The recent stall of a Sound Transit light rail train after the Apple Cup has brought on a public discussion on communicating with transit customers. Let’s hope that conversation continues. It is an important one.
Have you ever felt a touch of fate? Several weeks ago I decided to take public transit from Seattle to visit the Kinsey Collection Exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum. (Fantastic show for a more visceral understanding of African American history. Gone now but you can check out on The Kinsey Collection website.) It turned out to be a freakishly on-target, real life look at public transit customer communication.
It all started with my smug self meeting up with reality on the trip back to Seattle.
Observation No. 1: We are an unruly lot.
Heading home within the soft privacy of the Sound Transit coach buses, smugness settled over me. Doing good for the environment and it had been a breeze. Technology revolutionizing the public transit customers’ ability to plan a trip, make the connections and get off at the right stop. Not a hitch. Across the aisle I can hear the two friends who hadn’t seen each other for years but bumped into each other on boarding. They are having a fine old time catching up. The new and the forever virtues of public transit on full display.
So, deep into my little satisfyingly rosy world I settled. Then from behind me comes this loud, combative voice. “Shut the **** up!” Apparently, the fine old time the friends are having was not sitting well with everyone on the bus.
Humanity is the really messy part of public transit. Public transit being one of the most fully public of public services. We people are what make the work difficult. The equipment, the programming, the planning, the scheduling, even the driving. Easy. You will look so brilliant when you determine the cause of the stall on Apple Cup day.
But customer service? It is not a world of certainties. I once tried to convince a planner that spending time and money on customer service would in the long run save the agency money. They weren’t buying it. Maybe they saw the reality of unruliness better than I and reasoned it would only be throwing good money after bad. A not uncommon opinion. The practice of blaming riders, such as was initially done by Sound Transit after the Apple Cup stall, is one of the typical results of holding this opinion.
Observation No. 2: Patting your pate while rubbing your belly.
Back to the ride. Now, of course, Sound Transit Route 594 travels I-5 so as this loud, combative voice intrudes on my self-satisfied thoughts, we are barreling down the freeway at 60 miles an hour in a bus that weighs a lot. And the rain is back. My smugness is waning as the protesting gets louder, long lost pals don’t take it well, and the driver stays focused on driving. Or at least that is what I am hoping the driver is doing.
Which gets to one of the biggest realities in communicating with transit customers. Stuff happens and it doesn’t matter if you are an operator at the head of a long train of light rail cars or a bus driver hurdling down the freeway. The harnessing of that mass of metal through space is your responsibility. Your mind must be on the driving. Safety first. On-time performance behind that. The two biggest factors in evaluating the work of an operator. And any time an operator interacts with a rider, safety or on-time performance can be compromised. A trade-off that drivers are acutely aware of, resulting in the byproduct of this trade-off. Stress lodging in the drivers’ very human bodies.
Observation No. 3: “Don’t tread on me!”
At this point, the driver decides they need to do something. And so they lean into the microphone, eyes still on the road, and says confidently, “All riders have a right to talk on the bus. You can’t expect that your ride will be totally quiet.” Based on the rule book.
Taking straight from the rule book is a driver’s go-to. Very reasonable. But it also opens the door for refuting the driver’s understanding of the situation. The rider has their side of the story. Annoyingly, narrative has a point of view.
You will notice that this driver takes it a step further, stating that the situation is a matter of individual rights. Now it is wrapped in an added something that isn’t going to be helpful. As Covid so stunningly brought home to the world. For in this world, claiming a right is never without cost. I wonder if there is an alternate universe where that is not true? Because this means that in our world, a right is a very precious thing that will never be your own. It will bring you face to face with others. And to all the uncertainty and complexity, anger and passion that will be let loose as the cost to whom or to what is worked out. In other words, asserting a right won’t get you anywhere fast which the driver really needs at this point.
Observation No. 4: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
So the war of rights begins. Without barely a skipped beat, the loud, combative voice behind me retorts, “I have PTSD!!”
At this point, you can’t help feeling sorry for the driver, but they pivot quickly, moving away from the rule book to another standby. The driver goes from a confident pronouncement of rules to pacification. “Just sit back and relax and we’ll be off the freeway in 15. You will be fine.” Repeated several times in an attempt at a calming mantra. (A quick reality check here. We are probably a good 25 minutes away from hitting that off ramp.) The rider shoots back, “**** you! Let me off the bus now!!” (The rider’s emphasis.)
Insincerity can be sniffed out by all of us and particularly those for whom respect is in short supply. Both parties are now throwing around the expletives. We are nearing melt down. Nobody is going to lose respect on this bus, by god. The driver makes one more pivot.
Observation No. 5: “Stretch your tent curtains wide.”
In a final attempt to keep this bus rolling, the driver finally states the obvious. “Hey. I’m trying to drive this bus and keep us all safe. If you don’t quiet down, I’m going to get off at the next exit and throw you all off this bus!” (Emphasis the driver’s.)
Covid has put me in a biblical mood. It just seems like biblical times. The quote above from Isaiah, read literally, refers to increasing your progeny but I’ve never been one for literal interpretations. I see in this an act of community in a starkly real world.
No more calling it in. Be present and see what you have that can support life. Now this particular driver fell upon this truth through desperation but who of us hasn’t been slow to get it? The driver creates a temporary “bus village.” (A bit of a despot, but at this point, who cares.) In creating this village, the driver speaks from his depths for the first time. We are all going to lose if we don’t pull together. The driver snaps us back to reality and the need for thinking as community.
Peace reigned for the rest of the trip.
Thoughts on these observations
We often try to solve messy humanity problems with cladding rather than structure. With a dab of powder rather than a warm smile. But the solutions lie deep. I remember interviewing a head of driver training at Metro many years ago. He was looking at retiring soon and summed up his biggest conundrum after years working with drivers, “You can teach people how to drive a bus but you can’t teach them how to work with customers.”
And as the extent of Sound Transit’s need to improve their support of riders during emergencies became public, it is clear that it is not just drivers who can’t be taught how to work with customers. So how then does a transit agency ensure good customer communication if the solution isn’t just an extra training module. Could it be as simple as a belief? A belief in the possibility of a hidden seed for community lurking in the unruly lot of humanity in that rail car, bus or boat? Every day drivers nurture the power of community into being. Or stumble upon it like my driver did.
Simple, of course, is not the same as easy. Beliefs are deeply held and require nurturing within a trusted community. So the transit agency will have to be that trusted community of believers in humanity.
Is this just rosy world stuff again? If it is, we need it. Our present world is finding out that the soft arts are essential for us to master if we are to hold on to our humanity. To recognize the truth that humanity is made up of gut and mind and dismissing one or the other puts us in peril. But enough talk. D. H. Lawrence says it best in his poem, Thought*.
Thought, I love thought. But not the haggling and twisting of already existent ideas I despise that self-important game. Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness, Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of the conscience, Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read, Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion. Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges, Thought is one person in their wholeness wholly attending. *The last line is modified to make it easier for us all to identify with the poet. Apologies D.H.L.