I arrive by train in a major European city. As usual, the main rail station contains a rapid transit or ‘metro’ station. For the transit system, such a station obviously requires a high level of fare sales equipment or staffing, as most of the customers are newly arrived in the city and therefore won’t be holding its transit system’s tickets or passes. It’s also an opportunity for an act of welcoming.
I descend to the train station and confront the ticket machines. Several are out of service, the others have long queues, but it doesn’t matter because they do not take bills, only coins and credit cards; I’ve already verified that across most of Europe, credit card sales of transit tickets work only with credit cards native to that country.
That means going to the window and buying a ticket from a human being. I like human beings, but they were made for higher things than this. There are three ticket windows, one of which is staffed by a harried middle-aged man. There’s a long queue there. I consider the possibilities of walking or taking a taxi, and decide to wait in the queue. I’m buying a fare card that costs €4.20, so I’m holding a €10.00 bill, not having a €5.00 bill or enough coins. (Notice, as you read this, how small and petty this story already sounds. That’s actually part of its importance.)
It’s soon clear that the queue is slow because almost every customer has some kind of issue. There are long conversations, gestures. Couples look at each other in despair. The queue gets longer behind me.
Twice, other people in the same uniform as the ticket seller enter the booth, but neither of them opens the other window.
Finally, I reach the window. I expect to be welcome, in a small way, because I have such a simple transaction. But the man looks at my €10.00 bill in despair, asks if I have anything smaller. His bill tray is empty and he has just a small tray of coins. Frustrated, he counts out a large pile of small change as though it were precious gold and I were a thief holding a gun. I glance over his shoulder. Two other ticket sellers are chatting, their backs to us.
The metro runs every 5 minutes or so, but my fare transaction took almost 20 minutes, more than doubling my total travel time. Nobody checked my fare. Had I evaded the fare, I’d have saved €4.20, but more importantly to me, I’d have saved 20 minutes. Unlike my €4.20, those 20 minutes were worthless to the transit agency, but they took them nevertheless.
It’s easy to come away from such an experience feeling angry at the transit agency whose operations staff cared so little as to let this situation come about, and whose front-line staff didn’t feel, for whatever reason, that addressing this obvious problem was inside their job description. The tragedy is that the poor man selling tickets did care, but clearly worked inside a system that didn’t. In my brief transaction, I was watching his own capacity for caring being destroyed, layer by layer, by his inability to do his job, and the need to take anger from his customers about it. I watched him wrestle with the temptation to be angry at the customers in turn, since the people he really should be angry at weren’t present, or at least not paying attention. (Those people, by definition, never are.)
It’s easy to notice a deeper story here, too, because this is not just a transit failure but a story of failed welcoming. First impressions of a city really are lasting. I was watching a city burning negative impressions into a whole crowd — many of them young people, those easily abused “backpackers,” whose subconscious impressions of this city may endure for a half-century. Arrival, especially the first arrival in a new city, is a sensitive moment. When something awful happens right then, the memory of it can get attached to that city in our minds and may never be completely washed away.
What’s the solution? Well, for one thing, I hope most of us are getting past the fear of good automation. In this situation, almost everyone involved, including the ticket sellers, would have been better off if the machines had been well designed and maintained. People clearly wanted to use them. But of course, automation still reflects the caring or lack of it on the part of human employees, especially where maintenance is the issue. (I encountered broken ticket machines in great numbers all over the city in question. Most were worse than out of order; they contained subtle faults that obstructed me only after I’d spent some time trying to work with them, rather the way someone you’re dating may play with you, consume some of your time and caring, before rudely cutting you off.)
At the competition-oriented Thredbo conference that I attended last week (about which much more soon), the analysis might have been that the failed fare collection system I encountered reflected a failure of competition. The people managing the ticket sales and maintaining the machines clearly lacked competitive pressure, the privatizers might say. But if competition is the answer, its effect would be very indirect. There’s no way to empower the actual end-user, the masses of us queueing in this depressing underground station, because a city can’t build parallel metro systems that will allow us to punish this company by going to a competing one; only government can do that, in the process of hiring private operating companies. I continue to suspect that while competitive pressure is a great thing, it is not the whole answer to the problem of competence.
If there’s a larger consolation here, of course, it’s that the problem of competence, which is really a problem of caring, is one of the deepest and most enduring problems of social philosophy. The grand debate between capitalism and communism was, at its heart, about nothing more than this: How to make people do their jobs and care about them.
But finally, I notice that these failed welcomings happen much more chronically in some cities than in others, often for reasons that have nothing to do with competitive pressure. This proves that people in responsibility at all levels of an agency can create change by demanding quality and caring. This takes courage, because inside large institutions — especially horizontal ones such as the typical transit operation — people who demand quality are not always going to be popular.
What can the end user, the rider, do? I have just one suggestion from what I’ve seen inside of agencies. Negative feedback, especially expressed with the anger that you understandably feel in this situation, has little impact. If you’re a rider, anyone that you’ll be able to talk to in a transit agency is used to being spoken to in anger. They may be emotionally shut-down as a result, or they may be angry themselves, or they may be one of the rare saints or buddhas who can welcome people’s anger all day while still being kind. But the customer’s anger still gets in the way.
What’s missing from the life of transit employees is specific positive feedback. Indeed, if agencies develop unhealthy levels of self-congratulation internally, it’s often becuase that’s the only way to get through the day in a business where nobody seems to notice or care about what your doing unless you or your colleagues screw up — at which point your job is to take tsunamis of media-amplified anger. As I look back on the nearly 20 years I’ve been in this business, I marvel at how little positive feedback there has been, not just for me but for any of the transit professionals I’ve been working with. Encouragement comes mostly from within and between the agencies, rarely from the end user.
While the rider can easily feel powerless, the fact is that a story about how someone had a good experience with the transit system, and came away feeling better not just about transit but also about their city, can transform a transit manager’s day — and sometimes even her career. The story needs to be specific: This clerk helped me catch the pickpocket. That route change really improved my mobility and that of my community. The communications team did an incredible job helping passengers during a disruption. Or even just: this driver was kind to me.
A good manager can use this story with others inside the agency, as human-scale evidence of why, despite all the appearances to the contrary, it really does make a difference when employees care.
The leaden indifference of the customer is one of the main reasons that, if I had it to do again, I might not have gone into this field. It’s a reason that competent and caring people decide not to go into the transit business, at any level. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that until you’ve been inside a transit agency, you have no idea how depressing this can be, and how that depression can form you into a harder, less caring person.