no ongoing update on project status beyond occasional changes to the target date. This is an example of how the new online status pages for major projects will improve information. Actual performance of such projects will depend on good up-front planning and design, and attention to keeping projects moving quickly.
System accessibility remains a burning issue for affected riders. This is a question not just of elevator installations (which will stretch out to the mandated 2025 completion date) but of the availability of accessibility devices on a day-to-day basis. The TTC recognizes that accessibility is vital to many:
The accessibility of our service is the difference between being able to travel or not for many of our customers. We will ensure that the ramps and stop announcements on our vehicles are functional, accurate and fit for purpose.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but there is also the question of elevators and escalators that are out of service more often than TTC statistics report.
- Information on elevator and escalator availability should include partial-day shutdowns, not just a once-a-day snapshot of the system.
- Scheduled outages should be included in the counts of “unavailable” machines. 100% availability is never possible because of routine maintenance. This basic part of riders’ experience should be reflected in the statistics.
Station cleanliness will get substantial attention in 2013 with deep cleans of all stations, renewal of terrazzo floors, and cleaning/replacement of lighting. The TTC has been tracking station condition for a few years now, and the index of cleanliness was stubbornly stuck at a good-but-not-great level. Getting past this requires more than improved work plans for existing day-to-day maintenance, and the “blitz” planned for 2013 should raise the bar for the condition riders and TTC management should expect to see all of the time.
The Need for Political Commitment
There is only so much that can be done by redeploying existing budgets and improving work processes to provide a better transit system. At some point, the politicians who direct and fund the TTC must come to the table.
With great irony, both the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario (through Metrolinx) are conducting outreach on how the GTHA might fund massive improvements to transit throughout the region. Billions of dollars slosh around the room, at least on paper, to build a 25-year plan of transit expansion. However, when riders ask for better service, they are told to make do, that cuts are for “the greater good” even when that “good” serves only the bankrupt fiscal policies of a discredited mayor.
Service is something we provide to “other people”, not as a basic function of a strong, working city. Service is something we “can’t afford” while we trumpet the benefits of lower taxes in making our city attractive.
Real change, real improvement in transit will only come with a recognition that public transit is an essential part of the city that must be provided because we believe in its worth, not because we feel a need to support those who cannot drive due to personal circumstances, or those borderline loonies who actually choose not to own a car.
We cannot plan transit capacity on the basis that if only we were more “efficient”, there’s room for more on the roof.
We cannot plan for accessibility by flat-lining the budget for Wheel Trans and hoping that miraculously the population will stop aging.
We cannot build a true transit network by building a few subway lines and leaving the rest of Toronto and the GTHA to make do with the occasional bus or GO train.
This is a local and a regional issue. Toronto especially must not expect that all its funding problems will be solved by a new pot of gold at Queen’s Park or Ottawa. Most critically, Toronto politicians must not wriggle out of funding transit by abdication, by saying “if only someone else would pay”, while riders wait in the cold for their bus to show up.
A real Customer Charter will dedicate the city to rebuilding and improving its transit system and to obtaining the revenue, however this may be done, to accomplish that goal.