LATELY IT SEEMS everyone wants to know about my “experience.” Whether it’s visiting the doctor, checking my bank balance, or buying a new pair of slippers, I can barely take a breath before the ubiquitous customer survey pings me. “How was your experience with us today?” Thanks to the twin irritants of easy customer contact and blind faith in Big Data, consumers are being deluged with requests for ratings. Of course, we almost never learn where the data goes or how it’s used. No wonder we’re fed up with feedback.
I mention this now because the MBTA, at a time of newly declining ridership and chronic financial stress, has posted a job listing for a “chief customer experience officer.” For a salary of up to $150,000, this person will “create a single unifying customer strategy to ultimately improve customer acquisition, retention and ridership.” It’s a tough job, but as someone in a committed relationship with the T for 47 long years, I offer the following recommendations for improving the customer experience. And I’ll do it for free.
Rationalize the routes. I live just over five miles from Harvard Square, yet to get there by public transit I need to take two buses, or a bus to the Red Line, or a bus to the Green to the Red Line. According to Google maps, the trip takes a minimum of 44 minutes, assuming I perfectly time the connections and there are no delays. I can get there in half the time by bike, and (cough) one third the time by car. Even walking would only take an extra 30 minutes.
I know it’s complicated: A few years ago, transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack discovered that the bus route serving Lynn high school started too late for students to arrive in time for the reduced-price breakfast the school provides. But fixing that one small glitch created a cascade of other scheduling and shift problems. Still, unraveling that tangled web needs to be a priority.
Recognize the competition. Uber, Lyft, and private corporate alternatives are chipping away at the T’s ridership and further clogging the roads. The Longwood Medical Area shuttle at times carries more passengers than the Silver Line. The T must provide a better alternative or it will never be more than a patchwork system. Bring back the night-owl bus service. It hasn’t been profitable, but ceding anything after midnight to ride-hailing companies just signals surrender.
Impart a sense of urgency. The MBTA is involved in a long-range planning effort called Focus40, which aims to catch up to Boston’s growing transportation needs by 2040. But any rider with a choice will have long bailed out of the system by then. The long-promised West Station commuter rail stop is just one example. The “customer” needs more frequent, reliable, convenient service today.
Advocate for more funding other than fare increases. The state’s gasoline tax has gone up exactly once in 27 years. If it had kept up with inflation, it would be 36 cents a gallon today, rather than 24 cents, bringing in millions more for transit upgrades. Cities and towns with resident parking permits should start charging fees instead of giving away a public resource. Congestion pricing, employed worldwide, could bring in more revenue and shift some people out of their cars. Unpopular? No kidding.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. It’s good to cast a fresh eye on problems, but Massachusetts is blessed with several transit advocacy and planning groups that have done terrific research on the region’s commuting needs well into the future. Listen to them.
Hire someone for this job who has to rely on the T every day. Not someone who dips into the “experience” only occasionally, or who knows in a pinch they can take the agency car. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’ll bet that does more to enhance the T’s ratings than just about anything.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.