Failed Welcoming


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.


24 Responses to Failed Welcoming

  1. Matthew Pennington September 29, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    First impressions really are so important. I recently moved from Chicago to Montreal. When I left Chicago, I took the blue line into a rather grand (for Chicago) station, and walked a ways into the main airport. All in all, a pleasant experience, one that I can see being welcoming to a new arrivee in the city.
    Upon arrival in Montreal, I had to stand outside for half an hour waiting for a bus, which dropped me off at a distant commuter train station (not part of the metro network, mind), and then wait for another half hour outside for a bus, which dropped me off at Lionel-Groulx station. So, that was an hour of waiting outside (fortunately in August, I can’t imagine arriving in the winter) to take two buses just to get to the metro system. It took nearly two hours to go from the airport to the Plateau. My only other option was to pay out of pocket for private transportation (cab or possibly coach bus). That is not a good way to ingratiate people to your city. Which is a shame, because the city has such a great public transit network.

  2. Levon September 29, 2009 at 11:33 am #

    I recently came face to face with the depression the Transit Agency can bring. A few months ago, I was about to take a job with a transit agency. It would have been my first foray into professional transit planning, something I’ve always wanted to do (I am a young, working urban planner). After a tour and a talk about the system’s issues, I balked at the offer. It was sure to be a depressing situation, and I stayed at my non-transit job. Hopefully it won’t be this bad on my next try.

  3. Alon Levy September 29, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    I had a similar problem in Shanghai. It wasn’t a big deal buying tickets at the station that connects to the airport, but when I took a train to visit a friend in the suburbs and then come back, the experience at Shanghai Railway Station was similar to yours. There were three ticketing machines, of which two were out of order. The machines never sell multi-use tickets, only single-use ones, so people who visit for a week have to get a new ticket every time, ensuring that all the people who got off the train would need to use the machines. This led to a 15-minute line for tickets.

  4. Louis Haywood September 29, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    This happened in Chicago to me, a couple weeks ago I landed in Chicago at O’Hare, to find a pretty decent line at the only working pass-producing machine. In Chicag, the machines are divied up between Transit Pass machines (three-, seven, and fourteen-day passes), Chicago Card machines (the tap-and-go cards, only available on the Internet, refillable in the stations), and the stored-value cards. Half the machines were broken, and there is no attendant to vend cards. There were a few station agents to help out with using the machines though.
    As an aside, I’ve noticed that New York City and Chicago have almost exactly the same farecard technology. At least they did, until Chicago brought on the ChicagoCard, while NYC has been doodling around with a tapcard technology to get money straight out of bank accounts (some sort of bait, a la the 30 billion dollar debit card fee fiasco?). So while NYC acts like they’re trying to change the transit world with technology that few desire, Chicago has unleashed a Hong Kong-London-Paris fare system.
    The results were incredible; all the locals were paying with ChicagoCards, and the bus service was spectacular as a result. I felt slow using my dipcard TransitPass.
    Why hasn’t Chicago gotten more press for this?

  5. J September 29, 2009 at 3:07 pm #

    I was shocked in Lyons when the ticket machines only took coins and european cards. There was no person booth. We did not have enough coins for the three of us, so we had to go find a store to make change for us. The fare was an odd amount, something like 1.40

  6. Michael D September 29, 2009 at 8:06 pm #

    Similarly, but perhaps more importantly, many cities are unwelcoming of their own residents who are not transit users. These people have much less reason to persevere than do newcomers, and a bad first experience may end up a lasting deterrent.

  7. EngineerScotty September 29, 2009 at 8:23 pm #

    %@#!#$ …MAX ticket machines… @#$!#$
    Good customer service (and other aspects of user experience above and beyond the core product or service) is, of course, expensive to provide–especially in markets where there isn’t a supply of cheap labor to be exploited. When provided, consistently, it adds significantly to the value proposition of a business (many companies, such as Nordstrom, Starbucks, and Apple base their business model on an excellent user experience), but to get there requires spending a lot of $$$ up front.
    And in many cities, transit systems are unable to provide all of the mobility which is required–the dollars or euros aren’t there to improve the user experience in other ways, and money spent on things like additional customer service staff or improved ticketing infrastructure might well be criticized as wasteful by anti-transit folk.
    I guess, though, that an excellent user experience is like an excellent transit network itself, in that the value provided increases as a power (greater than one) of the investment, but the multiplying constant is very small–it takes a lot of money to get to the knee in the curve. Many places have systems well to the left of the knee.

  8. Alon Levy September 29, 2009 at 11:58 pm #

    It isn’t that hard to have multiple fare machines accepting all major bank cards as well as bills and coins. If New York and Philadelphia can do it right, so can Berlin.

  9. anonymouse September 30, 2009 at 12:24 am #

    Keep in mind that stored value cards are cheap enough to be free, while the Chicago Card and equivalent cost $5. And they’re not very secure either, the encryption on one of the standard cards has been broken, and the situation is not likely to get better. NYCT know better than anyone the importance of good security, because if it’s possible to break it, someone in NYC definitely will. The Metrocard is actually a pretty good design in that respect, and I think NYCT are either waiting for a product that good, or hoping they can outsource the problem to someone else (the credit/debit card companies in this case)

  10. anonymouse September 30, 2009 at 1:13 am #

    I must say, I had much the same experience in a European city myself, especially with the coins/cards only machine. It turns out that if you look hard enough, you can actually find one that accepts bills, but it’s not obvious that this is the case when you’ve just arrived.
    Anyhow, I don’t think it’s really that hard to improve the user experience: in many cases, quite a lot of bang can be had for very few bucks. Put up system maps where passengers can see them. Have ticket machines that give change (both of these apply in particular to Chicago). Make the interface of the ticket machines as simple as possible while still getting the job done. Explain your fare policies to avoid surprises. Do user studies: a little empirical data can go a long way!

  11. Matthew Pennington September 30, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    I’ve used a Chicago Card for so long, I forgot those machines don’t give change in Chicago. How annoying!

  12. EngineerScotty September 30, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    One wonders if CTA sets fares such that it’s less likely (unwise) customers will have exact change, and considers kept change an additional source of revenue.
    At least when you board a bus; there’s a good reason for “exact change only”. I can’t think of a good reason for a vending machine to be unwilling to give change, other than possibly if prices are always in exact increments of $1…. (obviously, machines which have run out of coins are an issue, but we’re talking about machines which won’t make change under any circumstance).

  13. Louis Haywood September 30, 2009 at 10:47 am #

    In Europe, you almost never see any type of machine that can take bills or swipe-style credit cards. In Europe they use better cards, with the goldchips and PIN numbers, although it is annoying that only domestic cards work. They also have special cards that require no PIN and can carry up to 100 Euros stored value, like an electronic wallet.
    Of course, the coins there go up to 2 Euros, so it’s not like they’re only accepting quarters, dimes and nickels. They’re taking coins that approach the worth of a five-dollar bill. (or really a three-dollar bill, but who’s counting?)

  14. Louis Haywood September 30, 2009 at 10:52 am #

    Yes, security can be broken, but at the same time, people are boarding your buses and trains at relatively warp speed, your buses are running on time, and everyone is having a good time. People in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Paris, London, Hong Kong, will be bumping their purses and wallets against sensors and hearing beeps.
    The security on the Internet can be hacked too, but I’m still going to bank online, use ATMs, use Amazon, and put my e-mail at the end of this comment, etc…

  15. smably September 30, 2009 at 10:54 am #

    Reminds me of a time I was in Toronto with my girlfriend. We needed a day pass, which isn’t available in vending machines. So we waited in line for some time, eventually reached the front, she flashed a 20 at the collector, collector told her to put it in the box…
    Except apparently the collector thought it was a smaller bill and, upon realizing that it was a 20, threw her hands up in exasperation and told us she couldn’t make change. (The bill was inaccessible in the fare box at this point.) We then had to wait for several minutes while she found a fare refund form; meanwhile, the line grew behind us. She gave us the completed form and told her to take it to TTC headquarters on the next business day. This was on a Saturday, and we were leaving the next day.
    Fortunately, we had a friend with us who lived in Toronto, and he generously agreed to collect the refund for us. But nonetheless, it was a bad impression that stayed with us all day, and it would have been worse if we had lost that money.

  16. Ted King September 30, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    I’m beginning to see a sort of Murphy effect for transit systems. Here in San Francisco at the BART stations there are plenty of fare machines with most of them in service. The units are slightly less friendly than a Las Vegas slot machine.
    The real fun is when you are trying to get change for the Muni Metro at one of the joint stations on Market. The change function is an obscure option down in one corner and is designed to give four quarters for a SINGLE dollar bill.
    Some months back I had to ride the Metro and all I had was a Lincoln – a five dollar bill. So to get change I had to buy the least expensive BART ticket ($1.55 IIRC) and got back a lot of quarters and a couple of dimes. Luckily, I had an upcoming need for that BART ticket. There are bill changers that return dollar coins but I seem to recall that they don’t take fivers.
    Basically, BART and Muni need to re-think their change-making in light of Muni’s two dollar ($2) fares.

  17. anonymouse September 30, 2009 at 10:59 pm #

    In Boston, people are tailgating through the faregates, or waving an object on the other side to get it to open. And some clever MIT students discovered that it’s trivial to make a CharlieTicket worth $655.36, you just have to overwrite a couple of values on the magstripe, and the CharlieCard encryption has been proven to be none too strong either. And once people break this encryption, in NYC in particular, this WILL be taken advatage of. There will be people selling swipes from hacked cards, there will be people clandestinely selling hacked cards, and fixing the hole will likely be a simple matter of replacing every single card ($5 each) and every single reader in the system. Attacks on encryption never get weaker, they only get stronger, and you really do need a good system that can be reasonably secure, and the damage reasonably contained if the security is broken. The fact that security on the internet can be hacked, and credit card numbers stolen and so on is a big part of why your credit card company charges transaction fees (which you don’t see, but retailers do).

  18. anonymouse October 1, 2009 at 1:21 am #

    And if you are foolish enough to get change for your $5 at a Muni station like, say, Castro, and you pay your Muni fare, you will be completely stuck when you try to transfer to BART, because BART does not acknowledge the existence of dollar coins and their machines do not accept them, while Muni doesn’t see a need to give change for them. So there you are with $3 in dollar coins and no way to buy a BART ticket.

  19. Louis Haywood October 1, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    The tailgating, which I have seen in Boston, is a case of bad faregates, not the fare payment system. Tailgating also occurs in nearly all faregates, including DC, Paris (which has turnstyles and push-gates designed to stop tailgating), and New York.
    I have heard these complaints, and I wonder then what the difference is between a CharlieCard and an OctopusCard in Hong Kong? In Hong Kong, purchases at all types of places can be made on an OctopusCard. So it must be relatively secure as a stored value tapcard. Might this not be a case of bad technology in Boston?

  20. Pantheon October 1, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    This really gets at a larger problem with transit services, which is that the user experience is always geared to regular riders with extensive knowledge of the system. Just about any private enterprise will go to great lengths to welcome new customers, but transit agencies don’t put in the effort to do this.
    In my travels, I have always struggled with the transit system in an unfamiliar city. I still remember my first experience with BART. I asked the lady in a high-up, locked steel box how to purchase a fare, and she told me I could only purchase it from the fare machine. I am not a stupid person, but I found the machine utterly incomprehensible. I went back to the steel box to ask the woman if I could just purchase the fare from her, but she insisted I had to use the machine, and she would not leave her steel box to help me.
    On my second experience with the BART machines, it ate my bill. Luckily, a homeless man was nearby who went to great lengths to entice the transit worker out of his steel box to help me. I ended up tipping the homeless guy for being so helpful. It is pretty sad when an unemployed homeless guy ends up being more helpful than the paid transit workers.
    The problem with all big-city transit agencies I have encountered from a customer service standpoint is as follows.
    1. Lack of maps – not just clearly posted ones but availabilty of paper maps I can take with me and study.
    2. Complex fare rules i.e. fare zones, fare surcharges for certain routes, etc.
    3. Inability for machines and/or people to make change (for example, I have long found the rule that “bus drivers don’t make change” to be frustrating. I don’t like to carry change as a rule, so if a fare is $2.25 and I only have bills, I can either pay $5 or not take the bus. In fact, the $2.25 number seems perfectly designed to be as inconvenient as possible for people who don’t carry a lot of change. Either install machines in buses or at stops that accept credit cards or make change, or reduce the fare to a round number).
    4. Ambiguity about exactly what fare is necessary to get from point A to point C, if it requires a transfer at point B i.e. do you provide transfers? Do I have to buy a day pass? etc.
    5. Ambiguity of scheduling. If line #92 is on the map, does it come every 10 minutes or every hour? If all you have is a map, it may be impossible to tell.
    Transit systems are bureacratic by their nature and often have byzantine rules and quirks. This is ok if you are a regular user. If you lived in this city, you might have known that the fare machines downtown are always broken, that the guy in the booth never has change. Maybe the mall nearby never has lineups and you would buy your tickets there. But to a visitor, your first interaction with a transit agency feels like the first day of class in a new school: everyone else knows where they are going and how to get there, but you are left clutching your timetable, lost and confused, alone, and trying to figure out how to find Room 342.
    What is the solution to this? Here are some suggestions.
    1. Figure out what the point(s) of access are for visitors to your city (i.e. train station, airport) and optimize customer service at those locations. If you can only focus your efforts on improving the experience in one place, start with the downtown train station.
    2. Make sure every transit officer everywhere has maps. A transit officer without maps is like a waiter without menus.
    3. Color code the bus lines on the route maps by level of frequency. This is sort of like an enhanced frequent service map.
    4. Make change. Or make the fare structure or fare collection method (machines that take credit cards) such that you don’t have to.
    5. Make the fare zones easy to understand, and make it such that most places visitors to the city would be going are all within one fare zone.
    You might even want to think “outside the box” and get a bit more radical. For example, one visitor-friendly approach would be to advertise that if you can prove you just arrived in the city, you ride free for your first three days. So if a fare inspection officer comes up to you, and you can produce a train ticket that shows you are a new arrival in the city, it’s free. You could put up signs that say this right at places where people getting off the train would see them. What a relief it would be for a visitor to the city to see this sign, and realize that he has three days to learn the system and figure out how to buy tickets, and for now he can just relax and use his train ticket stub and not have to worry about it. This costs virtually nothing to a transit agency, but starts them off on the right foot with a new arrival.

  21. dale October 5, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    On thanking people, I just had the experience of commuting into downtown Portland from a different quarter of the city than usual — and I just followed the first likely commuter cyclist I saw going more or less toward downtown. As I expected, soon I was in bike lanes, and soon after that I met signs directing me to the closest bikeable bridge. I sailed across the river and downtown, without any delay. I thought — this is fabulous: how many American cities could you do this in? I wanted to write a thank-you note (this is where I finally become apropos) — but I haven’t the faintest idea whom to thank for this. Who placed the signs so usefully? Who designed that wonderful lower-deck crossing of the Steel Bridge? I googled about a bit without coming up with an answer. It wasn’t just the bike lanes that impressed me; it was that someone had really thought about what information a cyclist would need in order to navigate it. It was a user-friendly system from top to bottom. Plug ‘n’ play.

  22. Nathanael October 17, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

    I wonder if proof-of-payment would work better. In Frankfurt they had proof-of-payment with draconian fines (oh, and arrest), and the rate of fare violation is apparently minimal.
    Of course to do that they have to design a decent hard-to-forge ticket, which is also hard. 😛

  23. Nathanael October 17, 2009 at 8:38 pm #

    Now *that’s* bizarre. Dollar coins in the current size, shape, and weight came out in *1976*, which *predates* BART’s fare machines IIRC….

  24. Nathanael October 17, 2009 at 8:41 pm #

    One of the reasons transit agency people don’t get thanked is that people want to *direct* their thanks. *Who* do you thank for something like the fact that the #4 subway train is running perfectly on time? (Technically, the dispatcher and the maintenance crew, but how do you get a message to them?)