Home View from Underground From Transit, a new focus on the customer

From Transit, a new focus on the customer

by Benjamin Kabak

Initiatives such as the new Customer Information Center show that the MTA is paying more attention to its riders. (Photo courtesy of New York City Transit)

Over 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 ride, and while some of its problems stem from a lack of funding, others are institutional. Express train operators do not wait for connecting passengers from a local train because of orders to stay on schedule; station cleaners do a half-hearted — or no-hearted — job.

Yesterday, then, when the MTA unveiled its multi-tiered approach to real-time information, I was pleased because this is a project that is all about the customer. With the new Station Advisory Information Display signs, no longer will straphangers be left waiting endlessly for a train or a garbled announcement of a service delay. Instead, we’ll get information as we enter the system and before we swipe our MetroCards. We’ll have plenty of time to figure out an alternate route and avoid the maddening delay.

The MTA too recognizes how this new technology should improve commuting and make trips less harried. “So often, new technology is part of the hidden infrastructure of the subway and therefore it is transparent to our customers even though they benefit from its presence every day,” Thomas Prendergast, president of NYC Transit, said. “Now, we are putting in place technology that not only improves their commutes but is also visible, actually having a tangible impact on their commutes.”

While we can laud the agency for finally bringing late 1990s or early 2000s technology to the city’s subway system, resting on those laurels isn’t an option. Even though money is tight, there are plenty of ways the MTA could, through small investments, show an increased focus on customer comfort and station cleanliness. In his “NYC” column earlier this week, Times writer Clyde Haberman tackled just that topic and offered up his suggestions for a more pleasant commute.

For Haberman, emergency exits — long a hot topic for debate here — are the bane of the subway. He and New York City Transit Riders Council chair Andrew Albert want the MTA to silence the alarms. “What’s the point of them?” Haberman asks. “They are as ignored by New Yorkers as the brain-numbing car alarms that used to fill the night air.”

His other suggestions are both simple and on the money:

What would it cost to insist during nonrush periods that subway conductors keep doors open for a few seconds longer to allow passengers to scurry between express and local trains? All too often — again, we’re not talking about peak periods, when every second counts — a train sits for a while in the station, then closes its doors just as a connecting train pulls in across the platform. The frustration for riders is incalculable.

It would cost the authority nothing, nor would it be an affront to the First Amendment, to require the owners of free newspapers to install proper storage boxes. At too many subway stations, the papers are piled carelessly, or simply dumped. Passing trains blow them every which way, creating a mess and increasing the risk of track fires.

Along that line, why not “do simple things like making sure there are enough trash cans for the number of people that use a station,” said William A. Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the M.T.A. “It’s not a big deal.”

Nor is it a big deal, while New Yorkers wait for so-called smart cards to advance beyond the experimental stage, for someone to devise a box for old MetroCards that doesn’t have a porous bottom that sends them spilling across the subway station floor. How big a deal could it be to see to it that a presumably important service announcement isn’t made at the very moment an express train roars through the station? And how much would it take to ensure that destination signs on trains and buses are correct? They aren’t always, Mr. Albert said.

The MTA currently suffers from both a public relations problem and a serious funding drought. Whenever news sites mention the authority, it was with an air of dejected resignedness that suggests we know the authority isn’t perfect but must live with it. Those in charge could go a long way toward improving their image in the eyes of New Yorkers by cleaning up our commutes.

Knowing when the train is supposed to arrive and then seeing the train arrive at that time instills passengers with faith in the system. Not slipping on discarded newspapers or navigating stations littered with discarded MetroCards would make the atmosphere underground a little more pleasant. Putting garbage where there aren’t any is a logical first step in cleaning up dirty stations, and none of these initiatives will carry with it a high price tag.

The subways soldier on though, taking baby steps years after other systems do, and we wait for that cleaner ride. At least now we know with more certainty if and when our train will indeed arrive.

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CenSin October 6, 2010 - 10:19 am

Express train operators do not wait for connecting passengers from a local train because of orders to stay on schedule

If you put it that way, I think it makes sense to not wait. It’s not an express train if it waits too long, but an extra 10~20 seconds wouldn’t hurt.

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Al D October 6, 2010 - 5:14 pm

Judging from the photos, the placement is much better than the display at GCT which is placed off to the side where few bother to look.

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