Opinion

To fix subway problems, talk about them

By Jeremy Robinson-Leon |  

November 14, 2017 |  

(Shutterstock)

Like every New Yorker, I’ve experienced my fair share of maddening subway delays. While the ongoing and growing problem has been well chronicled in the press and on social media, the vast documentation of the MTA’s failings is short on relaying immediate solutions.

We’re told by the MTA and outside experts that substantial technical fixes and infrastructure improvements are difficult, expensive and will take a long time. The MTA is investing in tackling the long-term issue and has applied a number of short-term Band-Aidsbut substantial improvement in the rider experience appears elusive.

So what can the MTA do? An answer lies in better communication. As a central priority, not an afterthought, better dialogue with riders would reduce frustration – and potentially even get trains moving faster. The MTA is making gains, like more human voices and new gender-neutral greetings from conductors, but it hasn't yet gone far enough.

Several months ago, after too many mornings in which I arrived at the Bedford L platform to face another endless sea of fellow exasperated humans pushed to the brink of rioting due to delays, I signed up for the MTA’s text alerts. That process is cumbersome – the signup webpage is overly complicated – but I ultimately figured it out.

My strategic proposition was simple: if I had reasonable warning of delays before I reached the station, I’d be less frustrated once I arrived and I could plan my time more effectively, perhaps delaying my commute until the problem had cleared. More on the latter point later, but the first point is particularly important. The psychological benefits of setting expectations are powerful. The more we as humans are able to assess the impact of a problem before actually facing it head-on, the better we’re able to deal with our subsequent feelings. 

In theory, the text alerts should be really helpful. In execution, they’re not. They essentially mirror the status updates on the MTA’s website, MTA.info, but push to your phone.

Take, for example, my experience during the latest subway meltdown on a recent Monday morning. 

An early morning text alerted me to L-train delays due to a train with mechanical problems. Some time later, around 9 a.m., a second text read, “L service has resumed following an earlier incident.” Great, good to go. But when I arrived at the Bedford station at 9:50AM, hundreds of passengers packed the platform eight-deep to the track edge. Over the next 20 or so minutes, four trains stopped but the crowd remained, unable to clear due the immense backup from hours earlier. Out of curiosity, I checked MTA.info, which listed the L line as having “good service.” Insult added to injury. I decided to head to a coffee shop and wait it out.

Status updates on MTA.info and corresponding text alerts are often woefully out-of-sync with the rider experience on the ground. Here’s a reason that’s so problematic: aside from the expectation-setting problem, it makes people feel ignored and powerless. As riders on the platform experience huge delays but see the MTA’s “good service” assessment, the obvious assumption is that the authority isn’t aware of any continuing issues. And if it’s not aware, it must not be doing anything to fix them. That misalignment of experience and communication creates an insidious cycle of frustration.

Imagine a world in which the MTA truly communicated helpful updates in real time, not just on MTA.info and via text, but also over station loudspeakers. The power of seeing or hearing an informative and empathetic message is real – as soon as and as long as there’s a delay – not 30 minutes before, not 30 minutes after.

While the MTA has taken steps to delays and report performance metrics, it hasn’t made a full commitment to more transparent, human communication. That means, instead of claiming “good service,” during a residual delay, acknowledging that “yes, we know there’s still a significant problem and we’re working hard to fix it.” At a basic level, people want to know that their frustration is noticed and shared. The MTA’s announcement of a forthcoming app that will offer better travel information is a good step, but as long as alerts can’t accurately mirror what riders are facing minute-by-minute, it won’t do much good. 

Aside from the benefits to human emotion, there’s an even bigger reason to invest in real-time communication. It’s been well documented that one of the central causes of train delays is platform overcrowding. If status alerts were accurate to the minute – and the MTA simplified the text sign-up process and launched a campaign to encourage riders to enroll or to download its forthcoming app – logic would suggest that overcrowding could be eased. The more people who receive immediate alerts of delays before reaching the platform, the more will stay above ground until the problem has dissipated, resulting in less overcrowding and shorter platform wait times.

The principle of better communication applies not just to major delays before you reach the station and as you wait on the platform, but to every aspect of the MTA’s ongoing work and the rider experience. Weekly updates on system-wide progress, for example, packaged for public consumption, would help to preempt the visceral backlash. Yes, the MTA has been improving here too, but the ability to actually reach the public in a consistent and convincing way is still lacking. (To that end, Gov. Cuomo’s recent attempts to convince riders that they should see improvements if “you look very carefully” are counterproductive.)

The MTA has vowed to improve communication, but curiously the Authority’s 6-Point Plan for overall improvement released in May relegates that idea to a mere passing thought. It deserves high priority, the big seventh point in that plan. Better communication alone can’t solve the subway crisis, but it can vastly improve the customer experience on a daily basis and, I suspect, do that at a lower cost and more quickly than some of the other planned fixes.

From this rider to the MTA: immediate and significant investment in better dialogue with the public will pay dividends in the short term and long into the future.

Jeremy Robinson-Leon is a principal at Group Gordon, a New York-based strategic communications firm.

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