Transit customer service — one out of three ain’t bad

I take the bus a few times a week. The Better Third and I only have the one car, so sometimes I take it, sometimes she gives me a ride, and sometimes I take the bus. Having done this for the past three years, I’ve come to the conclusion that no activity in this city is more demoralizing than taking the bus. It sucks taking the bus.

Hell on wheels

Fortunately, Saskatoon Transit has undergone a service review. Management assessed which routes are overcrowded and which are underutilized and decided to shift resources from routes that are underutilized to the routes that are overcrowded. They consulted with city council and decided to increase the city’s subsidy from $20.5 million to $21.5 million, a 5% increase, which would roughly coincide with their projected 7% increase in ridership in 2011. Their consultation with city council also resulted in not cutting any routes, including the empty Route 40 to the airport, which they will try to fill by consulting with hotels and advertising, and late-night service would not be cut. They even consulted with the union, who was assured that although five full-time jobs would be cut, the reduction comes through attrition only.

Notice what’s missing in this equation? That’s right, they forgot to consult the most important stakeholder — the transit user. Not once in the past three years have I noticed any attempt by Saskatoon Transit to find out what I want in a transit system. I have never been asked to contribute to a survey. I haven’t seen advertising for transit open houses. I have never been solicited to fill out a feedback form. I’ve never been asked for my email address or join a Facebook page where I could receive updates and comment on the quality of service.

This is by design.

Their mission statement is thus:

To provide cost-effective, safe and affordable public transit services using clean and enviornmentally [sic] friendly equipment that enables all residents to access work, education, health care, shopping, social and recreational opportunities.

Yet Mitch Riabko, the general manager of Saskatoon Transit, says that “We’re at a point today where we can no longer be all things to all areas or all people.”

So you can forget about that mission statement, all residents of Saskatoon. Then again, when had Saskatoon Transit ever been “all things to all areas or all people”?

Pretend the spoon is transit service and try to realize the truth

How do we know the lack of customer awareness is by design? Just look at the language they use. They strive to increase “ridership”, rather than “sales”. People on the bus are called “riders”, not “customers”.  Bus drivers are known as “transit operators” rather than “customer service reps”, as though the public face of their organization should mitigate any interaction with the paying customer as much as possible. They might as well be hauling cattle. Meanwhile, their nominal “customer service representatives” are tucked away at the transit office downtown, or hidden behind phone lines.

So if a customer has a complaint, they are supposed to phone the transit office to complain. Although the bus driver himself would be capable to report any incident,  any response from them would result in them bitching amount management, poorly maintained buses, inefficient routes, etc. And there’s no evidence in my mind to support the idea that customer complaints affect the quality of service to begin with.

After all, it’s a lot easier letting the politicians deal with the taxpayer than responding to myriad customer service complaints.

How can Saskatoon Transit serve you today?

Case in point. One afternoon this past summer, my bus from work to the mall terminal was running late, as usual. As we got to the terminal, I noticed my transfer bus wheeling into the terminal just ahead of my bus. I saw it stop as we drove by and around the curve to the other side of the terminal to our own stopping point, hoping that I could get out in time to catch my transfer. But my transfer bus — which wasn’t running late — started moving just as I got off the bus. As it turned around the terminal toward me, I waved and tried to flag it down. Unless the driver was blind, there’s no way he could’ve not seen me. But instead of stopping to get a passenger he missed, the driver sped up to the end of the terminal. There, he had to stop at the red light, so I chased him down. Again, there’s no way he couldn’t have seen me. I was standing just outside the bus as he once again left me behind, but not before I could look in the bus and saw that it was completely empty.

The passengers were let off at the previous stop

But wait, it gets better.

I returned to my old bus, the driver of which was speechless at the act of his union brethren. Since the route of that first bus gets close enough to my neighbourhood for me to walk 15 minutes home, I figured I’d catch a lift and hoof it the rest of the way home. A few blocks after I got off that bus, I turned a corner when the local Shoppers Drug Mart came into view, and — Lo! — my transfer bus was idling alongside the store.

Do you see what happened? The driver wanted an empty bus so he could pick up a snack and refreshments without pissing any of his passengers off.

I need me cheezburger

Yet, it gets even better still. I was fuming by this point. Once I got home, I wrote down my entire experience, the times, the placement of the bus at the terminal, noted my actions and anything I said, and what I saw. I then emailed this detailed account to Mitch “no longer all things to all people” Riabko and cc’d his boss, his boss’s boss, my city councillor and anyone else I could think of. I demanded that he tell me how this information would be used, how the asshole driver would be disciplined and, most importantly, a personal apology from the asshole bus driver.

A couple weeks later, Riabko emailed me back saying that, you know, sometimes buses are late,  and the driver said I had been using bad language and that’s why he never picked me up, and next time I have a complaint I should contact customer service.

That’s right. Even with all my documented account — and the knowledge of at least two eye witnesses who saw the incident, including another bus driver — the general manager took the word of that asshole bus driver. He didn’t even acknowledge the fact that one of his own workers left an empty bus idling and unattended while he skipped out on his job.

So, I wrote him back something about appreciating being called a liar and that his response was unacceptable and that I wanted a further apology for being falsely accused of behavior I didn’t exhibit.

Transit union disciplinary hearing

This was in July, I believe, and I still haven’t heard back from Riabko. Someday, if you ask nice, I’ll re-post the entire email thread for your interested enjoyment.

An amateur psychologist could have a lot of fun breaking down the mindset of a transit worker in this exchange. The asshole bus driver felt no need to pick up a paying customer even though he had plenty of time to do so, nor did he have any qualms about stealing time away from work or bearing false witness against another person. The other bus driver, while he expressed sympathy, to my knowledge did not report or corroborate the incident to the union or management. The general manager seemed annoyed at my request rather than appreciative that someone took the time to point out the actions of a bad employee, he didn’t even try to refute an obvious lie by said employee, and didn’t come close to providing any assurances that this incident wouldn’t happen again.

My conclusions on this are thus: the general manager has no balls and is incapable of addressing customer service needs, the union protects jerkoff employees and ensures others don’t rock the boat, and city council are stuck in a soviet-era mindset with respect to public services in this town.

Transit union in bed with management

These types of problems can’t be set by merely adjusting the routes, buying some buses, and moving around shitty employees when they cause a stink. It’s systemic, it’s cultural, and it needs to get into the notion that the customer comes first.

After all, a transit provider focused on customer service would have GPS on all their buses to track driver performance.

A transit provider focused on customer service wouldn’t invest money on more bus shelters — they would encourage an app developer to use that GPS information for smart phone owners to better know where their bus is at so they don’t have to freeze their butts off.

A transit provider focused on customer service would normalize their bus routes with rush hour route times, rather than to the average time traveled.

A transit provider focused on customer service would make their bus operators the first line of customer service, and would encourage — not discourage — incident reporting.

A transit provider focused on customer service would consult regularly with their customers and potential customers rather than fuck around with routes and ask council for more money.

What’s the solution, then? Well, I’d be happy with firing their general manager, but there are other opportunities that city council could consider had they actually wanted to make a difference. But since not one of them actually takes the bus,  there’s little incentive on their part to make a change.

But I’ll get to that in a later post.

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  1. #1 by Big Sister on November 28, 2011 - 11:38 am

    Good post – I think. Most of it was washed from my mind with that union-management-bed photo you found. Good gawd, you could have warned me. Sounds like Saskatoon Transit has not evolved since I was riding in the late 1980’s!

  2. #2 by Rob Huck on November 28, 2011 - 2:14 pm

    It’s interesting what you find when you search Google for images using the words “bus” and “driver”. That photo was a tame one.

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