Transit, we love you, but you bring us down: service problems from a patron’s perspective

Peter Gordon and I were chatting at party yesterday about my difficulties writing an introductory chapter about public transit. Why the trouble? The topic has become so politicized that no matter what you say, somebody assumes something about your ideology before you are able to finish your thought. My goal in an introductory chapter, I think, is to help newcomers to the field get enough background to evaluate the debates on their own, not feed them my conclusions. It’s proved a tough chapter to structure.

So I was surfing around the webs to see what other people think the big debates are in public transit, and I happened upon this wonderful, refreshingly honest piece from a commuter over at the Size. As a fellow transit commuter, the writer over at the Size pretty much nailed the problems from a commuter’s vantage point–and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the normal advocacy about how transit saves the universe and is clean, convenient, and quick. In my experience, transit is seldom any of those things—but it is still often better than driving even from the standpoint of the individual decision-maker and her utility, without worrying about fighting climate change or obesity or any other social ill we’d like transit to fix for us (while we mostly ignore and underfund it).

Taken together, the sum total of her problems with transit make a go-to guide for what, if we could clean up our act as transit providers, would take transit from being useful but annoying to being useful and often pleasant. I’ll go point by point.

10. The bus didn’t see you and tried to (or did) just drive right past you. You’re wearing a long bright red coat, but somehow you’ve turned invisible momentarily. These things happen.

Passbys. RRRRrrr. Sometimes they are your fault–when you are embarking on a non routine trip, and you accidentally stand in the wrong spot (which wouldn’t happen if transit information were better, but even then, I routinely screw up), or sometimes they are the driver’s fault–i.e., she’s driving an express bus that doesn’t stop at that stop, but she doesn’t have her express number up, or she’s running cold and shortchanges a single patron waiting so that she can skip a stop and get back on time. Those things do happen; if drivers didn’t do stuff like that every so often, they’d get pretty far off schedule, and then everybody on the bus and everybody coming up is ill-served rather than just you.

In my ideal world, when a driver has to skip a stop to deal with the schedule, they should be able to blast that info so that the tripper behind him or her can give a dollar coupon or some such from the transit store or some sponsor to give to the standees at the stop. It’s small comfort, but it is an acknowledgement that the bus operator didn’t meet a service expectation. Also in my ideal world, that message from the operator would prompt a tweet or a text to passengers who subscribe to that line when the next bus is coming so that you can make an informed decision about whether to wait or whether to give up and cab it.

9. There is a delay due to slippery rail, mechanical failure, residual mechanical failure, disabled train, disabled bus, signal problem, medical emergency, weather related problem, residual delay, switch problem, heavy ridership, police investigation, traffic, weather related slip, heavy ridership, etc. My favorite of these delay reasons is “late train”. How can you describe the reason as the problem? Why is the train late? The train is late due to a late train. Okay, that clears things up.

Transit companies work pretty hard to stay on time, but failures do happen. Telling people that the train is late because it’s late isn’t helpful, and it feels like an insult to your intelligence to have this said in explanation. Transit workers should be better at saying “I’m sorry–I have no idea why it’s late, but I will check to see if I can find out when it’s coming.” Some transit providers tweet the information, which is marginally helpful. But in cases of very late service, transit companies should try to make it right by sending bus shuttles and offering next-month pass discount codes to people waiting past a certain threshold. I know it would decrease revenue, but when you are recovering as little from the farebox as transit providers generally do, losing a bit of revenue in favor of passenger goodwill might be worth the trade.

8. Someone has BO, too much perfume, permanent cigarette scent, and any other funk that you must now deal with.

Nothing to be done about that. Hell is other people.

7. You can’t get in the train. You’ve been waiting what feels like forever and need to get to your destination soon (or just would really like to). Oh, good. Here’s the next train. It opens. It’s full.

From a provider’s perspective, crush loads are sort of awesome. All that revenue, all those passengers, being served by one driver at a time. Super! But from a passenger’s perspective, this is nasty. Not much to do in the short term but try to run higher frequencies or larger trains, but you probably can’t do either because you’ve maxed out on platform space already (train size), or your roster isn’t big enough to support more peak hour operators, or you can’t add from your existing roster because you can’t split drivers’ shifts according to union rules, or paying split shifts is prohibitively expensive.

Another possibility is adding a private contractor to try to redirect some passengers to professional vanpool or bus services who will take agency passes during the peak. That’s expensive, too, and your unions don’t appreciate it.

6. People won’t wait for you to leave to train before they try to get on. They somehow are always surprised to see you there trying to exit. It’s not the second coming of Jesus, folks. You should expect every time a train comes that at least one person is going to be walking through the opening and off the train.

OMG–my biggest pet peeve, right along with the people at the airport in Zones 4-100 who feel the need to clutter up the space for boarding and make it hard for the rest of us in zones 1-3 to get on the airplane. Seriously people, the plane/train/bus leaves when it leaves, we’re all leaving at the same time. Stop it, would you?

I’m not sure there is a solution to this one, except in my ideal world the people who do that are poked with a cattle prod and made to wait until EVERY SINGLE PERSON HAS ALIGHTED HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES, MR IMPATIENTPANTS?

Any design solutions folks have noticed at station areas?

5. Doors sometimes open in the front only, sometimes they don’t. While this happens ALL THE TIME on the Green line, I also see this on busses, and there are a host of similar issues.

This bothers me less as I don’t see it as much of a problem. I do have a problem with people who feel the need to exit the front of the bus when other people are getting on. It slows us down. It’s not that hard to go out the back unless it’s a crush load.

4. There’s nowhere to go if you catch a crazy persons eye. If you’re in a station or at a stop, you need to keep waiting there. If you’re on a train, the car isn’t that big. If you’re on the bus, it also is not that big. The other people around you aren’t going to help you.

Again. Hell=other people. See above.

3. There isn’t one pass to rule them all, but they make it sound like there is. Let’s take a place like Back Bay station where you have the orange line MBTA train, and commuter rail AMTRAK trains in the same building. You see signs for Charlie Cards (the passes for MBTA trains and busses) everywhere along with an explanation for the fees. Isn’t it great that you can use the same thing for both the train AND the bus? Well, it doesn’t quite work like that. Commuter rail passes are different. You can’t use your Charlie card on the commuter rail. You need to know to buy your pass at the machine in the station, unless you have cash, but they’ll charge you more on the train if you do it that way.

ZOMG why is this so hard? If providers could figure this out one-pass-to-rule-all problem, it would be a revolution. I have no idea when and how it would happen because it would require transit agencies to agree on stuff, and the only time that happens is when they all decide that voters need to vote for more transit-supporting sales taxes. They’d need to contract compatible smart card technologies, and different agencies have different budgets and different needs, but SWEET CRACKER SANDWICH banks figured this out with their ATMs a million years ago, and I can’t believe transit agencies, dysfunctional as they are, hate each other more than banking institutions do.

2. People making the rules and working there assume everyone knows what’s going on. What, you didn’t know that at certain hours during the day on this specific commuter rail line that the inbound and outbound tracks switch? Lol. You should have read the printer paper sized sign by the stairs you ran down to get to the platform. It’s really clear, if you actually saw it and already knew what was going on. There is also a notice buried somewhere on our website I think.

Exactly. This really is basic customer service. When you wait tables, you gotta suck it up when people can’t read the #@#! menu. People have trouble figuring out the system, timetable, map, and messages for a whole host of reasons: they don’t read English; they’re in a hurry; they are worried about their mother with cancer/their job/their boyfriends/their outfit. No matter where you work, you are the public face of your organization. It’s nice to be clever, but it’s even better not to be a jerk when being polite just takes a little self-control and patience.

And sometimes, it’s not the passenger’s fault, but agencies’ fault.

For instance: the platforms for the Expo Line (going east to Culver City) and for the Blue Line (going south to Long Beach) at 7th street Metro in Los Angeles do not have permanent platforms assigned, and while there are changeable message signs, those aren’t operating and haven’t been since the Expo Line opened nearly a year ago–at least not in my experience. Usually, the Expo Line is on platform 1, but not always. You are supposed to understand which train is leaving from which platform from announcements that sound something like “The mumble wimble argle train to gutpa blahoo station is leaving from Platform 1.” Getting between the two platforms quickly is not easy for anybody who isn’t 25 year-old marathon runner. So I routinely get on the wrong platform only to see my train pull out from the behind the train I am standing by…so I get treated to another 20 minute wait for the next train, which may or may not be leaving from this platform, or that other one, but probably this one. Maybe. It’s a slot machine, only without the free drinkies.

Inexcusable in a major city train station.

1. We changed the schedule and raised the fares, and we even let you know about it! We don’t really care if you can’t deal with that.

I think operators do care, but they’re already making a tiny fraction of their costs at the farebox. Cutting service and raising fares is the reality of the transit world we live where there is money for building and very little for operating. I’d wave my magic wand and change that, but alas, my magic wand is not unlike Ronald Weasley’s. Finding a sustainable source of operating funds is the holy grail.