40 Ways I Transformed NJ Transit for Customers

As NJ Transit’s first Customer Advocate & Chief Customer Experience Officer, I worked with customers and colleagues to deliver critical enhancements to service delivery and customer experience for 270 million annual passenger trips. See how I’ve enhanced customer experience throughout the 5,300 square miles served by the 3rd-largest US transit agency.

1. Led COVID-19 Task Force for System Signage, Social Media, and Customer Communication.

Working within the incident command system for NJ Transit’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I led a task force focused on customer communication, system signage, and social media. I developed a social media campaign highlighting new practices to help customers protect themselves and their fellow riders while using transit, and led the design and installation of more than 2,700 Safe NJ signs throughout the system.

For pandemic-preparedness and ongoing, inclusive customer engagement, I developed recommendations for online town halls, public meetings, and chats with customers. As a result, the broad diversity of NJ Transit’s customer base has expanded options for community engagement.

2. Migrated NJ Transit’s three light rail systems to contactless fare payment.

I led contactless fare payment transformation of NJ Transit’s three light rail systems, one of which ranks as the third-busiest rail or light rail line in the state. During rides on the systems, I gathered input from customers, fare enforcement officers, and ticket vending machine maintenance staff. I then assembled a “can do” team of colleagues and we implemented the enhancement in seven weeks, start to finish, even as COVID-19 imposed new challenges on NJ Transit.

Spurred by COVID-19, the team I led updated NJ Transit’s app to streamline fare payment in just 7 weeks.

3. Prioritized onboard customer engagement on all 12 rail lines.

Pre-pandemic, I scheduled regular opportunities to discuss service with customers, listen to their ideas and suggestions, get their input on enhancements I’m developing, and help them become better informed advocates for public investment.

Within four months of joining NJ Transit, I had crisscrossed the state, from the Atlantic City Line in South Jersey to the Main-Bergen Lines, Montclair-Boonton Lines, Morris & Essex Lines, Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast Line, Pascack Valley Line, Port Jervis Line, Raritan Valley Line, and Morris & Essex supplemental bus service in South Orange and Maplewood.

4. Traveled with customers on 24 bus routes throughout the system.

I joined NJ Transit’s demographically-diverse customers, listening to thoughts and ideas on service and their customer experience on bus routes that serve communities throughout a three-state service area.

I frequently traveled with customers on New Jersey’s busiest bus route, subject to bus bunching, tight headways, and bus terminal congestion. I used the challenges of this route as a test bed for service enhancements throughout NJ Transit’s 251-route network.

5. Rode unannounced for unfiltered views of the customer experience.

I regularly took unannounced trips on the transit system to observe and analyze the customer experience. These trips informed the enhancements I’ve delivered for riders.

Stewart Mader rides transit undercover to observe customer experience firsthand, and identify enhancements.
I regularly took unannounced trips on the transit system to observe customer experience firsthand from a customer perspective.

6. Used public transit for travel to public meetings.

To attend public meetings, I use public transit rather than a company car. For example, I rode with bus customers from Newark to Jersey City for a hearing on proposed bus service expansion. Also, for a community forum convened by a key legislator and proponent of customer service, I used one of the legislator’s constituents’ key bus routes to gain real-time insights.

7. Prepared customers for major scheduled service changes.

In advance of service changes to accommodate construction projects, I rode impacted buses and trains to talk with customers, answer their questions, and help them plan for changed schedules. For example, when Amtrak scheduled its overhaul of tracks that NJ Transit uses at New York Penn Station, I prepared customers by riding every early morning, rush-hour, evening, and reverse-commute train that would be impacted.

I guided customers using substitute shuttle bus service during a light rail service suspension for a major right-of-way construction project.

To help customers navigate the rerouting of New York trains to Hoboken during the Amtrak Summer 2019 work (see above), I created a video with tips on transferring between trains, buses, ferries, light rail, and PATH.

8. Thanked customers with fare cards and gift cards when rerouted trains returned to regular service.

To thank customers for adjusting their travel patterns during the Amtrak infrastructure work at New York Penn Station, and to mark the return of off-peak one-seat rides on the Raritan Valley Line, I rode with customers, and listened to their thoughts on customer experience and potential future service enhancements.

I enjoy talking with customers on trains and buses to hear their thoughts as I help shape new policy.
I distributed Dunkin gift cards to customers on the three rail lines impacted by infrastructure work at New York Penn Station.

9. Prioritized customer experience in South Jersey.

Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, NJ, Pennsauken Transit Center, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, and Trenton Transit Center have been central to my attention to bus, rail, and light rail customers in South Jersey and in Philadelphia.

I evaluated customer experience, and prepared recommendations to improve safety, comfort, and amenities for bus and light rail customers.

10. Opted to become rail-safety certified.

When I joined NJ Transit, I took the initiative to complete right-of-way protection and safety training courses (FRA 49 CFR Part 214). These are required courses for all rail employees and contractors, typically not taken by headquarters staff. By contrast, I opted to take the courses so that I could be certified to join work crews as they prepare trains for service, complete track maintenance, and make emergency repairs.

11. Shared on-the-scene video profiling work crews.

I joined weekend work crews to get an up-close video explaining infrastructure upgrades on the Pascack Valley Line, including replacement of multiple grade crossings in New York and New Jersey. In producing these videos, I ensure that behind-the-scenes profiles of operations represent the diversity of staff who contribute to running the largest statewide transit system in the nation.

12. Chronicled a day in the life of conductors.

Safety-certified to work on active rail right-of-way, I accompanied a train crew, from pre-dawn preparation to customer engagement on multiple runs along the line, and the return to the yard at the end of the day.

13. Showed customers early-morning train setup.

Starting before sunrise in Dover Yard, 40 miles west of New York, I accompanied a crew as they prepared for service, tested their train’s safety systems, and carried customers to New York.

14. Took customers behind-the-scenes within world’s busiest bus terminal.

I profiled frontline staff at the Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal who keep more than 1,200 bus departures moving every evening.

15. Encouraged customers to use George Washington Bridge Bus Station.

To relieve pressure on the busy Port Authority Midtown Bus Terminal, I created a video encouraging North Jersey bus customers to speed their trips by using the George Washington Bridge Bus Station for easy subway connections to Manhattan, the Bronx, and beyond.

16. Completed crisis management certification.

My colleagues selected me to complete National Incident Management System (NIMS) training and certification for the Incident Command System (ICS) at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension (TEEX) training center. That experience strengthened my relationships with NJ Transit Police, as well as regional and national law enforcement and emergency management partners.

Enhancing my public speaking skills at TEEX tracked with my experience as Customer Advocate, where I have frequently gone on camera to provide context to customers regarding service delays, as well as service improvements.

During the incident simulation, I performed the role of public information officer, leading simulated press conferences.

17. Highlighted real-time winter storm preparation.

As soon as an unexpected snowstorm emerged, I was out on the scene before snow accumulated to show customers how frontline crews safeguard them against disruptions. I also urged customers to ask their public officials to clear snow from municipally-maintained bus stops.

18. Explained major service disruption directly to customers.

“I want you to hear directly from me,” I said to NJ Transit customers in the nation’s largest media market, embodying industry best practices for communications. My video drove immediate media coverage. It also pivoted the discussion from inconvenience to investment. Sorry for Monday’s Massive Delays; Now Get Us New Hudson Tunnel is one example.

19. Took customers to the scene of emergency repairs.

I took customers to Roseville Junction in Newark, where a work crew completed emergency repairs after a downed tree snarled service.

20. Regularly reached 15,000-20,000 customers directly with videos on social media.

I improved social media engagement rates from below 1% into double digits. For example, a post on winter weather preparations before an ice storm reached an impressive 17.7% engagement rate.

21. Worked with agency counterparts to streamline customer experience.

I used my five years experience leading PATH Riders Council, and my resulting strong working relationships with all three New York metro area transit agencies to achieve strong interagency collaboration that benefits the agencies’ shared customers.

22. Updated and expanded branding for customer communication.

I updated and expanded the branding first created for train lines two decades ago by tying together colors and symbols to strengthen visibility and ease of use for a diverse audience. I implemented the new standards across all customer-facing digital platforms: website, app, and social media.

NJ Transit Line Brand Redesign

23. Introduced new branding for Access Link, Bus, and Light Rail.

As a follow-on to new graphics for rail lines, I expanded the transit service branding by adding unique colors and icons to identify light rail, bus, and paratransit services. branding for paratransit, bus, and light rail. I worked with in-house graphic design colleagues to select easily recognized icons for NJ Transit’s light rail lines.

  • Hudson-Bergen Light Rail – The iconic copper clock tower at HBLR’s Hoboken Terminal.
  • Newark Light Rail – Pink cherry blossom from Newark’s Olmsted-designed Branch Brook Park.
  • River Line – Deep green color of the route’s original railroad, the Camden & Amboy.

24. Redesigned station customer advisory notices.

Redesigned service advisory posters make use of the new design system for easy recognizability in busy stations. Prominent placement of the new branding helps customers quickly discern whether an advisory applies to their line. A standard header includes line names and service advisory dates for additional clarity.

When customers need to know about service changes or other information, customer advisories offer a consistent experience from social media to station.

25. Redesigned the NJ Transit website.

To streamline customer experience, simplify trip planning, and share real-time bus and train arrivals, I led the redesign of NJ Transit’s website. I worked with colleagues to upgrade the website to a new content management system. We implemented progressive web-app technology that ensures a seamless, responsive experience on all devices.

NJ Transit website before and after the redesign.

26. Significantly increased the popularity of the NJ Transit app.

To ensure a seamless digital customer experience, I redesigned the NJ Transit app in conjunction with the website redesign. Customers approved, rating the new app 4.6 out of 5 stars on the iOS App Store, up from 1.7 out of 5 stars.

27. Put real-time train/bus status information front-and-center on website, app, and social media.

On the website, and all social media platforms, I repositioned train and bus information for maximum visibility. That way customers have an easier way to plan their travel.

28. Provided easy-to-use, line-by-line service information.

Instead of a “one account fits all” approach, each transit line now has a dedicated account for service updates and line-specific customer information. Twitter accounts for bus, light rail, paratransit, and train services feature the new transit brands, new cover images that illustrate each service, and updated descriptions to let customers know each account is the place for real-time information, updates, and alerts.

29. Expanded Twitter engagement to paratransit customers.

I put paratransit customers on par with bus, light rail, and rail customers by expanding NJ Transit’s Twitter accounts to include an Access Link account.


30. Added key context to social media.

I developed and put into action a new approach to social media that focused on major investments and improvements throughout the statewide transit system. In addition, I used social media to share context and explanations for occurrences about which customers raise questions.

31. Equipped social media team with better business processes and workflow management.

The social media team at NJ Transit helps customers, answers questions, and tracks issues for 96 hours per week. To coordinate social media monitoring, messaging, and responses across various work shifts, I introduced Trello for internal collaboration and knowledge sharing, and Sprout Social to ensure consistent, efficient follow-through by multiple team members. A co-benefit: 30% reduction in the annual, recurring licensing fees for social customer relationship management tools.

32. Helped the social media team engage with customers.

To provide customers consistent, clear information, I established a collaboratively updated guide to commonly asked questions. The social media team now has a standard way to get input from bus, light rail, and rail operations teams and build responses that explain service disruptions, planned work, and other matters. When customers inquire about onboard issues and questions, the customer response guide provides a basis for detailed, context-rich responses.

33. Supported diversity and inclusion.

As part of developing a high-functioning staff, I have been particularly attentive to diversity and inclusion. For example, right after the murder of George Floyd, rather than pursuing our typical team meeting agenda, I opened the floor for all of my team members, a very diverse group, to reflect on what they were feeling. They learned new things about each other, and one of my team members, having heard the life experiences of colleagues, was in tears.

34. Increased public access to Board meetings.

Working with the Board Office, I made it easier for for customers to find Board member biographies, get meeting agendas, and sign up to speak. I started promoting these events on social media ahead of time, with reminders on the day and hour of meetings. Now the public can livestream board meetings and public hearings on YouTube and Livestream.com, and view on-demand replays of previous meetings.

35. Briefed Board members each month.

I redesigned the monthly operations & customer service report to use consistent visuals to illustrate on-time performance, equipment reliability, and social media metrics. I present this report to the five-member Customer Service Committee of NJ Transit’s gubernatorially-appointed board, and members of the public. I field board members’ questions during these monthly meetings.

36. Laid groundwork for customer advisory board.

Based on my experience establishing and leading the Port Authority’s PATH Riders Council, I set the template for a similar board at NJ Transit.

37. Launched NJ Transit performance dashboard.

Responding to a gubernatorial initiative, I used my private-sector background in visualizing data to guide development of a public, interactive performance dashboard. The dashboard illustrates on-time performance and equipment reliability metrics for bus, rail, light rail, and Access Link.

38. Promoted customer satisfaction surveys.

I helped the market research team prominently feature customer satisfaction surveys on the redesigned website, app, and social media, to maximize visibility and ensure customers have a robust channel for evaluating service.

39. Provided 150% more bus arrival information.

I led the initiative to add 15 minutes to the standard window for bus arrivals on the website and app. Now, customers have a full 45 minutes in which to plan their bus trips.

40. Helped evaluate Newark bus network redesign proposals.

Helped lay the groundwork for a proposed redesign of the bus network in New Jersey’s largest city by reviewing bidders’ competitive proposals.

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