There are essentially two kinds of people who ride transit on a regular basis: the “choice riders” like me, and the “obligate riders,” those who lack another means to get to where they need to go.

Why do I choose public transit? Yes, it take a bit longer to get to work each day, but unlike driving, I spend my time on transit as I choose, catching up on e-mail, connecting with friends on Facebook or simply relaxing as the world slips past my window. In case it’s not clear, I really like transit.

As much as I prefer using public transportation, it’s getting more difficult for me to like it. The reason boils down to two words: customer service.

Last week I was caught in a service outage on the Orange Line after work. I boarded the train at 5th and C that arrived 20 minutes late. No announcement was made, and no mention of the outage was listed on the new light boards MTS installed at the station where I boarded. After pulling out of 12th and Imperial, the train announced a track closure and our next stop would be our last. An impromptu “bridge-bus” was waiting to take passengers to the 47th Street station.

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Unfortunately, the bus driver didn’t know the route, and passengers had to shout at him to stop after he overtook the station. He let people out a half-mile away. I walked to the station, though many stayed on the bus, pleading for a closer drop-off. I saw some people from the bus board at the Euclid Avenue the station – apparently they persuaded him to take them there.

While this experience was unusual in its severity, it is an unfortunate example of MTS’s approach to customer service. Fortunately, there are things MTS can do.

For starters, make customer service a priority. I often get the sense that making sure everyone has paid his or her fare is the highest priority. In transit jargon it’s called “fare box recovery.” How about instead we ensure all employees understand that their first responsibility is to make sure passengers have the best possible transportation experience. Transit officers have a demanding job, but they should focus first on creating an atmosphere that ensures customers feel safe and comfortable. Do that, and the fare box recovery will be just fine.

Second, we all know that equipment breaks and things sometimes don’t go as planned. If a trolley is going to be late, announce the delay over the loudspeaker or on the light boards at the trolley station. People don’t like delays, but they like uncertainty and being kept in the dark even less. Keep customers in mind by keeping them informed.

Third, it’s a given that trolleys and buses are going to get dirty and messy when they are used by tens of thousands of people daily. Keeping up with this is no easy task, but the condition inside some vehicles needs to be addressed and addressed quickly.

Finally, improving the choices for how we pay transit fares would be a good way to improve the very first interaction between customers and MTS. KPBS recently revealed that the Compass Card leaves customer data vulnerable to identity theft. That’s no way to attract customers. Moreover, most transit systems have a card that provides stored value. You load up the card with a certain dollar value and each time you ride, the fare is deducted from the card. Here in San Diego, the Compass Card has no stored value, but rather an expiration date, which is great for riding every day with a monthly pass but not so great if you only ride five or six times a month. It will still cost $72.

Again, I ride the trolley by choice, but some people must use transit whether they like it or not. Whether you are a choice rider or an obligate rider, everyone deserves a better experience than what they are getting.

I would love to see transit ridership increase in San Diego. Until MTS begins to treat their riders as valued customers, to create the best possible experience for passengers riding the trolley or a bus, it’s just not going to happen.

Jim Stone is executive director of Circulate San Diego.

    This article relates to: Opinion, Transit

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    Jim Stone
    Jim Stone

    MTS Customer Service Update

    This week I had an opportunity to experience another service outage, but it was handled much differently (and better) than previous outages.

    On the way into downtown on the Orange Line, it was announced over the train’s speaker system that a south bound Blue Line trolley hand broken down on the tracks somewhere between America Plaza and the City College station. Consequently, they said, the Orange line would proceed as it normally does to Santa Fe Depot, but would be rerouted to the 12th & Imperial station via the Green Line tracks for the first part of its east bound trip, thus not providing service to its typical downtown stops.

    The trolley operator took the time to explain what was happening, why, and what the impact would be on riders. This is exactly the kind of communication and information that passengers appreciate. Kudos to the MTS operations team for handling this outage and clearly communicating about it to riders. I’m sure I am not the only one who was made to feel like a valued customer that morning.

    stclairp subscriber

    There are probably another 1,000 things that MTS could do to improve service.  At the most basic level, why can't I buy a round trip trolley ticket?  Its always baffled me.  I wrote but never received a reply.  I guess I could buy a Compass Card but why make me do that?  Like you, I am a rider by choice--so when I go to a Padres game, or visit friends downtown, or attend the Summer Pops, I ride the trolley.  I'd like to go to and fro and buy my ticket only once.  Seems simple, doesn't it?  

    Jake Vogelsang
    Jake Vogelsang subscriber

    Getting a public transportation entity to think about something as abstract as customer experience would require a buerueacracy to stop behaving like a Buerueacracy. I highly doubt that there is any incentive built into the buerueacracy to encourage that type of behavioral shift. Unfortunately, without improvements to things like customer experience and overal efficiency they will have a difficult time winning over more "choice riders".

    I am amazed that especially here in California, the cradle of the modern tech movement, that we still have uniformed officials passing through trains checking tickets and tossing people off for fare violations; it sounds like something out of the 1800's. Then the fact that cash value on a card can 'expire' seems downright exploitive if not criminal.

    Dean Cunliffe
    Dean Cunliffe

    I don't think MTS thinks any further than the bottom line. Those who ride on a regular basis, know thier route, and whatever problems they suffer.

    I ride to Coronado a lot, and the 901's schedule is....well suggestive, results may vary. The trolley, Is a good deal for a commute, and saving money.

    The company I work for, contracts with Wage Works. IRS rules allow 255$ for public transportation, and 255$ for parking, per month. It's deducted from payroll Pre-tax, and can be synced with 511, and your bank, so the whole monthly bus pass thing is seamless.

    Trolley cops....don't get me started! I will say, most are professionals, but there are some that take that authority a little too seriously, and MTS oversight is minimal.

    MTS is constantly tweaking it's bus schedules to accommodate commuters, and not those who rely heavily on them for everything.

    But, overall, they do okay.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Do you suppose the MTS is led by ex-airline managers?

    I ride transit enough to comment, and I think the system is pretty good if you aren't in a hurry.  It's reputation is worse than it's actuality, and they do keep getting awards.  I've found the equipment clean, in reasonable repair, the drivers/conductors friendly and helpful.  It does take a lot longer than by car on most trips, but you don't have to park.  And, if you are methodical you can usually get pretty close to where you want to go through transfers.  Senior fares are a steal! 

    Jennifer Reiswig
    Jennifer Reiswig subscribermember

    I'm with you, a rider by choice. In fact, I've chosen not to have a car. In the nearly 20 years I've been riding MTS I would say the system is running as well or better right now than it has in all that time. 

    What irks me is waste. MTS is SO underfunded, but they want to be seen to be doing big things so they are running as fast as they can. Example: the Park Blvd rapid lanes for the 215. Park Blvd is an enormously wide street with not a lot of traffic. Which is both the only reason they COULD build a dedicated lane there, and the precise reason they didn't NEED to.  The lane marker signs have been knocked over and rebuilt, and I've seen cars unwittingly turn into the bus lanes. It's only a matter of time before an accident happens.  What's frustrating is that it was so expensive for so little payoff.  The 215 route only saves less than 10 minutes from the end-to-end route time of the route 15 that it replaced.  Was it worth the expense and disruption to neighborhood traffic? 

    I feel like the same waste is happening right now with the Rapid lanes on the I-15. They're in the center - ie, the fast lanes. How are giant buses supposed to get off and back onto the I-15 at fast lane speed? The current get-up-and-down service they have now works fine, and gives you at least a chance to transfer to/from other buses at those stops. With the new arrangement passengers will need to rely on elevators. 

    Jim is right - MTS should be thinking of how the system works from the passenger "experience" point of view. It seems to me they are prioritizing making things look cool on drawings. 

    Michael Horgan
    Michael Horgan

    @Jennifer Reiswig NIMBY business owners were against the park blvd bus lanes. The good news is that a Trolley might eventually replace Route 215 in a very long time. 

    pete chan
    pete chan

    MTS owners and employee mandatory shall ride the transit system to work only.  Problem solved.

    William Charles
    William Charles

    Public transportation is full of people looking out the window wishing they were in cars

    Tegan Glasheen
    Tegan Glasheen subscribermember

    @William Charles I often look out of the trolley window at the cars backed up on the freeway. A good week is when my car never leaves my driveway.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    A few points as a regular rider that also has other options:

    - On the occasions that a card reader isn't working on a bus, I've never had a time when the driver didn't just have people with Compass cards board without the card reader reading the card.  The emphasis in those situations has always been on keeping the bus on schedule versus fare collection.  More curious are the handful of times I've boarded a bus and had my card successfully read by the card reader on the bus, only to have to hand it to a pair of fare inspectors and also have it read by their hand-held device.  If they're going to put fare inspectors on buses, couldn't they at least go to all door boarding such as Muni has in San Francisco which would speed up boarding and reduce travel times?

    - Breakdowns have been rare, but I've usually found MTS exceptionally good at juggling buses in those infrequent situations with delays usually minimal.  Announcements are usually minimal too, but I'd rather be moved quickly to another bus and stay on schedule than sit through an explanation of why we're being moved to another bus.

    - The Compass card could have some other options, such as stored value, but that's mostly unnecessary for most riders.  One-day passes are the best option for most infrequent riders and for those that want to do less than that, there's still the cash option.

    - There is one minor pet peeve.  It's scheduling along streets with multiple routes in which better staggering of arrival times for each route could improve the effective frequency.  For example, the 1, 10, and 11 routes all operate along University between Park and 5th and each operates roughly every 15 minutes during the day on weekdays.  But instead of being scheduled such that there's a bus roughly every 5 minutes, they're typically scheduled such that all three arrive within 2 or 3 minutes of each other followed by a 10 or 12 minute wait for the next bus.  It's even more noticeable on evening routes with half-hourly service where buses on both routes arrive within a couple of minutes of each other with a nearly 30 minute wait for the next bus.  

    Jake Vogelsang
    Jake Vogelsang subscriber

    While you say stored value may be unnecessary for regular riders I question why it is even an issue. There are many examples of prepaid debit cards in use today. I see no reason why there should be an expiration date for what is essentially a cash value. I'd be curious to know how much revenue unused funds generate on an annual basis. Or at least hear a valid accounting reason why that value cannot be saved indefinitely. To me it sounds like a skim and it is discouraging to people who don't ride on a regular basis.

    Jay Byrd
    Jay Byrd

    I enjoy public transportation.  The few times I have encountered a less favorable journey, it has been because of losers sneaking on, hiding in the bathroom and screaming at the officer when caught.  Yep. Let's just give up the ghost and  the let these foul smelling losers take over.  Good choice for a future enjoyable ride. 

    Quit mixing breakdowns and enforcement.  Two different areas of concern.  

    Thanks to all the officers doing their duty on public transportation throughout the County.

    Ryan with Cupcake
    Ryan with Cupcake subscriber

    Stored value would be wonderful. The current system makes it easy to waste money. Want to buy a day pass the night before? Too bad. It will be applied to the date of purchase. Want to buy a 3-day pass and 4-day pass for your 7-day trip? Too bad. They will be used concurrently and you will find yourself without a pass on the fifth day.

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    Whenever I encounter one of those infuriating episodes with MTS, I think "And they wonder why they can't get people to use mass transit".

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    @paul jamason @Ron Hidinger So bus ridership was flat.  Trolley ridership actually dropped when getting on the blue line required running an obstacle course, delays, and bus transfers.  Thanks for those "obligated riders" filling the blue line.  Nice euphemism, that.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    @Ron Hidinger Agree that it can be infuriating.  There's a lot of improvement needed if they want to retain riders versus more convenient services like Uber (which actually use smart phone technology).  

    Andrew Bowen
    Andrew Bowen

    Thanks for the shout out to my story! Slight clarification: The Compass Card system may leave customers vulnerable to credit card fraud, but not identity theft. Identity theft is much more serious.