Management & Operations

Riding the lines provides more than transportation

Posted on March 1, 2002 by Steve Hirano, editor

How good is your transit service? Depends on who you ask, most likely. If you have an aggressive transit users group in your community, your bus and/or rail service probably doesn’t rate too highly with its members. Without much provocation, I’m sure they can produce a list of 20 deficiencies in your system and an equally long list of complaints about projects in the pipeline. If your marketing department has been surveying your less confrontational customers, you probably get a mixed reaction, mostly positive, from the respondents. You’ll find that most people who take the time to respond to this type of survey have strong opinions in one direction or the other. For the most part, they will say nice things about your service because they don’t want to offend. Even with the most sophisticated, high-dollar polling efforts, however, it’s difficult to pinpoint the real strengths and weaknesses of your operation, especially in larger systems. But there is a way to get a first-hand look at your service that will provide a treasury of information that can’t be unearthed by any survey. Try it yourself. An accurate taste test For a few days each month, ride the bus or train to work. Or to a museum. Or to a business appointment. Try to use the system in different ways, with time pressure if possible. Replicating your customers’ varied usage will give you a better idea of how efficiently the system is operating. Whether you validate the findings of your marketing studies or uncover a whole raft of unanticipated problems, you will have a better grasp on the practical and emotional needs of your customers. This knowledge can help in myriad ways. For example, can you really understand the annoyance and inconvenience of a late-arriving bus or a light rail breakdown without, well, suffering the annoyance and inconvenience of a late bus or a light rail breakdown. You need to experience these things rather than reading about them in a 20-page report with bar charts and masses of verbatim comments. Can we talk? Riding the lines will also give you a chance to talk to your customers. You can collect valuable information about their riding habits just by asking, especially if you don’t identify yourself as an employee of the transit agency. Some of what you hear might be literally painful, such as complaints about uncomfortable seats or rough-riding suspensions. But you might also hear praises sung about the bus driver’s courtesy and affable nature or the punctuality of your buses and trains. Your operators might appreciate the fact that you’ve taken time to ride with them. It’s a good opportunity to hear their opinions on the quality and reliability of their vehicles, ways to improve service, security issues or — less critical but still important — the food in the vending machines in the driver’s lounge. Yes, I know, this all sounds good on paper, but you’re telling yourself: Who has the time to ride public transportation when there’s mountains of work that won’t take care of itself? I can’t help to improve the operation if I’m waiting on a street corner for a bus that’s running 20 minutes late. Hmmm. . .

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