Home View from Underground Putting the service into customer service

Putting the service into customer service

by Benjamin Kabak

When the subway system is running out of whack, the MTA often does not make it easier for its riders. (Illustration via @FakeMTA on Twitter)

By and large, the MTA is a typical bureaucratic organization in early 21st century American politics. Due to decades of political neglect and patronage, it is top-heavy with far too many managers, and due to years of overly generous labor practices, it is also bottom-heavy with far too many employees who enjoy comfortable benefit packages. But in another sense, the MTA isn’t a typical bureaucracy because it must also provide services for paying customers.

Most governmental agencies don’t have to deal with millions of people on a daily basis. They’re supposed to make our city, our state and our country run with minimal disruptions, and career bureaucrats exist to achieve that goal. We don’t see regulators on a daily basis because the regulations are highly targeted for certain industries and sectors. Although government may be pervasive, it runs in the background.

The MTA though must, by virtue of its role as a public authority running New York’s transit system, see the people it is supposed to be servicing every minute of every hour of every day. At some point or another, people are riding on trains, waiting for trains, buying MetroCards or needing directions. It is a very hands-on authority, and at the same time, it’s supposed to be providing a service while running a zero balance on its ledger books. Without serious support from the city and state, that is a nigh impossible goal.

Yet, the MTA doesn’t run itself as a customer-oriented business at times. Take, for example, a ride I took this Saturday afternoon. I took a 3 train from Grand Army Plaza with plans to switch to the 4 at Nevins St. As I make this transfer every day this summer for my day job, I have seen how this is a very popular transfer. Because the trains are directly across the platform — and not down and up a set of staircases as they are at Atlantic Ave. — riders need the Nevins St. platform.

While my 3 train sat at Atlantic, a 4 pulled in, and I thought I would be in luck. The 4 pulled out first, and the 3 crawled into Nevins. As the doors to the 3 opened, we dashed across the platform only to be greeted with the closing doors of the 4. The conductor on the train watched as people threw their arms up in frustration, and then the driver pulled away.

During the week, I can understand why express trains at Nevins St. do not wait for connecting passengers from the local trains. The rush hour schedule, particularly along the Lexington Ave. IRT, is a demanding one, and a slight delay can ripple up and down a line at capacity. But on the weekends, the schedule is looser. The previous 4 was eight minutes ahead, and the next one was 8 minutes behind. Instead of providing a service for its weekend passengers — a service that the schedule dictates it should provide — the MTA left those who are paying it for train service in the lurch. There is no explanation or accountability for this sort of behavior.

As a governmental entity divorced from the city and state for historical reasons of political expediency and financial well-being, the MTA bears the brunt of a lot of abuse. Politicians who opt not to fund the authority put their own failings on the shoulders of the transit agency, and New Yorkers have come to embrace the MTA as a sign of governmental bloat and inefficiencies. What happened to me on Sunday showed why people hate the MTA. It isn’t run, from the customer’s perspective, as a service-oriented authority when it should be.

Today will be a true test of the MTA’s abilities to relate to its passengers. Despite months of announcements and media coverage as well as signs that have been up for nearly two months, many people I saw today in Brooklyn didn’t know about the death of the B71, B75 and B77. They didn’t know that the B61 was now running a long, meandering route to Brooklyn Heights from Park Slope via Red Hook. They had no idea that bus stops were no longer being serviced by buses despite signs blaring this reality.

As subway changes go into effect this morning, the authority will send out the troops. The employees will greet frustrated and confused customers who just want to get to work. It’s time to see how the public sector can interace successfully with those who ride it. If Monday goes off without a hitch, the MTA could take the lessons they learn during the trying days of service changes and apply them to the daily days of travel. Perhaps, then, if the express train waits 10 more seconds for connecting passengers, people will think more kindly of a beleaguered agency.

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rhywun June 28, 2010 - 2:33 am

Sometimes “connecting” trains wait, sometimes not. Always, we feel anxiety as we pull into a station and our “connecting” train is sitting there with its doors open. Elation if it waits, bitter disappointment or even anger if it doesn’t.

In any event, it should come as no surprise that the MTA doesn’t place any sort of emphasis on “customer service”. It has no competition, therefore it doesn’t have to.

Scott E June 28, 2010 - 8:01 am

As subway changes go into effect this morning, the authority will send out the troops.
I wish those troops the best of luck. The agency is putting these folks out on the front lines, to bear the brunt of angry would-be passengers, while they likely had nothing to do with the service eliminations and are powerless to do anything about it.

JayNJ June 28, 2010 - 9:36 am

I understand the MTA will bear the brunt of riders frustrations upon learning that their bus route has been eliminated or that it will take an extra couple of minutes to reach their destination; however, as a VA to NJ transplant who rides the subway every weekend – people simply don’t pay attention. For some reason or another, riders want everything spoon-fed to them and its baffling to me. As I was watching the news this morning, many riders still do not know that the W and V have been eliminated.

But then again, I am a planning professional so I pay close attention to these things than others.

Benjamin Kabak June 28, 2010 - 10:35 am

It’s incredibly frustrating to see how people simply do not pay attention to signs. They’re not up for decoration.

BrooklynBus June 28, 2010 - 10:20 am

For once Ben, some negative remarks about the MTA without any attempts at apologizing for their actions. Maybe I am having some affects by posting here.

My experience has been that trains during the off-peak do usually make connections. There might have been some miscommunication this time between the tower and train operators, or else you are correct and the MTA just doesn’t give a damn about its customers. Worse yet, is the possibility that it is intentional, that they actually want to lose riders so they can provide less service. While I don’t think this is the case for the subways, I believe it is a real possibility for the buses.

Anyway, the term “customer service” was first introduced at the MTA by Chairman Peter Stangl in 1984 and he was serious about it. He saw the need for it. Since then the MTA has stopped referring to riders as passengers and has called them customers. But today it is more of a slogan than anything else. Today the customers mean nothing. Here’s one example:

When I was head of Bus Planning in 1981, I noticed that between 4 and 6 PM on summer weekends when people were leaving the beach, every other bus was making a short trip to the depot. Most people were going further so these buses left nearly empty while the others were overflowing. I devised a different run-off route that allowed these buses to travel several more miles before still taking their ten minute run-off trip. Scheduling took a look at the schedules and determined that with this new run-off, they could get 12 extra daily trips at a lower cost. They made the change. The buses were no longer overcrowded and it costed less. (Because of the bureaucracy, procedures required me to go through my boss who would have not allowed me to present my idea directly. I spoke to Schedules directly by not following procedures.)

Today, the MTA in its pennywise and pound foolish ways, with customer service not a priority, determined that most buses should start at the beginning of the route, not in the middle where the depot may be. So they run 3 or 4 miles without passengers because the bus can save five minutes or so by running light, although you are still spending labor and fuel. So yesterday, I see four not in service buses pass by in a row before one stops 15 minutes later to pick up people to take them home from the beach.

There are many ways to improve service only if the MTA wanted to if they weren’t so focused on every single dollar spent. Customer Service needs to become a priority again.

AlexB June 28, 2010 - 10:35 am

Twice I have been on the subway and the train stopped at the platform to wait for another train to arrive for a “timed transfer” as the conductor called it. Once on the F at Jay St/Borough Hall for a transfer to the A. The other time was on the N at Queensboro Plaza for a transfer to the 7. Both times it was a weekend. Looking at the schedules, there is no mention of a “timed transfer” anywhere. Ben, I was wondering if you (or anyone else) know anything about this? It would be nice if I could rely on a train schedule and a timed transfer; i.e., if I get on the 8 pm N from 30 Ave in Astoria on a Sunday, I will always have a perfect transfer to the 7.

I have never seen the IRT wait for the cross platform transfer. In fact, I think they try to mess with you when you really want to transfer from the express to local and vice versa on the lexington ave line. so frustrating.

John Paul N. June 28, 2010 - 12:02 pm

That is why train dispatchers also play an important role. They (should) know where the trains are to tell the conductor to wait for the incoming train on the opposite track.

Scott E June 28, 2010 - 10:49 am

BrooklynBus, I commend you for making this change to have buses run more efficiently almost thirty years ago. It’s the type of mentality we need in the MTA now: if you think it will work, take the initiative to circumvent the rules and try it, then flaunt your success as a model for how things should be done in the future. This is similar to what I believe the defunct Line Manager program sought to do (see: train-location screens on the L, video screens in token booths on the 7). I think you’ve got some great thoughts and ideas, and as I’m learning now, great experience to back it up. If you toned down the cynicism and tried to get your points across to the right people (which, understandably, you may not have the energy nor the desire to do), you might actually get a change made. I honestly don’t believe Jay Walder and his peers have a desire to screw the public (that wish is held by the employees lower on the chain who are frustrated and handcuffed by policy), and any reasonable method that can increase service, reduce costs, and not anger employees would, I’m sure, be welcomed – if presented as a solution rather than a complaint.

On your issue of “customers”, I’ve always disliked that term, preferring “passengers”. A customer is a person who engages in a simple transaction. Once that transaction is complete ($50 for a pair of pants, $89 for an unlimited Metrocard), the relationship is over. Passenger, on the other hand, implies an ongoing commitment for the duration of the service (a ride) being provided.

BrooklynBus June 28, 2010 - 3:03 pm

Thanks, Scott E. for the vote of confidence. I appreciate it. Sometimes I feel like a salmon swimming upstream on this blog. Sorry about all the cynicism but its hard not to be cynical when you’ve seen a lot. My father was the same way when I was a kid. I also criticized him for it, being young, naive, and trusting, and wanting things to work out. Now that I’m his age, I’m just as cynical as he was if not more. Guess its the process of getting older. One thing that bothered him a lot was why the City sold off their power plants to Con Ed for a one time cash infusion. Didn’t they realize that they always would be needing electricity, he would ask?

Anyway, the problem with the MTA is that I shouldn’t have had to go around channels to do what I did. My boss was afraid of suggesting any change, for fear that he’d be admonished for failure. So he would have killed the idea then and there. When he found out about what I did, he thanked me for a job well done. But that was it. Nothing formal. Nothing in writing to help my career.

I’ve been getting my points across to the right people for years and believe me, they know who i am, and once in a while there is a little success. In the 90s, I used to chit chat with Prendergast and was interviewed by Roberts in 1983. Roberts struck me as quite decent, and I never had negative vibes from Prendergast either.

I agree with you that Walder and his peers are not intentionally trying to screw people, but unfortunately that is the result, because they really don’t fully understand what they are doing. Not filling vacant runs is a prime example of not realizing the effects of holding the riders as pawns in their fight with the unions. I don’t even think people at the lower levels are trying to screw the riders either. In fact, I think they are more cusomer service oriented than those on top. And I also never liked the term “customer.” They seemed to just do a global replace for the word passenger, and sometimes it makes no sense at all to call someone a customer.

The problem with presenting solutions instead of problems is that the MTA especially Ops Planning is extremely arrogant. They believe they know what is best for everyone. Many times they do use an idea from outside. However, they first study it from three to five years, or make some small change to it. so now it is “their” idea. In fact most route change (improvements) they make are ideas they’ve received from outside. They have thought of very little on their own. I presented the minor B83 extension via the Belt Parkway to Gateway Mall in 2001. Immediately they responded — not feasible, buses not allowed on Belt Parkway. Somewhere around 2007, they did it.

They do take me seriously. I wrote at least a half dozen letters to Roberts as President, and he answered each of them personally. Several times they sent six people to meet with me to explain the problem to them. Don’t think they do that with everybody. Doesn’t mean it got resolved. Prendergast didn’t send me a response, although I heard from a bus driver that action was taken.

Once I single-handedly saved them $4 million and just received an undated post-it from my boss with my name spelled wrong saying “Nice Job.” The MTA doesn’t reward good work usually. The most important quality you can have to get ahead in the organization is being able to BS your way out of a situation to shift the blame elsewhere when all fingers are pointing to you.

Things won’t get better until the MTA starts working together with the unions, the elected officials and the public, instead of regarding everybody outside the organization as the “enemy.” They need to recognize and reward good work and employees shouldn’t be afraid to try something for fear they will be punished if they fail. And as I said before, that doesn’t take money. Sorry to be so long-winded.

BrooklynBus June 28, 2010 - 5:36 pm

One point about the Line Manager Program. Remember the #4 Line Manager who started to run express service on the Jerome Line during rush hours for a three month trial? Everyone loved it. People saved time and trains were less crowded. I don’t remember any objections to it except from the MTA. They decided not to renew it. I’m not sure why. But what I remember is that right after, the Line Manager was transferred, probably to make sure he doesn’t try to improve service again and to send a message to the other Line Managers not to show initiative.

John of the Bronx June 28, 2010 - 9:31 pm

Your comments are absolutely on the mark and a very refreshing break from the rabidly pro-MTA attitude on the part of most writers on this blog. Although I continue reading the blog, I refrained from any more comments until now.

Specifically, on the #4 express: they had two pilot programs, one in June and the 2nd in Oct.-Dec. The first was very problematic and I wrote some specific recommendations on improving the thru-express. I sent my comments via a contact from the borough-president’s office. He told me that my recommendations were very well received and indeed, they were implemented in Phase 2. Note, however, that the line managers never met with me directly. Phase II was a huge success in the Bronx and with a little more tinkering, the #4 would have had excellent Bronx express service in the direction of heavy travel. I wanted to meet with the line manager(s)but alas, that was not to be.

I am very sad, although not surprised, that the line manager program has been scrapped and that #4 riders will continue to have local only service.

The fact that the MTA is not people-oriented, that it doesn’t give a damn about subway riders is the main cause of its problems. Many of those who oppose congestion pricing don’t do so because they are car drivers but because they don’t want to give more money to a hated agency.

BrooklynBus June 29, 2010 - 12:32 pm

As I stated before, the MTA is not all bad. There are plenty people who are customer-oriented. The problem is that as a whole, the agency is not, especially the people that matter. Your comment about people not wanting to give their money to this hated agency was partiially responsible for the State legislature cutting the MTA subsidy. An assemblyman told me that himself. They wanted to force the MTA to improve efficiency rather than continuing to pour more money into an imefficient agency.

You should have communicated with the Line #4 Manager himself by direct e-mail. (First Name) DOT (Last Name)@ NYCT DOT COM. MTA e-mail addresses use another formula.

When Walder leaves, all his unimplemented ideas will be scrapped also. They needed to explain what was wrong with the Line Manager program and why it was scrapped if they were a responsible agency. All this constant reorganization wastes money. Is the Station Manager Program still in effect or was that scrapped also? Just saying the programs were too expensive is not a reason.

John of the Bronx June 30, 2010 - 4:32 pm

I completely agree with you that not everyone at the MTA is bad. Furthermore, I also agree that the real bad guys are in the Operations High Command. I felt that the Line Managers, especially on the #4, were very open to public comments and as evidenced by the #4 Thru-Express wanted to make the commute better. The whole program initiated by Sander and Roberts was the best thing the MTA did in years.

I sent my comments via Jacqueline Carter and included my phone number and e-mail address. I was hoping to establish a direct connection but it never happened. I had no idea how to contact the Line Manager directly or even who he was. You clearly know how to navigate the MTA bureaucracy.

I was also upset by the departure of Howard Roberts who was the force behind the Line Manager program. Clearly, he was also a person who really wanted to improve things–a good reason for being sacked.

I will look for your entries in the future and comment on anything interesting.

BrooklynBus July 1, 2010 - 10:14 am

I feel the bad guys are in budget, who Ops Planning must answer to and the arrogant people at Ops Planning.

I think many if not most of the operating people from the line managers and field personnel on down want to do a good job and understand their responsibility of customer service more than the big guys do.

I could tell that the people I met with did care and were upset when I told them that the MTA doesn’t care.

Howard Roberts was the only one who understood that progress is made by working with the unions and the public to achieve goals, not by fighting with them. (Prabably one of the reasons he was sacked.) Look at what has happened since he left. Vacant bus runs are not filled so the passengers suffer because current management believes the way of keeping the unions in line is by waging war with them. So they retaliate by staging inspections on the first day of the cuts to slowdown the system so people blame it on the service cuts and management. No one wins in a war and everyone is antagonized.

Back to customer service. Since it will take DOT three more months to remove all the non-appropriae bus stop signs, a field manager or dispatcher posted a paper sign at one bus stop I noticed notifying passengers where the new bus stop was where they could now get the bus. I’m sure he did this on his own because he saw a need. He certainly won’t be recognized for his efforts because no one in mangement regards this as important. If the MTA believed in customer service, they whould have instructed their employees to do this wherever they felt it was necessary.

John of the Bronx July 1, 2010 - 8:34 pm

As you might have gathered, I am not an employee of the MTA or of the TWU. I am a community person who is very interested in mass transit issues and a historian for whom subway operations, past and present, are a wonderful hobby.

I dealt with the folks at “Ops Planning” and they ARE very arrogant and don’t even want to discuss operation issues with members of the public. Without naming names, I debated one of them at a public meeting and he resorted to downright lies about an operations issue. They see the riding public through computer simulations with riders no more than computer variables. They are clearly entrenched in their jobs and really run the system. The MTA high command i.e. Walder and company know little about the system and sadly are totally dependent on them for information.

From the standpoint of an outsider, I consider labor/management relations at the MTA one of the worst of any larger outfit. You will recall that the prime issue of the 2005 was “respect” for the workers and on this, the workers had the sympathy of an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers.

I could go on and on but will stop for now. Until next time!

John Paul N. July 5, 2010 - 12:32 am

I have not had any experience with the MTA Ops Planning but I have always wondered about it. I am interested in transportation system planning, but my career and educational route has not taken me there (yet). I would hate it if it sounds like a patronage position. Allan(?), it sounds like when you first joined the MTA it wasn’t one, but it became one when you left. I don’t know if that’s right, but I don’t blame you if that’s the case.

It is indeed becoming clear that Jay Walder intends to play hardball with the unions. And nobody has won, yet. The casualties are the MTA’s passengers who are able to blame both sides quite effectively.

tacony palmyra June 28, 2010 - 11:37 am

I guess I take the trains during off hours a lot more than most people because I witness “timed transfers” constantly. Except I’m never making a transfer, and the train is sitting in the station making me late. It’s especially frustrating when it feels like the express is constantly sitting in every station to wait for the local to catch up. Weekends on the 2/3 in Manhattan are usually “local speed,” whether they stop at all the local stops or just crawl through on the express line due to congestion/track work and time all the transfers along the way.

I don’t think it’s right to hold trains for transfers for more than 10 seconds longer than scheduled. It’s the same principle as holding the doors. Don’t make everybody on board late so some can make their connection. The packed train of Bronx-bound riders shouldn’t be held up because 15 people need to get the local at 72nd.

John Paul N. June 28, 2010 - 11:56 am

Train dispatchers and the signaling system also bear some responsibility. Most of us passengers will never know whether the crawling 3 was deliberate by the train operator, the train dispatcher, the signals or any other reason. The 4’s conductor could also have honestly not known that the 3 was coming because the 4’s conductor does not face the 3 at Atlantic Avenue. But again we will never know if the non-connection was really intentional.

When the original local-express system was created, cross-platform connections seemed to be an afterthought because officials didn’t think people would transfer and crowd into express trains. But after 100+ years, you would think that the MTA learned that lesson and put it into good use.

Lawsuits abound to stop service cuts :: Second Ave. Sagas June 28, 2010 - 12:09 pm

[…] « Putting the service into customer service Jun […]

Kevin Walsh June 28, 2010 - 1:36 pm

The MTA has not seen fit to post new system bus maps on their website as of midday June 28…the bus landscape is the most changed of all the services.

If the MTA insists upon calling riders ‘customers’ then they should be treated as customers.

I would imagine train ops would tell you they can’t wait for people crossing over from local or express trains, because ‘we can’t wait for everyone’.


Al D June 28, 2010 - 3:33 pm

This page has been up for about a week, give or take:


ferryboi June 28, 2010 - 4:10 pm

Kevin: new bus and subway maps have been up for about two weeks now. Maybe you “forgot” how to navigate the MTA website 🙂

Kevin Walsh June 28, 2010 - 4:47 pm

Where are the updated bus maps on the MTA site?

Alon Levy June 28, 2010 - 4:11 pm

On other transit systems, when the planners want to time the transfers, they schedule trains to make the transfer and then announce this publicly, to let people make use of the extra service. It’s not up to the dispatcher; as soon as you introduce unpredictability into the transfer, people will treat it as untimed. This means that trains may have to wait longer than just 10 seconds for connecting trains. For example, the Vienna cross-platform U4/U6 transfer has trains waiting 30 seconds. In Berlin, they even time the U6/U7 transfer at Mehringdamm, which isn’t cross-platform; this station is laid out with two island platforms one above the other, and trains wait for people to climb up or down the stairs, producing a four-way transfer.

The delay transfer timing creates for non-transferring passengers is small, and predictable. The extra delay that comes from untimed transfers is much longer, and less predictable. It’s a commonplace in ridership models that people perceive time spent waiting or transferring as taking more than time spent on board; the MTA’s guidelines use a multiplier of 1.75. It’s also increasingly evident from preference surveys that riders consider reliability important; a survey done in Chicago shows it is more important than anything else, including average speed. This goes not just to schedule adherence, but also knowing what to expect in general. I think it was Walder who cited studies showing that riders perceive waiting as taking less time when there are countdown clocks. The benefits are real and make multi-seat riders far more pleasant.

The real cost of timed transfers isn’t the delays, but the bother that comes with running on schedule. It’s rare for urban rail to stick to a schedule; even when there is a schedule, consistent intervals are usually more important than arriving at each station at the correct time. Rearranging matters to maintain a reliable timetable requires some energy, if not money.

Kevin Walsh June 28, 2010 - 4:44 pm

The page I linked to has the old maps. Why does the MTA still have that there?

Benjamin Kabak June 28, 2010 - 4:46 pm

Kevin’s right. That page is very problematic. It’s where anyone going to the MTA’s webpage is sent when they click on the Map link. Considering the bus changes went into effect yesterday, those old PDF maps shouldn’t still be available.

ferryboi June 28, 2010 - 6:04 pm

Seems that sometimes the new maps show, sometimes the old. I’ve seen both on MTA site for about 2 weeks, and now if I click on “Find A Map” on NYCT homepage, I get the old maps. Par for the course for the MTA!

Alon Levy June 28, 2010 - 6:25 pm

Annoying customer service agents aside, New York does a good job automating fare payment – it’s about as good as Singapore. The ability to buy a MetroCard at every TVM without needing to communicate with someone in a foreign language is underrated, and I wish Shanghai or Paris had thought about it instead of making buying the local smartcard maximally painful.

Poor SEPTA June 29, 2010 - 4:22 pm

I recently rode SEPTA (Market Frankford Line) for the first time in a couple of years, and was appalled to find that in order to get a fare to the suburban trolley (one transfer), I had to give my money to an agent behind a window. The machines wouldn’t do it.

There was a sign on the sole window saying “Back in 10 minutes.”

JayNJ June 28, 2010 - 10:26 pm

Regarding timed transfers between local and express trains, it is my belief that the schedule is not designed for timed transfers due to train dispatchers instructions, the signal system and the fact that many anomalies(sp?) happen everyday that prevent local and express trains from arriving at the same time (for passengers to make a connection). Dispatchers and planners might know the exact time trains are to arrive at each station but motormen do not know. Conductors and motormen are trained to keep schedule which unfortunately means a local train might leave as an express train arrives.

Alon Levy June 29, 2010 - 2:16 pm

I’m guessing that the number one reason New York doesn’t even try, beyond the fact that it wasn’t invented here, is that it conflicts with the schedule guidelines. The MTA’s guidelines for off-peak service call for calibrating service to observed crowding levels. Thus, between the peak and off-peak periods, you see train frequencies change gradually. For timed transfers, this doesn’t work; you need to base the schedule on something else. Japan bases scheduling explicitly on transfers, and the German-speaking world, as well as BART, runs on a clockface schedule.

The maps remain the same :: Second Ave. Sagas July 2, 2010 - 12:33 am

[…] go up; life will go on. Yet, this situation reminds me of the post I wrote earlier this week about the MTA’s customer service woes. For weeks, Transit has been planning for the new service cuts and rerouted subway lines. The […]

From Transit, a new focus on the customer :: Second Ave. Sagas October 6, 2010 - 1:03 am

[…] the past few months, I’ve been very critical of the MTA’s attitude toward customer service. Oftentimes, the authority seems to run its train system with little regard for those who pay to […]


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