Monday, March 8, 2010


The TTC Doesn’t Have a Customer Service Problem, It has an Operations Problem

At about 9:30 am on March 2 I stood in St Patrick subway station in a line with about six of my fellow Torontonians. I wanted to buy 5 tokens, which, as most frequent TTC users know you can’t do from a token vending machine assuming you’re lucky enough to find a working one, which is probably out of tokens and regardless it only accepts cash, but for some odd reason it won’t accept a five-dollar bill. I’d actually love to see how a tourist guidebook précis the TTC payment system, which has more nuances then a typical episode of Lost.

The morning was a standard TTC shuffle; the person in front of me wanted to buy a Metropass (which were sold out), while the person behind me just wanted drop her coins into the fare slot, but couldn’t quite maneuver herself around the metal barrier, and instead stood impatiently behind me tapping her foot. It was another typical Toronto morning of near civil unrest in the city’s underground.

The next day the TTC would announce members of their Customer Service Advisory Panel. The Panel, chaired by hotel manager Steve O’Brien, is the TTC’s attempt to respond to what has been an annus horibilis for the Commission in terms of customer service. Torontonians have developed a rather rapid disdain for its not so better way; our collective dislike for the TTC began in earnest last December with a fair hike, which was followed by immediate token hoarding, none of which mattered as the TTC suffered from a spate of noted and widespread service disruptions. All of this was punctuated by a well-publicized photograph of a napping TTC worker, which appears to have been the final straw in our collective will. Something had to be done to calm the masses, so the TTC decided to assemble a panel that will help figure out the Commission’s customer service strategy. Taking things to the max the TTC even ran a Twitter contest to fill a spot on the Panel. How web 2.0 of them; impressive considering the TTC still can’t tell you exactly when the next bus is coming.

I don’t have high hopes for the TTC’s customer service initiatives. Why? Well this may sound like crazy talk, but the TTC doesn’t actually have a customer service problem. The TTC has an operations problem.

The TTC isn’t the Gap; you don’t need a TTC driver to rifle through a pile of t-shirts to find you an extra-small t-shirt… Rather the TTC is a service provider, which bills itself “as the quick, convenient and safe way to get around Toronto.” Yet the TTC fails big time in its ability to actually fulfill this mission and customer service improvements won’t help. When it comes to moving Torontonians around, the TTC is stuck in the dark ages and this has little to do with whether employees smile as you board a streetcar or how many subway lines it does or doesn’t operate; as Rocco Rossi, Toronto Mayoral Candidate, said recently we have the best 1970’s transit system there is. Problem of course: it is 2010.

In a way, however, the TTC’s problems are connected to its fare collectors. They’re tied to the fact that the TTC actually employs fare collectors (who may or may not be smiling at you). Go to Hong Kong, London or Shanghai… and count how many times you interact with a transit employee. You can’t. Because you won’t. All of these transit systems use a smartcard as a form of payment. Even Boston, which runs North America’s oldest subway system, introduced the Charlie Card to its entire bus and subway fleet in 2006. Four years ago. Here in Toronto the TTC is still relying on gravity as its proof of payment system, which as TTC Chair Adam Giambrone is happy to tell you, is still the most reliable form of payment system there is. Can’t argue with Isaac Newton, right?

For Torontonians who haven’t used a smartcard system before, smartcards look like debit cards, and transit users simply go to a machine, and with their debit or credit cards (or even cash) purchase a smartcard which they can then load with currency, which is then swiped, or tapped as you get on or off a bus, subway or streetcar. Customer service problem solved.

The lack of a smartcard in Toronto is operationally archaic. What’s even more awkward about the TTC’s reluctance to go the smartcard route is that Canadians love debit cards, and are world leaders in the cashless movement. Canadians have the second highest number of debit transactions per inhabitant people worldwide. Of Canadians with ABM cards (which includes 90% of adult Canadians), 45% of transactions are done via debit , while cash accounts for only 22% of transactions. Yet the TTC has basically ignored any other form of payment beyond cash; of the TTC’s 69 subway and RT stations only the following have automatic Metropass Vending Machines: Bloor-Yonge, Eglinton, Queen, Scarborough Centre, Union, Islington and Finch. No Metropass Vending Machines accept credit cards either, even though credit cards account for 31% of transactions for those Canadians with ABM’s. How does this make any sense?

What makes the entire situation laughable is that unbeknownst to the majority of Torontonians the province has developed a provincial smartcard program called Presto. The Presto Card is waiting patiently like a pound puppy for mass adoption by the province’s transit operators. When the program launched in 1996 the province agreed to fund Presto's implementation, which is estimated to cost approximately $140 million, asking only that Ontario’s various regional transit systems pay for the cost of Presto machines themselves. The entire project was to be implemented across the Toronto region by 2010. Guess we’re still waiting on that one eh? Now full Presto implementation across GO Transit, and the nine Greater Toronto Area transportation agencies, excluding the TTC, is expected by 2011; however, only 12 TTC stations and no TTC bus lines will use Presto by the end of its scheduled 2011 roll-out.

So what’s the hold-up? Well… initially the TTC boycotted Presto arguing that the money that the province was going to use to pay for Presto would better be spent on new buses. A worthwhile endeavor indeed, although part of me thinks that the TTC shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Recently, there has been a minor mood shift at the TTC, which is now tentatively on board the Presto train to normalcy. However, there is still no firm date for when the TTC, which accounts for 85% of all transit trips taken across the GTA, will fully implement the card. TTC officials have been concerned at the cost of purchasing and installing Presto machines; understandably considering the size of the TTC compared to other regional transportation agencies. Regardless the fact that there is no firm schedule for the TTC’s full participation in the Presto program should be worrisome for consumers; without full implementation by the TTC the Presto card is doomed to failure.

Toronto’s civic unrest with our transit system has little to do specifically with customer service. The TTC has, however, failed a key customer service test; customer willingness to pay is strongly tied to ease of payment and the TTC just doesn’t make it easy for its users to pay.

The reality that Mr. Rossi pointed out is that it is now 2010 - who needs service when a smile when you’re simply swiping a smartcard?

To quote one famous Torontonian: NOOOOOOOOOObody.

1 comment:

from missouri said...

And transfers? Right now there are arguments about getting on too late or wrong stop.With a Presto-like card, do you deal with transfers?Metropass became transferable due to 'you don't look like this photo i d', drivers were getting spit upon and injured.
People skip paying now and telling them to leave the bus is very dangerous.What of this?