May 25, 2009
See numerous senior transit positions — including two CEOs, one assistant general manager, and a senior vice president — in today's Classifieds.
|SPECIAL ISSUE: THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
Improving the Customer Experience: An Overview
BY DONNA AGGAZIO YOUNG, Special to Passenger Transport
Today more than ever, public transportation systems understand that investing in passenger-focused efforts means good business. Particularly in economically troubled times, many systems have shown that concentrating on items ranging from amenities to reducing or eliminating noise in a train car enriches the customer experience. These measures also help build ridership that in turn can serve as a cost-effective alternative to reducing service or eliminating other features to cut costs.
Impact on Ridership
Each year, public transit systems offer more numerous and varied amenities to keep up with the demands and expectations of savvy commuters.
One popular example is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which continues to bring innovative service that draws riders. In October 2008, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) replaced an existing bus line with the new HealthLine BRT, which serves the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals corridor. GCRTA reports that ridership for the Health Line—which features BRT vehicles, proof-of-payment fare collection, and dedicated bus lanes—increased by 60 percent for the first quarter of 2009 versus the first quarter of 2008.
Other regions in the country as well are looking to grow ridership with innovative bus service. In preparation for its introduction of Swift BRT service in November, Community Transit in Snohomish County, WA, unveiled its first BRT station in Everett May 5 in connection with the APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference in Seattle. Once it is completed, the 17-mile Swift line will utilize signal prioritization, information kiosks, and frequent peak period service.
Fare and pricing adaptations also can affect ridership and the overall experience. Several transit systems including Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Los Angeles Metro, and the Chicago Transit Authority have announced plans to consider using credit and debit cards as forms of payment. “Making payment as easy as possible is a benefit to the customer,” said WMATA spokesperson Steven Taubenkibel.
Earlier this year, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) completed a first-in-the-nation trial of near-field communications technology, which allows for touch-free electronic payment using mobile phones.
Tools, ‘Sssh,’ Information, Art, WiFi, and . . .
Throughout every region of the country, public transportation systems are working to enhance the customer experience by integrating, expanding, or offering new services.
In the last year, for instance, Orange County Transportation Authority in Orange, CA, launched an online trip planning tool and free transfers to connecting transit services; New Jersey Transit Corporation bus passengers now can receive up-to-the minute travel information by e-mail; and Metro Transit, serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, offers real-time information for bus departures using NexTrip technology.
Another option for rail customers in the past year has been the QuietRide—a pilot program begun in January by SEPTA, designed to improve the rider experience by silencing a train car full of cell phones, voices, and other electronic devices. After SEPTA completed the pilot, it conducted a survey revealing that 92 percent of passengers wanted the QuietRide concept extended to all services where possible. In response, SEPTA expanded the program in April 2009 for peak period travel on most regional rail lines.
However, improving the passenger experience involves more than enhancing the level of personal comfort. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) reported that raising the visibility of uniformed personnel on board trains can yield high marks for customer satisfaction. A 2008 DART survey showed a 16 percent increase in the customer sense of safety and security over a similar 2006 survey.
One system implemented an innovative “amenity,” in the sense of amenity meaning something that improves a customer’s public transit experience. In May 2009, SEPTA began its Customer Connection program, which offers riders the opportunity to meet staff and ask questions or make suggestions and comments. SEPTA has found that creating ways to receive customer input, such as the Customer Connection, is a valuable resource that ultimately helps provide better service to the customer.
Displaying artwork is another method of enhancing the customer’s experience. In the past year, Los Angeles Metro commissioned more than 250 art and design projects—locally produced—for bus stops and rail stations throughout the system. Metro wanted art that created a sense of place and engaged the transit customer while also mirroring the rich contemporary and popular culture of the region it serves.
Today’s customers demand connectivity when and wherever they travel. In early 2009, BART finalized an agreement to provide WiFi for its riders throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The online social networking tool Twitter has also taken root in public transportation as a way for a system to communicate with its customers: systems such as BART use Twitter to pass along news of general interest and service updates. Customers in turn use Twitter to share news and photos. Currently, BART has more than 3,500 “followers” on Twitter.
Relaying information is yet another part of a complete “customer experience,” particularly when the information contains updates about threats to public health and reassurances that public transportation is safe. With the recent outbreak of H1N1 flu, for example, many public transit systems took a public role in addressing questions about transmission by providing critical information to their customers on basic health measures to limit the risk of infection.
Last summer’s record high gas prices brought many “choice” riders to public transportation. Through the efforts described above—and more—the industry has been hard at work to determine ways to hold onto those riders and to make the experience of public transportation the best it can be for all customers.
APTA: Serve the Passenger’s Needs
In early 2009, the APTA Marketing Committee formed a Ridership Experience Task Force, setting as its goal to create a visionary approach and form a collaborative partnership with the bus manufacturing industry toward improving the look, feel, and amenities of the transit bus.
“The task force seeks in the long term to create a better ride and evolve bus design through collaborative partnerships,” said task force Chair Kathy Shaw Clary, director of sales, marketing, and public relations with the Greater Richmond Transit System in Richmond, VA.
Goals for the task force in 2009 include:
* Developing a list of ideas to bring forward about changing vehicle design and identifying key people for that role;
* Initiating a thought-provoking and ongoing dialogue between the transit industry and the public on how to evolve transit bus design to create a next generation of vehicles;
* Developing collaborative partnerships with the manufacturing industry and its suppliers to produce environmentally conscious material and advanced design features;
* Collaborating with design schools and leading mobility research departments to develop a bold new vision of public transportation in the near future; and
* Building relationships and study groups with industries that can offer new amenities as standard and cost effective options.