Here’s the $64,000 question for all 5.3 million subway-riding New Yorkers: Are you satisfied with service? Are you happy with your commute? Do you think the MTA is doing a good job? For the second year in row, the authority claims that nearly three-fourths of all riders are satisfied with subway service, but I remain skeptical.
The MTA last year revealed its customer satisfaction survey, and astute SAS readers questioned the methodology. The survey is now back for a second year, and although the MTA is trumpeting across-the-board improvements, problems remain. The sampling is appropriately random, but the scale remains skewed. Whether or not riders are truly satisfied is a question we could debate.
On a top-line level, the results are promising. Overall, 74 percent of riders are satisfied with subway service, and that total is up from 71 percent last year. Furthermore, 78 percent of riders are satisfied with the overall station environment, and that figure too is up from 71 percent next year. If anything, I’m personally less satisfied with station environment these days. I’ve found subway stations to be dirtier and less well maintained recently that at any time in the recent past.
So what then does it mean to be satisfied? In the presentation of findings, the MTA discusses its sample. From June 20-30, the authority conducted 1200 adults who had taken at least one subway trip in the past 30 days. These sample was culled from landlines (86%) and cell phones (14%). The margin of error is +/- 3 percent, and it seems as though the respondents represent a valid survey sample.
The results, though, are skewed to make the MTA look good. The MTA asked respondents to rate over 50 attributes on a scale of 1-10 where 1 and 2 represented very dissatisfied, 3-5 represented just dissatisfied, 6-8 meant riders were satisfied and 9-10 were very satisfied. Generally, anything less than 8 isn’t usually considered “satisfactory,” but the MTA stretched the scale. Thus, 74 percent of riders are willing to give the authority at least a 6 on a 10-point scale. Only 13 percent of riders said the MTA’s subway service was very satisfactory.
By and large, every major metric improved this year over last. According to the MTA, 84 percent of respondents find the MTA comfortable and convenient while 80 percent are satisfied with the courtesy and helpfulness of subway conductors and 79 percent are satisfied with service frequency. Those totals were at 78 percent, 77 percent and 72 percent last year, and yet, those seem to be the topics of more complaints than anything else.
Throughout the survey, the MTA reports increased satisfaction with nearly everything. Riders are more content with station cleanliness this year than they were last, and rush hour crowding on platforms and trains isn’t as bad it was in 2010 before the service cuts and fare hikes. Despite a bump in crime and fewer station gents, riders say they feel more secure on platforms and find platforms cleaner. If you too raised your eyebrow skeptically at this news, well, the MTA thinks it has an answer.
As the authority notes, the bump in satisfaction may not be due to better service or cleaner platforms. Rather, the countdown clocks are driving the perception of better service. As the authority noted in the survey presentation, “All 54 subway service and station attributes were rated higher by those with countdown clocks in their station than those without a countdown clock in station.”
With countdown clocks, customers are far more satisfied with wait times and predictability of travel time and even seem to appreciate frequency and reliability of subway service even more. By taking the surprise out of wait times, the MTA can create the perception of better control over one’s commute, and thus, riders are predisposed to be more relaxed about their rides. Overall, 96 percent of riders were satisfied with countdown clocks; the other 4 percent are probably annoyed that they don’t work sometimes.
So what then can we conclude from these results? The MTA says that “continued investments in information technology, station maintenance and cleaning, and maintaining reliable service will continue to address customer concerns into the future.” Right now, though, the money seems to be in place to improve only information technology. Is the authority then essentially tricking us all into thinking our commutes are better? I personally like the countdown clocks and find myself less anxious over my waits. But when all is said and done, I’d rather have more train service. Personally, I’m satisfied with my daily commute but barely so. Are you?