Recently it seems I’ve entered into my own little corner of commuting hell, which is a neat trick when you work from a home office as I do. But I’ve been making a lot of trips to the outer boroughs lately; pretty much every weekend (and on occasional weekday evenings too). I’ve been traveling to Brooklyn because that’s where the new baby in our family resides, or to Queens, because that’s where my mom and dad live—proud, newly-minted grandparents.

Now any true New Yorker is prepared for the everyday deprivations of our public transportation system, they’re numerous and not worth mentioning here. But, I’ve been thinking a lot about the MTA lately, partly because I’ve had a lot of time during my commutes to think and partly because the MTA has been working hard to draw riders’ attention to all the great achievements they’ve been making to our transit system, or, at any rate, that they are in the process of making. Whether on buses or in subway cars or stations, it’s hard to miss the signs touting the future that’s only just down the line, maybe four or five years away: the second avenue subway, the extended 7 line, the redesigned Fulton Street terminal, just to name a few.

It all sounds great. It all looks great from those artists’ renderings. Yes, I think, sign me up for that subway experience, because the one I’m having in the present day—

  • Where some trains run every 20 minutes on the weekends, and that’s if they’re running at all, and
  • You can’t actually transfer between lines at critical transfer points like Fulton Street during, oh, I don’t know, the Memorial Day holiday, or weekends in general, and
  • The conductors provide inaccurate (or no) information because they’re as confused as we are about which lines are or are not in service or operating with changes in service on any given evening or day—

This experience is not just a really bad experience; it’s really much worse than I or any of us who paid our full fare deserve.

But has spending whatever amount of money the MTA has trying to convince all of us severely inconvenienced by the myriad disruptions to service that the future is worth it, in fact, been worth it? Or would that money be better spent trying to lessen the impact of those very same service disruptions and confusion by, say:

  • Training some of their employees, or hiring a few new ones, to provide accurate information at key stations about how to deal with service changes—and not from behind Plexiglas windows when you can find one of the remaining information booths not yet dismantled, but right out in the open near the turnstiles like Wal-Mart greeters? Or,
  • Investing some funds and thought into fixing the Trip Planner wizard so that it doesn’t provide erroneous directions that fail to account for the ever-changing service disruptions? If the amount of information is too much for the MTA’s computer system, how do they expect conductors to get it right? Or,
  • Providing more trains on those lines where passengers are directed to go several stops in the opposite direction from where they want to go, then transfer to a train in the right direction, in order to reduce their platform wait-times and mitigate added commuting time, or
  • If that last one can’t be done because adding trains is extremely costly or it would cause way too much congestion on the tracks, how about providing information to passengers in a variety of ways and at different access points along their journey about alternative routes to get where they want to go rather than through poorly designed paper signs that are have limited information and garbled audio announcements at select stations and in subways, which don’t always have working speakers.

So here’s the bottom line for me: if I’m your customer all the promises in the world of the great things to come—unbelievable products; innovative services; beautiful, state-of-the-art facilities; fantastic savings; discounts; freebies; etc.—aren’t going to make me love you any more than I do if you’re not already treating me like you actually care about me and value my business. But, and this is a BIG BUT, all those promises could certainly make me love you a whole lot less if you’re so focused on what you’re going to deliver to me tomorrow that you ignore the needs and problems I have today. And if you happen to be causing me problems and ignoring them at the same time, I really couldn’t care less how bright a future you envision for me, because today you are the source of a huge amount of my pain.

Good will, even to a monopoly like the MTA, is still a valuable commodity requiring careful cultivation. And, in my book, the transit authority’s current strategy leaves way too much to be desired to be truly effective.

Have you been riding the subway lately and seen the MTA’s campaign? What do you think: Is it building good will by refocusing attention on all the great improvements to come, or, by contrast, highlighting what isn’t working for the MTA now?