Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Remain Calm (or not)

What do you think happens when a jam-packed Muni train suddenly emits a loud bang and then begins listing? Did you guess panic? If you did, you’d be right. Or maybe you were on the same Castro Shuttle that I was on when a big bang/listing event occurred in Civic Center Station during the morning commute. 

The panic was mild, as panics go, but still, folks were pushing to exit the train.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a situation in which a crowd panicked. I was once on a packed ferry in bad weather when a wave broke through the window and water started pouring into the lower compartment of the boat. But there was a big difference in that situation. Because the VERY FIRST THING that the captain and crew did, was to remind everyone NOT TO PANIC. Sure, cold water in the middle of the ocean on a stormy night is scary, but having a reasonable voice tell you, “Please remain calm” has the effect of calming folks down.
After that initial message, people were still afraid and cold, but nobody was bashing into other people. The guy who was ripping open the life vest box set about his work more methodically. The crush of people on the stairs to the upper deck eased as people came to their senses. We all remained safe from the water, the weather, and each other. 

This morning was nothing like that. After the loud bang, the listing car, and the big dust cloud that looked like smoke, nobody said, “Please remain calm.” In fact, the train could have been driverless, given the level of intervention. Even as passengers began to shove against one another in a rush to exit, the driver still didn’t say anything. Nor did he fix it so that the doors stayed open. He did nothing. 

Nathaniel, when I exited the train, I noticed the driver chatting with a security guard who had arrived on the scene. The driver had a wry expression on his face. The two men continued to chat as passengers streamed out of the station, seeking other means of transport to work. My fear and concern gave way to rage, as I watched this bemused driver sit there chatting. Did he not notice the crying children, the panicked passengers, the big dust cloud that looked like smoke? More likely, he did notice, but he just didn’t care.

You know what would be really good, Nathaniel?

A simple statement. A tiny piece of information. Something that could calm passengers down. Clearly, the driver was not alarmed as he chatted with the security guard. Just as clear was his disregard for his passengers. That driver felt no sense of duty or responsibility for us. 

A sense of duty and responsibility costs nothing. It happens when organizations instill a specific cultural point of view in their employees, partners, and customers. How about if you give it a try? Ideally, before a real emergency occurs.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - This is Broken

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

I'm sure you saw today's Chronicle piece in which our Board of Supervisors questioned whether Muni is actually ready to phase out the paper fast pass. Maybe you even attended the meeting?

Nathaniel, please remember that your organization is a service business. Service businesses succeed when they listen to their customers. Sometimes it might even mean admitting that they made a mistake.
The Gap even manager to turn their logo debacle into a kind of cool mistake. Gap's not alone. Many many others have experienced similar fails. Remember New Coke? Remember the redesigned Tropicana logo?
Each of my examples here has  one thing in common. When they woke up and started listening to their customers, they realized that they'd fixed the thing that wasn't broken.
I wonder if you and your cohorts in the MTA have ever, in the past two years, sat back and asked yourselves, "Is Clipper right for our passengers? Does it solve an essential problem for them?"

You know what would be great, Nathaniel? 

If you ASKED your customers if they need Clipper, instead of telling them that they do. When I visited your office a few weeks back, the Clipper people kept telling me how much easier it would be. Perhaps that's true, but getting a Muni pass was not hard to start with so any improvement is only incremental, especially when you consider the expense and the operational gaps that Clipper doesn't address.

Sometimes people just flock to things because they're good and they work. The Metro Card in New York was like a miracle compared with those heavy little tokens. FastTrak visibly speeds the commute.

All Clipper seems to do is, well, the exact same thing that the FastPass did but with an added layer of expense and complexity.

Maybe by listening to your customers you can figure out how to make us like Clipper, instead of just ignore it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - HAL

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

I thought you’d be interested in yesterday’s morning commute. I got to Castro station a little late – at around 9:10 and I thought that the commute to work would be simple since rush hour was surely over.  Imagine my surprise when I found a platform that was completely full. People were spilling back to the stairs. The daring were jockeying for position on the yellow strip, apparently anticipating the imminent arrival of a train.
Eventually, a two-car L arrived and we huddled masses surged to the train. Some 40 minutes later, we hobbled into Civic Center, where we sat at the west end of the platform. A grumble erupted. The crowd, already irritated grew irate. 

Finally, our driver, silent until now, made an announcement. “The computer is controlling the train. The doors in the back won’t open.”

Nathaniel, did you ever see the move 2001: A Space Odyssey? If you have, you would know that an evil computer named HAL takes over a space ship. The situation was ripe for a joke, but it JUST WASN’T FUNNY. We were stuck, crowded, late, and IN THE STATION. Nobody laughed. Nobody made HAL jokes. Instead, people began shouting, “Open the f-ing doors.” It got heated, Nathaniel. 

After a couple of minutes, the driver agreed to come and manually open the door. He warned us that he’d only open the front door, and that he’d only hold it open for a minute so if we were to get off, we had to do so fast.

We exited the train like so many Chilean miners, anxious to breath the air.

Outside, we found sardine-can F-trains and packed buses making their way up Market Street on impromptu Express routes. Puzzled tourists wondered if they’d ever get to Fisherman’s Wharf. Disgruntled passengers wondered if they’d ever get to work. 

I walked the five blocks to my office, formulating an algebraic equation that might be able to calculate the economic impact of the morning’s screwed up commute. 

X = the average wage of each worker
Y = the average productivity of each worker
A = the hourly expenditure of each tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf
B = the likelihood that any given tourist will choose to go to Chicago or New York or Boston or LA, for goodness sake. (Because all of these cities have functional and reliable public transit systems.)
60 cars per hour, each ½ hour late = 30 hours for the three hours of morning commute, or 90 hours.
Each car carries 100 people, 75% of whom are workers and 25% of whom are tourists.

90*(75 (50 xy) + 25(A/B)) = Impact

Nathaniel, I’m no math genius. But if you plug in $20/hour and $35/hour productivity for workers, and $35/hour spending on tourists and even just a 25% likelihood that they’re not coming back, that means that impact of the “computer controlling the train” is $1,669,410. And that’s just for one morning.
Based on your own salary, or even that of one of your drivers, I think you’d agree with me that these numbers are on the conservative side. And my equation is rudimentary. 

A computer like HAL could probably get a better equation, but he’s got better things to do. Like maybe control the train.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - A Riddle

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
This was a rough week for us Muni riders. The heat seems to produce delays that make our platforms too crowded and our trains too slow. I chose to find my zen.

Like when I rode the F train home on Wednesday. Sure, it took 40 minutes instead of the 12 it would take on the L, but I met a nice tourist and gave him advice about where to go in the Castro.

Best of all, I thought up a new Muni riddle:
How is Muni like a teenage girl?
It travels in packs and is completely unpredictable.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Staring at the Screen

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
I remember when the flat panel screens started appearing in Muni stations a couple of years ago. Folks waiting on the platform had plenty of time to speculate about what your coming network might show. Would it be soothing images of waves? Big Brother admonishments to line up and be quiet? Keystone Kops videos?

Nobody predicted that you'd actually show rail activity, but that was, apparently, the intent.

I've started photographing the screens at various times. Like on Monday when a group of French teens stood, giggling, in front of the one in Powell station. They were betting when the screen would update. It had been static for six minutes and a boy name Pierre was winning.

Here's what it looked like:

Then just after I took the picture, it reverted to the screen that we frequent riders are used to:

What's funny, besides the French kids' ability to make something so quotidian amusing, is that anyone with a smart phone (that's about 45% of all SF adults) can download any one of about a dozen apps that convey this info. And they never go temporarily offline.

For those without smart phones - or giant panel t.v.'s - a quick call to next muni does the trick.

It makes me wonder, Nathaniel, how much time and money is spent on these screens and the feeds that go into them.

You know what would be great, Nathaniel?

If instead of expensive, broken technology (see Clipper), Muni focussed on basic customer services, like friendly informative staff and customer-driven decision making.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Another Friday Night

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

While I was waiting for the train tonight, I thought of a riddle:
How is Muni like a frat brother?
It's guaranteed to be f-ed up most Friday nights.

Really. Tonight I arrived at Powell after a very long week and a very difficult day. 7:15 p.m. on a Friday, Nathaniel, and the platform was so crowded that folks were starting to get hinky. It felt like one of those potentially explosive moments. Apparently the N hadn't passed through in more than 20 minutes.

The flat screen was, as it has been all week, temporarily out of service. Didn't matter. Nextmuni.com provided us all with the big picture. It looked like there were maybe 20 trains actually running in the entire system.

SFGate says that a crash was the cause of this Friday's meltdown, but, at the risk of seeming paranoid, I have to say that seems a bit suspect. The drivers are going nuts because the city wants them to be treated like regular workers who have to call in sick and pay for parking and have a limited number of days off. That's what my fellow passengers were grumbling about.

You know what would be really great Nathaniel?

If your passengers could really believe it when a crisis occurs. But we're all starting to think that catastrophe is just another word for Friday down at SFMTA.

I guess that the good news is that the Giants have closed the lead on the Padres as I write this. Hopefully their fans will be able to get home.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Headlines

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
Two headlines caught my eye this morning.
The Examiner heralded a 10 year low in Muni customer satisfaction (csat to us in the biz); the Chronicle included an item about your possible exit for the DC system. An interesting and challenging day for you, no doubt.

Even though I haven't heard from you, I hope you secretly read my little blog. If you do, you know that I think Muni could have major impacts by implementing a few simple customer service tenets. Riders know that things like fires in the tunnels, crowded trains at rush hour, and fedex trucks blocking buses are (sort of) beyond your control. But we also know that basic courtesy makes us feel better.

The driver who informs us about a delay. The gate agent who looks up and smiles at patrons. The station manager who is willing to give directions. The custodian who says, "Excuse me." All these things would help. And, Nathaniel, as JLo once said, "Love Don't Cost a Thing."

These things are about making riders feel good, but, Nathaniel, they also build empathy for the organization. When an organization's staff behaves humanely toward its patrons, we begin to like them and the organization more, even if other failures persist.

That's how you improve customer satisfaction.

But as it is, it's hard for us to build empathy when we see expensive systems like Clipper and broken flat panel screens. It's hard for us to build empathy for drivers who have a 100 page list of work rules.

Nathaniel, I know that these work rules are the bane of your existence. That's what we have in common. But maybe you can work with the drivers to instill a culture of basic customer service. It would go a long way.

Thank you. Have a nice day.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Responses

We haven't met, spoken, texted or even emailed yet. The closest we've come was a form letter telling me that Muni Customer Services' goal "is to provide timely, convenient and safe service, and your input is very important." The form letter assured me that someone from marketing would be in touch, and someone was!
A nice woman named Gina Zagata offered to make an appointment for me so I wouldn't have to wait in line for my son's youth pass. It's a kind offer and it solves my problem, but it doesn't address the core problem with the youth pass requirements. My plan is to get the pass the same way everyone else has to and document it here on the blog! It'll be a little foray into photo journalism.

Gina also told me that you're thinking about opening a second customer service center in the Presidio to help parents out. That's a great idea Nathaniel, except I think that the geography might prove challenging. Here's a map of where the public schools (and the kids who probably need muni passes the most) are in San Francisco:

 Here's another map that shows how Muni serves the Presidio:

Consider this:
  • You're creating a location to better serve families who need to get Muni passes in person.
  • The location is not near the schools that most families visit between five and ten times per week.
  • The location is only lightly served by your own transit organization.

It seems like another good idea, poorly planned. That's what your organization is becoming known for.

Nathaniel, by now you've probably guessed that I'm the kind of person who writes letters, makes calls, and sends emails. Heck, I even go door-to-door about some issues. 

Here's the roster and responses I've gotten so far:
Rachel Norton responded really quickly and promised to find out what the SFUSD could do to help parents. She didn't know anything about this problem.

Her SF School Board colleague Hydra Mendoza hasn't responded to me yet. I thought she would because we met when she visited the Political Action Committee to which I belong to ask for our votes. Maybe she doesn't see this as a campaign issue that would appeal to parents. 

Bevan Dufty, my D8 supervisor, sent me a nice email and promised to work with Diana Hammons of SFMTA to understand the issue. 

He also contacted Boe Hayward and Janet Martinson at SFMTA.

Gavin Newsom hasn't responded to me yet. He used to respond to me really quickly when I was a journalist. Now that I'm just a politically involved rabblerousing citizen, he's a bit slower to reach out. Alas. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Friday Night

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
For some reason, Friday evenings seem to be the most challenging for you to get us citizens home from work.

Maybe the drivers, the highest paid in the country, all have weekend places out of reach of the fog so they leave early on Friday to beat the traffic, which is exacerbated by everyone who drives to work knowing that it's going to hard to get home. (You can see the irony here, right?)

Nathaniel, here's a photo I took at Montgomery Station on Friday at 6:45 p.m.:

An L train had just left the station. J Church and N Judah riders were milling about in a sea of resigned discontent. One man pleaded for divine intervention.
Here's a photo I took a few seconds later:

That train is an L. A second L was in the tunnel just behind it.

Finally, the sign got it right.

Nathaniel, I posted an entry just a few days ago wondering how the dispatch of trains can be so screwed up.

You know what would be really great, Nathaniel Ford? 
If there were some way you could align resources and dispatch trains to fit in with the completely predictable patterns of city commuters.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Clipped

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

For the past five years or so, I've been redeeming my commuter check at Rossi's Deli in the Castro in exchange for an adult and a youth Muni pass. Simple. Fast. Friendly.

Now I learn that the Clipper card will make my life far more convenient. That may be true. I expect that the Clipper won't be demagnetized by the 15th of each month, forcing me to replace or go through the motions of putting the broken pass into the machine before the muni attendant will let me through. That part is good.

But Nathaniel, are you really going to force me to come to the SFMTA Customer Service Center to submit a form in order to get what I've been buying from Rossi's for years!?

Have you noticed that the hours of the SFMTA Customer Service hours are limited to Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.?

That's when I'm working, Nathaniel!

And the last two times I went there on my lunch break, the waiting area was so crowded that I could see I'd be waiting far longer than the time I had.

Should I take time off from my job?

I wish I worked for the city. Then, my yearly time off would include:
10 - 40 vacation days
13 sick days
12 paid holidays

Here's what I get:
16 paid days off including sick time.
5 paid holidays

The SFMTA Customer Service Center is closed on every single paid holiday I have off.

Nathaniel, why do I need to complete a form and drop it off in person to get something that the nice man at Rossi's could hand across the counter to me?

I keep hearing how San Francisco wants to make the city friendlier for families. How is it friendlier to make me jump through hoops?

You know what would be great, Nathaniel?

If I could get my kid's Clipper card without having to sacrificing precious time off.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Art Project?

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

I'm sure you know by now that the past couple of days have seen major failures in the evening commute. On Wednesday, my commute home involved 9 stops and took about 45 minutes. From the frighteningly crowded Powell platform, I rode in to Embarcadero. That platform was equally crowded so I squeezed into a J Church and rode home. (See previous announcement about The Silence of the Drivers; our Wednesday driver was so silent in the face of delays that a number of people in the car started making false announcements. "Next stop, 18th and Market. We should be there in an hour." Funny. Sad.)

Last night, it was my usual four stops, but it still lasted for 40 minutes. When I arrived on the platform, the announcement was:
2 car - L - in two minutes.
1 car - K - in three minutes.
1 car - J - in five minutes.
2 car - L - in six minutes.
And so on.
I let the first L pass. It was packed and I figured I'd jump on the K.
Then a 2 car N appeared.
Another pair of Ns followed a minute later.
Then nothing for 8 minutes.
Yet the announcements continued to promised the much desired Ls and Ks.
I began to wonder if it was a performance art piece along the lines of the French Avant Garde. I pictured an artist named Simone pitching her twisted idea to the SF Arts Commission.
"We shall emphasize the banality of commuter expectations by making meaningless announcements and releasing trains in an endlessly absurd pattern."

You know what would be great, Nathaniel Ford?

If the evening commute took advantage of the predictability of our city workers' actual travel patterns. I do it the same way every day. I see many many fellow passengers each day.

Perhaps we're banal in our predictability, but is that any reason to subject us to absurdity?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Unwilling Carpool Mom

Dear Nathaniel Ford,
You have such a friendly face. And you identify as Nathaniel Ford, Sr. That makes me wonder: Does Nathaniel Ford, Jr. ride Muni to school?

I'm asking because my son should be riding Muni to school. A short trip on the 24 followed by a few stops on the 71 or a brisk walk should get him to school in under 30 minutes. But it hasn't worked out that way, Nathaniel.

Day 1 of school: We checked NextMuni and saw that the next 24 would arrive in 39 minutes. Nathaniel, this was at 7:15 in the morning. How could a major bus line be so fouled so early in the morning. When we checked, I figured that it would determine how quickly my kid would need to finish his breakfast, brush his teeth, and walk two blocks to the bus stop.

But really, what it meant, was that I would need to drive him.

And I'm glad I did. Because Abby, who lives down the street, went to wait for the 24. And guess what? It DIDN'T EVEN STOP at the corner bus stop because it was too full. And Abby was late for her first day of high school. Imagine how Nathaniel, Jr. would feel if he was late for his first day of high school. Ick.

Day 2 played out the same way.

Now, guess what? I'm driving in a parent car pool. TO HIGH SCHOOL, Nathaniel. These kids don't want to pile into a car with moms and dads and Renee Montagne. I don't know how old Nathaniel, Jr. is, but my teenager would much rather skulk over to the bus stop and make his own way to school. Except if it means getting up at 5:30 in the morning so he can overcome the vagaries of the Muni schedule.

For the time being, our small group of parents in the neighborhood have thrown up our hands. We're driving our kids. Taking three more bodies off the bus and putting one more car on the street. It's really that very last thing any of us wanted.

You know what would be really cool, Nathaniel?

If there was more planning around FREQUENCY and less around whatever determines how buses leave. Looking at the schedule, the frequency for the 24 at 7:15 a.m. should be about every 10 minutes. Given the length of the route, I figure that at 7:15, you had a maximum of 8 buses deployed. How could things have gone so wrong so early?

Maybe it's this crazy thing about drivers not having to call in sick.

Or the fact that somewhere around one in five drivers are no show on any given day.

Nathaniel, our city deserves better. I don't want to be carpool mom. That's why I live here instead of Walnut Creek.

Fix this. If not for my kid, then for Nathaniel, Jr.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Typing Lesson

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

When I was in high school, they made all the girls take typing lessons. Sexist, yes, but here I am typing away with a decent level of accuracy and speed.

Ms. McKim used to teach the keyboard by making us typists just repeat the same couple of letters. To trick us, she'd sometimes throw in a new letter.

She'd recite, "F F F space. H H H space. F F F space. J..." and so on.

I thought of Ms. McKim while I waited for my train at Montgomery today. There we were, one stop from the Embarcadero dispatch station and the trains were coming just like Ms. McKim's typing lesson.

J J J wait. N N N wait. J J N wait. L.

It makes me wonder if the person in charge of sending trains out is learning to type. That's the only explanation I can think of.

Why is it like that?

You know what would be better, Nathaniel Ford?

If, right there where the trains are arranged and sent out, somebody said, "Hey, instead of sending a train to the same line twice or three times in a row, let's make the next one a K. The people of Ocean Avenue have been waitings a long time."

What do you think, Nathaniel?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Nathaniel Ford - The Silence of the Driver Edition

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

Today I got into Powell Station to find an L sitting there with all the doors closed. The train was not quite full, so I was exasperated. Then I noticed that the door in the very front was still open. I rushed up and got on the train. Hooray! No wait.

Oops. Wait. The front door stayed open. All the other doors stayed closed. We stayed put.

Finally, the door closed and we were on our way.

At Civic Center, some passengers got off, more got on. The doors closed. Then the ones in the middle opened. And we sat there. It was during that three minute wait that I decided that tonight, really, I would begin writing to you.

While my fellow passengers muttered and swore, I began composing my theme. "Dear Nathaniel Ford." I fantasized about, one day, getting a response from you. But for not, just writing is enough.

Eventually the middle door closed and we were on our way. Our driver as as silent as a monk who had taken vows. He was a rabbit, or a fish. Not a sound, never mind and explanation, passed through his lips.

You know what would be really nice, Nathaniel?

If Muni drivers simply told passengers what the issue was, and set an expectation. Like when you call PG&E and they say, "The wait is 6 minutes." Sometimes the wait is two minutes; sometimes it's 10. But just that voice makes the customer feel better.

Why is it that some drivers are regular Chatty Cathys and some are as silent as a snowfall?

That's what I'm wondering, Nathaniel Ford.

Dear Nathaniel Ford - Lost Boy Edition

Dear Nathaniel Ford,

I've been meaning to write for a while. Last week I really meant to because I saw something that I thought would interest you.

I was riding home on the L and we stopped at Civic Center. We passengers could hear the driver on the radio saying something like, "I see him."
Then we saw the driver leave our train. He walked down the platform and then returned to his spot in the front. More radio muttering. Then he said it again, clear as day. "I see him."
He got out of the train again. All the doors except the one in front were closed. People were saying things like, "For Chrissake" and "Not again" and "F**k this." We'd been stopped for two or three minutes. Not a long time, but we didn't know why.

Then the driver returned to the train with a boy who looked scared and about 8 years old. He brought him into the front and we heard him again on the radio. The driver said, "You ever drive a train?" Then he said, "I got him. On my way to Van Ness."

Then we passengers understood. Our driver had spotted a lost boy. We got to watch the boy reunite with his mom. It was touching. We passengers clucked and wiped little tears from our jaded eyes.

But, Nathaniel Ford, you know what would have made this better?

Just one small announcement from the driver. Something like, "We've got a lost boy and I think I see him. Please be patient while I get him."

Who is going to mutter and swear at that?

But he didn't.

Why aren't Muni drivers more communicative? This could have been a situation that had your customers cheering. Instead we went from irritated to less irritated.

Wouldn't it be great if all the drivers were communicative, Nathaniel Ford?