A Lesson From the Transit Leadership Summit: New York Lags Behind

Imagine a metro system where you enter clean and well-lighted subway stations, with quiet platforms because trains swoosh by behind glass walls; where you can pay your subway fare with a credit card; where the subway is part of a seamless system of buses, bikes and safe streets; where the location of the nearest train, bus or bike is always available on your mobile phone. Imagine a staff that aims to make your experience of getting around not only tolerable, but safe and even uplifting.

In many metropolitan areas, this isn’t something you have to imagine: It’s happening. Cities ranging from London to Hong Kong to Montreal are transforming their transit systems to make the customer experience both practical and pleasant. In the New York area, things are getting better, too, but we’re far behind some of our peers in adopting the designs, policies and technologies that emphasize improving the overall customer experience, rather than just the engineering of the system.
 
A few weeks ago in Singapore, RPA hosted its second annual Transit Leadership Summit – a gathering of the chief executives of the world’s biggest transit agencies. For three days, the executives in charge of planning public transportation in New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Washington, D.C., Seoul, Vienna and Montreal got together to discuss challenges they were confronting and share advice. The year before, leaders from transit systems in New York, London, São Paulo, Los Angeles, Mexico City and seven other world cities attended. Both of those meetings were vivid reminders of just how much other world cities are re-imagining how they approach transit, and how much we need to do in New York.
 
In these cities and in many other metropolitan regions, the very mission of many transit operators is changing. Instead of simply moving trains and buses from Point A to Point B, transit agencies now see themselves as part of a broader regional network that helps get people where they want to go using a range of transportation modes – bikes or bike shares, car shares, taxis, express buses, ferries and national railways. Their new purpose is to provide a travel experience that is seamless enough to rival the private automobile, whether or not the agency itself is the one to provide the actual service. 
 
Vienna, for example, is developing a multimodal card to integrate all public transportation in Austria. Transit, long-distance trains, bicycle and car-share programs, and parking facilities will soon share one fare card. Singapore has built large, multimodal transit hubs that integrate connections between subways, light rail and buses. In Hong Kong, stations are designed from the outset to link passengers to offices and retail businesses. And transit agencies around the world are making real-time arrival information available, allowing private app developers to create tools that take adjoining transportation systems into account.  
 
Part of the shift in mission involves making their systems more accessible and welcoming to new and occasional riders. Seoul and Washington, D.C., send staff undercover on the system to observe and evaluate things like the physical conditions of cars and stations as well as signage, announcements and cleanliness. Hong Kong hosts innovation jams - two-hours brainstorming sessions for customers and staff - to generate thousands of ideas about how the system might be improved.
 
Operators also are finding ways to make issuing fare cards less central to their operations. Most cities are focusing on the eventual elimination of fare cards in favor of what are known as merchant-based systems, where transit riders pay using credit cards and cellphones. Singapore and Seoul, which allow passengers to pay using bank cards, have farmed out fare card delivery to the private sector while keeping a toehold in the business. In Singapore, there are two fare card providers – one private company owned by the transit agency, and the other a consortium of banks. In Seoul, a private company partly owned by the Seoul metropolitan government now produces fare cards for cities throughout Korea and overseas as well as in the capital. 
 
Our region has been slower to adopt customer-friendly practices, though we have made progress with the rollout of countdown clocks on some lines and Wi-Fi in a few subway stations. There are additional changes the MTA and other transit agencies could make, including integrating fare collection region-wide and installing platform doors and air conditioning in stations, that would enhance customers’ experience and attract new riders. New York’s transit system is always strapped for cash, but not all of these improvements are very costly. More than anything, what’s required is a shift in mindset, toward customers.