Customer experience is a major factor in consumer decision-making that can rebuild trust in transit.

Simplify Things for Customers: A Transit Vision for the Tri-State Region

Published in North Jersey Record – October 12, 2018

On August 23, 2018, the North Jersey Record published an op-ed on transit in New Jersey that called for a new vision for the mass transit systems serving the tri-state region. Here is my transit vision, based on my experience of having created and chaired the PATH Riders Council for the past four years. Let’s make the customer experience of transit rival that of the interstate highway system: simple signage, standardized wayfinding, seamless payment, and a streamlined network to get you from Point A to Point B.

In many cities, one of the vexing impediments to a superior customer experience stems from the existence of multiple transit providers. Each agency has developed its own methods of interacting with its customers. From the customer perspective, especially for people who travel beyond the boundaries of an individual agency’s services, the resulting experience can feel disjointed.

Multiple maps and journey planning tools make the customer do all the work to see how transit can get them from point A to point B. Discoordinated schedules lead to long waits for transfers, making a transit trip less desirable. Widely varying design standards for signage and wayfinding increase confusion for the customer, especially in unfamiliar environments. Balkanized fare payment systems require a customer to buy multiple tickets and passes for a single journey.

This perfect storm of complexity is exacerbated by service disruptions. During these incidents, the communication from agencies is rightly focused on alerts, alternate service options, and cross-honoring of tickets and passes on adjacent services operated by other agencies. However, when agencies only offer service updates, they stop short of building trust by providing in-depth information on what caused service disruptions, empathetically engaging with customers, and sharing a transit vision that’s necessary to spur much-needed investment in the region’s aging infrastructure.

All of this can push people to opt for the perceived simplicity of a ride-hailing app, or to get behind the wheel and drive themselves, thus compounding the negative impacts on our region’s desirability, economy, quality of life, and environmental sustainability. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report on October 8, 2018, that calls for unprecedented action to keep warming below the 1.5°C threshold above which the most damaging effects of climate change will be inescapable. Transportation accounts for 28% of worldwide energy demand, and 23% of greenhouse gas emissions that directly contribute to atmospheric warming. To reduce transportation’s impact on climate change, the report specifically calls for a greater switch from cars to buses and trains.

“it is primarily the switching of passengers and freight from less- to more-efficient travel modes (e.g., cars, trucks and airplanes to buses and trains) that is the main strategy”

A key driver of car usage is ease of use. Roads and highways managed by various cities, counties, and states are seamlessly integrated, with consistent signage, standardized infrastructure, and seamless payment systems like E-ZPass, which is used throughout 17 states extending from the eastern seaboard to the Midwest. The US Interstate highway shield, with its iconic blue and red background, is applied consistently throughout the country to identify highways that are individually managed by the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

To make the transit experience similarly seamless, advocates, task forces, and elected officials tend to propose merging agencies. Legislators from the San Francisco Bay Area proposed a merger of BART and AC Transit in 1988. In 2014, a gubernatorial task force in Illinois recommended merging Chicagoland’s three transit agencies, and eliminating a fourth agency responsible for regional planning, and oversight of the other three. A 2017 report by the Regional Plan Association, an advocacy group in the New York metro area, proposed merging three regional railroads into one superagency.

Merging agencies, however, is not a quick solution. It may even be politically infeasible in regions where the various agencies serve more than a single urban area, or are accountable to different state or provincial governments. Fortunately, there is a better way!

Instead of trying to change governance structures, agencies and advocates can harmonize the customer experience by focusing on the ‘connective tissue’—the maps, schedules, wayfinding, fare payment, and customer communications—to improve transit’s ease-of-use, ability to take people where they need to go, and desirability compared to other options. Governor Phil Murphy’s recently released comprehensive review of NJ Transit identifies customer experience as the second highest priority for the agency.

Customer experience is increasingly the most critical factor in consumer decision making…Research proves that a positive customer experience creates more satisfied, loyal, and profitable customers…They also may advocate for the company, product, or service. Therefore, a critical goal for NJ Transit is to understand the rider’s journey, the touchpoints, and the “moments that matter” in customer experience.

During the past half-century, Germany’s urban regions have harmonized their transit customer experience via the Verkehrsverbund, or transport association. The first such organization, Hamburger Verkehrsverbund (HVV), was established in Hamburg in 1965 to unify fare payment and harmonize schedules, and today, it serves 2.5 million daily riders in a region with 3.4 million residents.

The Verkehrsverbund model shows us how agencies can strengthen their ‘connective tissue’ by working together to harmonize maps, customer information, fare structure, and ticketing, while still maintaining each agency’s culture, history, and responsibility to those that govern it. Joining together on the customer experience is the best way for agencies to make transit appealing to new and existing customers alike.

In 2015, I published the New York & New Jersey Subway Map  as a transit vision proof-of-concept to demonstrate how a single map could give people a comprehensive, harmonized view of the transit options available throughout our region. It is based on the design of the New York City Subway Map, one of the most recognizable transit wayfinding tools in the world, and incorporates subway, light rail, regional and intercity rail, and ferry services. Tens of thousands of riders now use the New York & New Jersey Subway Map to help them navigate the NYC metro area.

The MTA and NJ Transit have worked together to provide the Train to the Game for professional football games at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands. This transit vision and collaboration gives customers a one-ticket ride from any Metro-North station to MetLife Stadium, and direct, through-running train service from the New Haven Line to New Jersey.

In 2014, all of the region’s transit agencies worked together with the National Football League on the Mass Transit Super Bowl, a transit service and marketing plan designed to move the majority of attendees for Super Bowl XLVIII and Super Bowl Week. The plan included coordinated service, schedules, fares, and customer information, including the regional transit diagram, a map showing transit service in portions of New York and New Jersey surrounding the Super Bowl venues and events. The appeal of seamless transit to the stadium exceeded projections by the NFL and transit agencies. Unforeseen demand, congestion and last-minute work-arounds on game day provided a good lesson for those in charge of introducing new riders to regional transit infrastructure: connect it and they will come.

This year, the MTA and Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, in collaboration with the PATH Riders Council, streamlined transfers and fare payment between PATH and the New York City Subway during PTC weekend work periods. While PATH service to Midtown Manahattan is suspended on weekends, customers arriving at World Trade Center receive a free, 2-trip MetroCard, which makes transit as seamless as possible during this important work to modernize signal and safety systems.

Notwithstanding the constraints imposed outside the transit community, the agencies in our region have shown they can cooperate and collaborate in ways that benefit customers throughout the region. To increase inter-agency collaboration, let’s encourage the agencies to establish an interagency transit task force to standardize customer information, maps, and wayfinding signage; harmonize fare payment, schedules, and transfers, and develop a more transparent, empathetic, and trust-building approach to customer communications. This will deliver transformational improvements in the short-term, and set the stage for ever-greater collaboration in the years to come.

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