Welcoming Guests to Your City: A Reader’s Checklist

On my post on failed welcoming, commenter Pantheon suggested an excellent checklist for transit agencies who want to care about newcomers to their city:

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. … [JW:  I would say color-code all lines by frequency regardless of whether they’re bus, rail or ferry.  Many good European systems do this.]

4. Make change. Or make the fare structure or fare collection method (machines that take credit cards) such that you don’t have to.  [JW:  I would disagree with this only if drivers are collecting fares while their bus or streetcar/tram is waiting.  Historic practice in both Europe and Australasia is for drivers to make change.  It causes a lot of delay.  But of course off-board systems should make change.  Most claim to, but machines often run out of change quickly.]

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.

I think that just about covers it!

14 Responses to Welcoming Guests to Your City: A Reader’s Checklist

  1. Corey Burger October 2, 2009 at 2:27 am #

    5 is increasingly obsolete, especially in North America, where the trend is away from zone structures as the transit orgs attempt to attract more suburban riders.

  2. Alon Levy October 2, 2009 at 1:14 pm #

    There’s no need to make travel free for three days. Just sell passes marketed for tourists, such as the Fun Pass in New York or the Japan Rail Pass.

  3. Pantheon October 2, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    I agree that bus drivers making change would cause too many delays. Off board fare collection is clearly the best approach, though obviously expensive to install. I would love to see the day when you can just swipe your credit card in the on-board fare collection box.
    After I wrote that post, I realized that having to produce your train ticket stub for a free ride is a bit awkward. A better way of doing it would be to co-ordinate with the inter-city rail service so if you buy a ticket from City A to City B, the rail company gives you the 3 day pass for City B’s transit service along with your train ticket. This ensures the same level of convenience for the user, and eliminates the need to advertise it or have some fare inspector suspiciously read the dates on your train ticket stub.
    Co-ordinating with airlines would be a bit more difficult, as they are the one entity that may be even more bureaucratic than transit agencies.

  4. EngineerScotty October 3, 2009 at 10:41 am #

    Patrick, the most efficient way to board busses is with RFID (or other contactless) stored-value or ID cards, such as the Octopus system in Hong Kong. For busses in HK, passengers board at the front only, and can either pay the driver cash (exact change) or use their card, and simply need place it against the reader (a tone indicates whether or not a fare was deducted successfully).
    In general, RFID systems are probably more reliable than swipecard systems, although they are a bit more expensive.

  5. James D October 3, 2009 at 3:39 pm #

    Taking that to its logical extreme, the entire USA needs just three fare “zones” for a certain amount of time’s travel (say, 2 hours, 1 day, or 1 week):
    1) local transit (buses, trolleys, subways)
    2) express suburban transit (express buses, commuter rail)
    3) inter-city transit (including high speed rail)
    That would kill so much balkanized-bureaucracy-related confusion. There really is no need for rules against daisychaining (there comes a point where one starts incurring hotel bills), nor would there be a need for those pick-up/set-down only stops.
    The main difficulties would be:
    1) getting a wide enough agreement between transit operators to participate in such a scheme
    2) apportionment of revenue (perhaps smart-cards are the answer?)

  6. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org October 3, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    James. Smart-cards don’t solve the problem of apportionment of revenue. Integrated fare systems of any technology, ‘smart’ or not, conceal the apportionment of revenue from the uncaring customer, but behind the scenes such apportionment is the issue on which such schemes most frequently founder. I sometimes wonder if the slow uptake of smartcards isn’t so much about problems with the technology as resistance to the institutional changes that these systems require.

  7. Alon Levy October 3, 2009 at 4:55 pm #

    Commuter and intercity rail never have flat fare. With subways, some systems get away with flat fares because distances are short and the original faregates were equipped to control entry but not exit. Mainline rail, which historically has had conductors check fares and which covers longer distances, has no such excuses.

  8. tomtakt October 3, 2009 at 11:46 pm #

    Attaching 3 free days of transit at the destination seems absurd. Many people don’t spend 3 days in their destination, and many more won’t need to use transit while there. Not to mention, 3 days of transit can be quite a large expense compared with the ticket depending on circumstances. (i.e. 29 Euro discount one way train ticket from Frankfurt to Munich, which is easy to get when booked in advance; 12.30 to 30.00 euros for 3 days of transit in Munich depending on desired zones)
    The closest thing I’ve seen, though, is a one-way free ride on local transit (in order to connect to the final destination) for holders of German discount rail cards, but only if the destination is more than 100km away.

  9. Pantheon October 4, 2009 at 2:25 am #

    The specifics of the offer aren’t as important as the principle of it. It could be as little as a one-day or one-trip pass. The point is, when a harried passenger gets off a train in an unfamiliar city the last thing he wants is to have to negotiate the intricacies of the local transit system, particularly when facing the logistical nightmare that Jarratt described. I think the benefits to the city in providing a warm and hassle-free welcome outweigh the costs (in the private sector this is referred to as a “loss leader”). And of course, if the passenger doesn’t use transit then the pass is no skin off anyone’s back.

  10. J October 4, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

    Point 1 can give a very good impression. When I arrived in London at the city airport, which has a DLR station, there were two staff members answering questions and helping with the machines.
    Unfortunately, this great costumer service took a major fail the next weekend when my friend tried to get to the airport. Turns out, the entire DLR system was closed for repairs and no bus substitution service was provided! And there was very little communication on the subject.
    In Boston, the Airport station has a desk area right next to the gates which is manned by someone who will guide people through the machine process. The convention center station is also staffed during certain hours by someone who will both help with the machines and also provide local directions.
    I simply dont understand systems that dont give change at the machines. In the past, when Boston used tokens, trolley stops had a machine that would change your 1 or 5 dollar bill into coins. Now, every station has ticket vending machines that give up to 19.95 in change.
    If a pepsi vending machine can make change, I think a mass transit machine should as well.

  11. Daniel October 4, 2009 at 11:43 pm #

    In Victoria, Australia, the long-distance V/Line tickets include local travel at either end of your trip. Your V/Line ticket is also a Metcard.

  12. jon October 6, 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    Great topic
    Fareless square, ride free area in Portland and Seattle are good examples of making transit welcoming to visitors.
    TriMet would often place customer service people at the Portland airport and at special events such as the rose garden arena to help irregular riders and visitors to buy tickets (many times they would sell the tickets directly to customers), they’d also help give directions and answer questions. I havent seen this too many other places. I want to say the only other time was on the JFK Airtrain.
    I agree completely about simple fares structure. My favorite example of overcomplicating fares is Metro in Seattle… you dont always pay when you board (sometimes its when you leave), and it depends on where you board and when you board. Could that be anymore confusing to visitors or irregular riders or even regular riders?
    Re: off vehicle fare collection:
    The solution now is to use electronic meter-like machines, the idea is that these electronic parking meters are now on every block with little problem so you can also use them for transit fares. DC Circulator and Seattle South Lake Union Streetcar are two examples using these meter machines for transit fares.
    Station area maps are another good thing. The ones in the NYC Subway stations are outstanding, showing everything within 1/4-1/2 mile from the station and show address numbers and all points of interest: all public facilities, most building names, major stores. I really wish the MTA in NYC would publish all their station area maps in a travel-sized book that they could sell.
    I always think one way couplet routes confuse and discourage transit ridership, this is documented in NYC in the mid-20th century. 2-way on 1 street is much more attractive to transit riders and clearer.

  13. Jason Karp December 3, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    All transit systems should have a good website.
    I’ve found that if a transit agency has a good website I can research the system, review routes and schedules, how to ride, how much the fare is, etc. By the time I get to the City I’m fairly comfortable with the system. The research is actually fun for me.
    I’ve used this to great effect when using transit in Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, and New York City among other places.
    Thus it is crucial that the website is up-to-date which I’ve found is not always the case-especially in smaller cities.

  14. Justin N February 1, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    On the Amtrak California corridor services (Capitol Corridor, San Joaquins, and Pacific Surfliner), asking your conductor will get you round-trip paper transfers to most transit agencies that serve the train station. (Notably absent are connections at Los Angeles and OCTA in Orange County.) Unfortunately, this service is not available on the much-larger Thruway connecting bus service, which serves essentially everywhere in the state. But it’s a start.