May 2010

Oahu Transit: Delivering Friendly Customer Service on the Island

by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

Courtesy Oahu Transit

Oahu Transit Services Inc. (TheBus) is just as unique as the island of Oahu it serves. Its success begins with its customer service. "We're fortunate in that we live in the 'Aloha State,' and one of our prime policies is that we will perpetuate and promote the feeling of 'Aloha,'" says TheBus' GM/President Roger Morton. "Many, many people call us and say that it's the friendliest service they have ever been on."

Making its services even friendlier, TheBus has recently added a new real-time arrival system called Honolulu Estimated Arrival or "HEA," — Hawaiian for "where" — which is now accessible by smart phone. TheBus expects HEA to be available for cell phone soon, enabling passengers at bus stops to simply enter a route number and find out how long it will take for the next bus to arrive.

With a steady ridership and the eventual introduction of a grade-separated rail system, TheBus is bracing to continue stepping forward and meeting the growing demand for its services.

Unique ownership model

Founded the same year Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. — 1898 — TheBus' origins trace back to its days as Honolulu Rapid Transit and Land Co., which operated buses and trolley lines mostly in the Honolulu district, with the majority of the outlying areas serviced by competing bus companies.

In 1970, MTL Inc., a management firm and forerunner to Oahu Transit Services, was established by the City of Honolulu, under former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, to oversee operations.

Today, TheBus is privately managed by Oahu Transit Services Inc., operating the system under a public-private partnership with the City and County of Honolulu Department of Transportation Services.

"It's an interesting hybrid-type of thing. The City of Honolulu's staff in the Department of Transportation concentrates on policy and doesn't get mired in operations," explains Morton. "On the other hand, we focus on operations, and we don't get caught up in the policy or even the politics of transit."

The "divorcing" of policy and operations has been successful at TheBus. As GM/president, Morton says he can focus on the nuts and bolts of keeping buses running and making sure the agency provides an excellent service for its customers, while somebody else handles the policy debates, such as how much service TheBus provides or where those services should be provided.

"One of the reasons that we are successful is that our city administration and the city council have always been so supportive of public transit, both with policies that they have put into place and with the capital programs and operational support that they have for this large system," says Morton, who has been with the agency since 1992 and served as its GM/president for the last five years.

Morton also credits surrounding himself with right people for TheBus' success.

"I don't credit myself with running a great agency. I credit our employees and our managers who run it," he says. "I've been fortunate that I've got such a great team, but the credit goes to those people."


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