Photo by Oran

Interfaces between transit agencies and riders can often be brutal, particularly when the line of communication centers on the latter’s inability to understand why the agency does what it does. A typical customer complaint, for example, might plead for more buses during the afternoon commute and question why resources might not be diverted from those “empty buses I see running around the suburbs.”  The agency is left to decide how much the customer needs to know about things like subarea equity, and thus must standardize an “information threshold” in customer relations policy.

Sometimes, there are very planning-oriented questions that arise– why isn’t destination X served, why not run along Y street, etc. Jarrett Walker has a decent example of this from a query in Bellingham, asking why WTA doesn’t serve the airport. In short, WTA responds with a very courteous and very informative e-mail which weighs the pros and cons of airport service and how the agency’s thinking is determined.

As Jarrett notes, you can’t really do this with a massive agency like Metro, with the amount of queries they get on a daily basis. As a result, it’s very difficult to get a personalized response with anything more than a nod of acknowledgement that the query was received and action was taken. A really good suggestion to combat this kind of a quandry is perhaps employing an FAQ or customer portal of sorts that streamlines common questions/complaints with genuine responses fit for a layman’s understanding.

The irony of it all is that the information is already there, albeit in the form of high-level planning and political documents that must first be unearthed from a labyrinth of a website, and then dissected. Naturally, this doesn’t have to be the case. As is with frequency maps, the task here is simply to take existing information and make it clear, concise, and understandable for the riding public.

Fortunately, a lot of this is already happening, even if it’s because of terrible circumstances.  As Martin pointed out this morning, Pierce Transit’s website for Prop. 1 really is outstanding for its clarity and user-friendliness.  Metro, as well, has been catching on with a cleaner interface and website for upcoming service proposals.  Still, even when streamlined, many customers won’t bother sifting through that amount of information, especially with a complicated website architecture.  Information for Metro’s past and current service changes, for example, are in completely different places.

Regardless what issues customers may bring up, the very fact that they have to submit an inquiry means that the information they’re looking either 1) isn’t there, or 2) is difficult to find.  If these two issues can be remedied, there is much labor and grief that can be spared from dealing with the public.

9 Replies to “Information Overload (Or Lack Thereof)”

  1. So why don’t we start such a site? We talk about this stuff all the time, we spend the time thinking about it, let’s put it out there for the public.

  2. These types of “impedance” are better solved by the social media format.

    Sound like right now, it is one customer asking for his specific request made to the bureaucracy. Of course there will be disappointment as they can’t simply fulfill that request unless it is trivial.

    STB is closer to what is needed, although its part presentation and part discussion to a degree.

    Better would be to bring these up on the ST and Metro Facebook pages so everyone else can respond. That might mean someone hiring a Social Media coordinator to push and summarize opinions and ideas and create small surveys and so on.

  3. I agree with some of the sentiment in the above comments: A informational page that crowd-sources answers to popular questions could be a great thing. It could link to either Metro webpages, STB postings, or news articles that summarize the issues surrounding the policy matter that deals with the question. Given the discourse on this blog, there are obviously some passionate transit activists that are knowledgeable about the issues and are willing to put some time into answering common questions. Maybe we could even bypass Metro and put one up that is part of STB…sort of an expansion on the “Best Reference Posts” section.

  4. A community forum, sponsored by Metro and with a couple “community managers” would be the way to go. At my company we are going to implement GetSatisfaction, which seems to be a really good way to capture everything. Not only is there a knowledgebase and question/answer format discussions, but users can submit and vote on ideas, community managers can promote answers as the right ones, and users are rewarded with higher status for participation. Seems like something like that could leverage the collective knowledge of the community to help each other out. And that company also offers plugins to manage stuff that comes from social media.

    1. I agree totally that a community forum is needed. But I think it should *not* be sponsored by Metro, in order to ensure that all viewpoints are represented, and that Metro is not unjustly held responsible for private citizens’ views. It would be terrific if Metro staff would share their viewpoints from time to time, though.

  5. I disagree that the need to submit an inquiry means that the information is either unavailable or difficult to find. Witness the recent discussion regarding inquiries made to a bus driver for information that could have been found on the wall a few feet away.

  6. Most vivid memory of the Montreal subway system, in addition to the rubber-tired trains, was noticing that without speaking a word of French I could look at a system map and instantly know how to get where I was going, at least as far as the subway was concerned.

    Noticing same thing here in the Nordic countries. I what’s needed for passenger information- including from drivers- is a sense of what the passenger is likely to need to know. Also helps to have a feeling for how you’d draw a map for someone who doesn’t understand your language.

    Tricks I found useful when driving transit, especially in the Tunnel: one, answering question phrased “Where do you go?” with question: “Where do you need to get to?” In the Tunnel, my first words would very often be, “Ride with me and I’ll tell you.”

    This is really a matter of feel, rather than intellectual logic- which could be what makes passenger information so hard around Seattle.

    Mark Dublin

  7. what information do we have about what people want to know? I feel like any website can be confusing if the creators don’t understand how people use the information…I wonder how much work is done by metro in that arena…

Comments are closed.