Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Metro Struggles with Connectivity

The Bus Riders Union (BRU) has taken the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) to task, claiming that the results of an “informal and unscientific” survey indicate that people pay too much and wait too long for Metro Bus service that earns a “D” in overall performance.

Art Leahy, Metro’s CEO, responded with the rarely used “we suck less than you claim” defense, offering up the Metro’s own survey as evidence that “on-time performance had improved from 65% in July 2008 to 72% in July 2009.”

The dueling surveys competition pits the BRU’s random sampling of 2,600 bus riders against the Metro’s systemwide survey of 15,800 but does little to clearly evaluate the performance of the Metro.

Leahy claims satisfaction rates of 85% while the BRU claims that 26% of the passengers gave the Metro an “F” for on-time service and that 75% gave the Metro a “C” for overcrowding.

The Metro comes out clean in this debate as Leahy asks to be graded on the curve, invoking the “we suck less than other big cities” defense, a distracting and effective ploy that typically leaves critics speechless as they absorb the fact that perhaps it is worse elsewhere.

Of course, this strategy only works if the critic has never, ever left Los Angeles and ridden the transit systems of other big cities. Having just spent several weeks Down Under, riding trains, trams, buses, ferries, monorails, pedicabs, bikes, and even cars, I am convinced that if the Metro were to be graded on the curve, compared to other transportation systems, it would receive a failing grade.

While Leahy and the BRU continue with the “she said/he said” debate, everyone including the LA Times passed on the opportunity to simply review the Metro’s survey results, compiled by an outside consulting firm. It doesn’t look good!

23% indicated that the bus being ridden during the survey had broken down in the last month. 72% indicated that they didn’t have access to a car. 80% indicated that they were commuting to work.

The majority of Metro passengers indicated that they ride 5+ days a week, that they have been riding for 5+ years, that they must make a transfer to complete their journey and that they are between the ages of 23 to 49.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that with a 23% failure rate, the Metro gets a passing grade from the polled passengers only because they have low expectations.

The vast majority of the passengers polled have no choice. Where are all of the people who have a choice and why don't they choose to ride the Metro? The true test of a world-class transportation system is when it can actually get people out of their cars and provide them with competitive transportation options that truly work. Imagine people saying “I’ll take the Metro!" instead of "I have no choice!”

There are two problems here.

First, the Metro evaluates its performance based on an annual survey conducted by outside consultants in a manner that appears to have more of a validation function than real operational value.

This is hardly the behavior of an organization committed to excellence and it falls far short of qualifying as efficient communication or an effective management tool.

A real commitment to performance would start with the establishment of measurable standards and goals. It would include mechanisms for self-evaluation, for systemic evaluation and for public input. It would take place in real time, constantly updated and revised, and both the goals and the results would be made public.

Companies from Starbucks to Southwest to Apple to UPS to Trader Joe’s to Nordstrom are known for their exacting standards, their attention to detail and for their ability to set their own goals, evaluate their own performance and to successfully lead in their fields.

None of these companies succeeded by waiting for the year-end report and then debating with customers over their performance.

The Metro’s reliance on “pencil & clipboard” technology creates the illusion of efficiency but falls far short of demonstrating a serious commitment to any significant analysis of performance metrics. The handcount of passengers and wristwatch analysis of schedule needs to go the way of the rotary phone and the mimeograph machine.

Second, the Metro’s relationship with its passengers requires a mediator in order to facilitate communication.

The Metro maintains a crack team of clipboard wielding supervisors throughout the system, apparently recording something of importance as they sit in those air-conditioned and idling SUV’s, watching arrivals and departures, but they are not available to customers nor do they interact with customers. When approached, they offer up the 800 COMMUTE number with instructions to call the Metro.

The problem here is that the Metro only takes customer service calls from 8:00 am to 4:15 pm, Monday to Friday, hardly the hours when customers would need to call the Metro. Adding to the frustration is the fact that the Metro never invested in an answering machine, not even the old mini-cassette model! Forget about voice mail, feedback is simply not accepted after hours!

The Metro’s reliance on annual performance surveys creates the illusion of a relationship with the Metro’s real partners, its passengers, but they have no meaningful opportunity to offer feedback unless it's at the convenience of the Metro or at the annual survey or if they can find the email address on the Metro’s website.

If the Metro were serious about customer feedback, it would employ the full spectrum of social media tools. The Metro’s survey indicates that 68% of passengers were holding a cell phone as they completed the questionnaire with a pencil.

The average fast food restaurant gets feedback around the clock and all year long, immediately after the transaction, by asking patrons to call, text or tweet their comments.

Meanwhile, the Metro still gives out pencils. On an annual basis!

Imagine a Metro that connects with passengers, communicating via cell phone all schedule disruptions, arrival times, route changes. Imagine a Metro that gets feedback from passengers at bus stops and on buses who call, text, tweet, email, and communicate efficiently and effectively their concerns, issues, complaints and commendations.

These days, one can text the White House, order pizza, make reservations and even tweet God with a confession. (It must be tough to keep the sin under 140 characters!)

If the Metro is serious about getting graded on the curve, it needs to prepare for a failing grade.

MX, the newspaper that is distributed to transit passengers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, reports on transit authority performance and they have real numbers to work with.

Brisbane, for example, received 6588 complaints in the past financial year. The 444 route from Bellbowrie received 163 complaints and the 375 to Windsor received 156. Meanwhile, there were 681 commendations.

Brisbane’s TransLink management has specific information on drivers who divert from their routes, fail to pick up passengers, smoke, use cell phones or are rude or aggressive, all based on real time communication from passengers.

The Lord Mayor of Brisbane went on record saying that TransLink does a fantastic job serving commuters but added “If people do have an issue with a driver - or any council employee – they can let me know and it will be dealt with.”

If the Metro’s CEO, Art Leahy, is serious about improving the Metro, from on-time performance to cleanliness to courtesy, he’ll echo the Lord Mayor and make himself available to the public saying “let me know and it will be dealt with.”

But most importantly, he will leave behind the dueling statistics and subjective surveys and he will establish the Metro as a world-class transportation system by providing Metro passengers the ability to communicate in real time and around the clock, by phone, by text, by tweet, and by email.


vito said...

Very good points. Metro could even look to Boston and their implementation of a customer's bill of rights. That did wonders to make the MBTA more responsive to customer needs.

vito said...

Very good points. Metro should also look at Boston's MBTA or "T". The T implemented a customer's bill of rights a few years back. It wasn't always pretty what customers had to say, but it lead to a more responsive agency. I wouldn't say that the T has everything right, but they are working to improve and responsive to their customers. As a transplant, I am often shocked how rarely Angelenos look to other cities for guidance and fresh ideas. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when another city has got it right.