I recently had the opportunity to look at a calendar, and I was shocked to discover that it’s 2015, by many accounts the 15th year of the 21st Century. Considering how much time has elapsed since the heady days of the Y2K threat, that Limp Bizkit song called, for some reason, “9 Teen 90 Nine,” and unironic promises to “party like it’s 1999,” you would think that the country’s busiest transit agency would have perhaps planned for the 21st Century by now. You could be forgiven for being wrong.
In a move that resembles a bit of Orwellian nomenclature, the MTA, according to Pete Donohue, has named a Vice President of 21st Century Service Delivery. Better late than never, right? Here’s the story:
Transit officials recently created a new top-tier executive position for the subway system: vice president of 21st Century Service Delivery. The job was given to NYC Transit division veteran John Gaul.
Gaul’s will focus on improving customer service, relieving subway overcrowding and spearheading other priorities such as a new fare-paying system to replace the MetroCard, Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Kevin Ortiz said.
“He will lead efforts to redefine how we deliver customer service within our system; everything from train service to how we communicate with our customers, how we can accelerate bringing new technology into the system … and how we can strategically and aggressively enhance capacity within our system.”
Color me highly skeptical, but shouldn’t the MTA have been playing for the 21st Century, say, 20 or 25 years ago and not a decade and a half into the 21st Century? On a more practical and less snarky level, none of the elements of Gaul’s job that Donohue described are particularly unique to the 21st Century. If anything, Gaul is helping the agency catch up to where they should have been where the 21st Century dawned.
In presenting the story to the Daily News, Transit sources cited a slew of technological advancements and initiatives that won’t wrap for a few more years. We see mention of a new fare-payment system that should have been implemented already and likely won’t be fully installed before a quarter of the 21st Century elapses. We see a nod to the Help Point customer intercom system, a technology rendered redundant by cell phone service and one hardly new to transit systems (or college campuses) across the nation. We see Transit officials hoping that Gaul can work to “relieve subway overcrowding” — something that can’t be accomplished without signal upgrades and perhaps automatic train operations. By and large, these are late 20th century challenges not otherwise unique to our times.
So what should a 21st Century Service Delivery ops team work towards? For one — and especially for the MTA — the eyes should be focused on mid-21st Century anticipations. Speed up the pace of technological adoption and work on those B Division countdown clocks with some urgency, but also work to anticipate new transit trends in both customer-facing technologies but also in service patterns. How can the MTA grow today to meet demands of New Yorkers in 30 or 40 years? Inevitably, that would require serious cost and efficiency improvements. Is Gaul up to that challenge?
Ultimately, the MTA as a whole should be looking to the 21st Century. One position alone won’t be sufficient, and perception that this is nothing more than a nod to progress (rather than actual progress itself) will be tough. Gene Russianoff, in a statement to Donohue, said it best, “What should the chief goal of the new 21st century subways and buses vice president? Why, to get the transit agency into the 21st century before it ends.”