Let's make some meaningful changes to MCTS.

Jason Haas, writing for Milwaukee County First, claims that using Milwaukee County Transit System's buses provides the proof one needs to see the system needs improvement. If that's the case, consider me an expert on the evidence, since I've been using MCTS for nearly 20 years. And while I agree with Haas that it does need improvement, I don't believe it's necessarily of the sort he's suggesting.

Haas cites a flickering "Stop Requested" sign as one piece of evidence that what the system needs in order to improve is new buses. Now that's like sending your car off to the junkyard because the dome light went out. He further illustrates his point by sharing two instances where the bus broke down and riders needed to wait for a replacement bus to arrive. Even considering that I myself have experienced this and understand the frustration, examining and improving the system's existing maintenance program seems a more prudent response when compared to simply replacing buses.

Is MCTS in need of some...some...new buses? Probably. Will a new fleet, or even half a new fleet, be the panacea that improves quality of service and increases ridership? Probably not.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: For MCTS to be truly successful, it must appeal to those who have a choice when it comes to utilizing the service and not just those people for whom riding the bus is their only option. Ten-thousand new buses gilded in gold will do nothing to fix the problems if the existing system is not more effectively managed and utilized. Here are some ways to start:

Manage the drivers
Not to degrade the drivers or what they do, I have to assume that their job descriptions involve more than staring at the road, driving in a circle and coming to occasional stops (if not, there's a problem that needs fixing ASAP). This isn't to say all, or even most, of the drivers are incompetent when it comes to doing their jobs. In fact, I've encountered quite a few who pleasantly greet riders, patiently wait for some who aren't at the stop when the bus arrives or accommodate any number of special rider needs. But for every one of those, there's another driver who won't even slow down and just drive by designated stops as riders wait, whose first response to an inquiry as to why a bus is 45 minutes late is either to stare blankly at the passenger or become defensive and argumentative, ignore absolutely everything taking place outside the confines of the driver's "cockpit" or are either incapable or indifferent to handling an extremely large vehicle. To put it bluntly, quality assurance on drivers is miserable, and if not entirely absent, at least inconsistently applied.

Drivers should be expected, and empowered, to play a role similar to that of a store manager, ensuring customer satisfaction in every way possible. This means they not only take an all-encompassing approach to driving the bus and seeing to immediate passenger needs, but also be proactive when it comes to taking steps to improve the system and provide feedback to management when issues are recognized. As such, both drivers and MCTS need to have the appropriate tools and processes in place so that when problems are identified they are also resolved. Constant and vigilant quality control measures on behalf of MCTS supervisors (beyond that necessary to facilitate performance reviews, which I suspect constitutes a bulk of existing QA) is invaluable and should have a minimal cost impact. And when the rider/customer provides feedback, it should be taken seriously and action should be immediate. I've contacted the customer feedback line on various occasions only to either be hung up on or see no results. If MCTS management isn't taking the service it provides and the feedback it receives seriously, why should its drivers?

Manage the passengers
Based on my last point, it might seem as if I feel all the ills of MCTS rest squarely in the hands of bad operators or inattentive management. The truth is, though, that my years of observations lead me to believe that one of the biggest problems facing the system are some of the riders themselves.

If you ever want a lesson in how absolutely inconsiderate or downright oblivious your fellow human beings are capable of being, get on the bus. The concept of "giving up your seat" for the handicapped or elderly is lost on a distressingly large amount of passengers, young and old alike. A friend of mine once made the observation that people in Milwaukee, unlike those in larger cities like New York or Chicago, are nearly hopeless when it comes to handling themselves in a crowd, and is this ever evident when watching bus passengers. For whatever reason, far too many riders refuse to share their seats with other riders (by either not spreading out across an entire seat or simply carrying their bags in their laps). Moving towards the back of the bus to allow more riders on seems as alien an idea as does not standing right next to the driver (in spite of numerous open seats) and blocking access for those wishing to either get on or off.

iPods with the volume up to 11 and the headphone not in your ears. Using the speaker option on your cell phone to loudly argue with your boyfriend for twenty minutes. Carrying three smelly, dripping bags of empty cans onto the bus for a trip to the recycling center. Begging other passengers for money. Holding loud conversations using language that would make a drunken sailor blush. These are all things I've seen more than once, and in each and every case, it was other passengers that took action. Often it's passengers either moving to another part of the bus or getting off a few stops early (you ride the bus enough you get to know faces and stops, and recognize the frustration they're exhibiting when they've had enough and just get off). A middle-aged man admonished three teens for pushing their way in front of an elderly woman to board, actually forcing them to apologize. The woman who loudly argued with her boyfriend her cell phone was asked by another passenger to "shut the f*** up." Just last night, when the back of the bus offered plenty of standing room but passengers refused to move there, thus making it impossible for more passengers to board, it was me who had to loudly yell out for people to please move back. Once, when an elderly man could barely keep his grip while standing on a bus where a number of young people sat in designated seating, the driver yelled out that the bus wasn't going anywhere until someone gave him their seat.

Once. In almost twenty years, once.

And that's the problem. Riders should not be expected to be the ones to deal with unruly passengers. A few years back there was a highly publicized incident where a restaurant owner put up a sign in his establishment asking parents to "manage" their out-of-control children or they would be asked to leave. Some folks were offended by this, but many more applauded him. His justification was that his customers shouldn't have to be responsible for dealing with having their dining experience ruined by complaining directly to the parents, which had happened more than once. In his opinion it was his business, and therefore his job to make sure that if one customer was ruining it for others, he would have to take care of it.

Bus drivers must be the first line of defense against rude and rowdy passengers. It's their job. If a particular route is rife with problems, MCTS should assign an additional employee, security officer or even a sheriff (depending on severity) to monitor and quell the issue. Problem passengers should be removed from the bus and warned they will be banned from using the system if they prove to be a frequent enough difficulty. Imagine the beauty of a policy stating "MCTS reserves the right to refuse service if you infringe upon the rights of other passengers."

But I know that a driver's attention can't possibly be focused on what's taking place behind him or her at all times. I also recognize that much of what I stated above is reactive, often responding to a problem after it occurs. So how does MCTS encourage riders to be considerate passengers and abide by, perhaps unspoken, rules?

Well, speak them!

Many MCTS buses are equipped with now-blank televisions and systems from the defunct Transit TV network. Almost every bus has some sort of intercom system. With a relatively small investment into technology and production, riders could periodically hear a message something like...

"Welcome to the Milwaukee County Transit System. If taking a seat, please move towards the window to allow other passengers to sit as well. If standing, please move towards the back of the bus to allow other passengers easy access when getting on and off the bus. For the convenience of our disabled and elderly passengers, please leave those seats in the handicapped section available for their use. We hope you enjoy your ride, and thank you for helping us make riding the bus a pleasant experience for you and other passengers."

"Oh, but Dave," you might say, "you're just an old curmudgeon who probably doesn't like people and yells at kids to stay off the lawn." And you just might be right. But that doesn't change the fact that much of the behavior I've outlined above not only negatively impacts the reputation of MCTS (even if it's not directly their fault) but also actively discourages ridership among those who have a choice. The system needs as many unsubsidized or full-fare passengers as possible to be a true success, so every effort should be made to lure these riders on the bus.

Manage the routes
I have a bus pass. I can quickly name at least 20 people I know who do as well. I'd estimate that at the very least fifty percent of the people I ride the bus with use some sort of pass because rarely do I see anyone using cash anymore. So how does MCTS know which routes I use? How often do I use the system? Without actual fares going into the machine at the front of the bus, how in the world does MCTS accurately know who's riding a bus when and where?

Let's expand on this. When a disabled rider on a motorized scooter gets on the bus, requiring two seats to be folded up, is this tracked? When a mother with a large stroller pays one fare, how does MCTS account for the fact that she's actually taking up the space of up to three passengers? If someone utilizes the new bike carriers but takes exceptionally long in doing so, is this noted? If for some reason a single stop sees in influx in the number of riders, say, going from three on an average day to fifteen, is this information flowing back up the MCTS chain of command?

Now let's take a look at the map to the right. Those red dots indicate stops northbound route 15 makes on Water St. in downtown Milwaukee. In just under six blocks there are five stops. The northernmost stop is less than a block from the previous stop. It takes me less than five minutes to walk from the southernmost to the northernmost stop. If I were to expand this map either north or south, you'd find even more stops within a relatively short distance.

What this small example leads me to believe is that someone, somewhere, within MCTS thinks that adding more stops plays an extraordinary role in route management. In combination with all my other questions, it also leaves me thinking that MCTS management is far too dependent on aggregates and ignorant of the details when it comes to allocating resources, resulting in them thinking that more is simply better and some people coming to the then obvious (albeit wrong) conclusion that new and more buses will solve all the problems.

But the truth is that if MCTS is using a variety of estimates based on number of passes sold, paid fares, occasional ridership surveys (never seen one of those in twenty years, either) and other high-level guesstimates as the primary, if not sole, tools in determining resource allocation, then it isn't seeing the forest for the trees.
MCTS needs to implement an ongoing process of data collection providing it with an accurate and up-to-date picture of actual usage. Even if budget constraints or the current economy weren't an issue, using dubiously sourced data to manage the system rises to the level of incompetence. Drivers must monitor and MCTS must analyze who is riding the bus when and where at all times in an effort to fully meet riders' needs. Every person who steps on a bus should be tracked. Exceptional situations involving wheelchairs or strollers should be noted. Delays should be taken into consideration. As GI Joe would say, knowing is half the battle.
Some pre-emptive responses to arguments
But this will still cost money!
Nowhere above did I say it wouldn't. But I do believe that much of this could be implemented within the existing budget, and certainly at a cost far less and with greater benefit than simply buying new buses or expanding routes. More of a bad thing is never a good solution. And I also acknowledge that the system may very well need new buses, but nobody should think for a moment that will solve all of MCTS's problems.
Bus drivers aren't paid enough to do what I'm asking them to do!
Oh really? Apparently being an MCTS driver has the potential of being pretty lucrative. But even then, some of these out-of-control salaries are the result of internal mismanagement. That just goes to show that maybe the people currently in charge aren't the best at managing the system they already have, and certainly shouldn't be expected to make meaningful changes and improvements. Regardless, even the average driver salary should be enough to justify them making the efforts necessary to to ensure a successful transit system.
It's all Scott Walker's fault!!!!!!!111!!!!!!
Oh jeez. Fine. Maybe it is. But if you really think Walker is responsible for the day-to-day operations of MCTS, then you need some lessons in organizational management. Now, I will concede that he should be scrutinizing the existing management staff and determine if changes need to be made or objectives re-prioritized. However, you can't just sit around focusing all your attention on this one man and expect the world to change once he's out of office. And let's not forget that, if I hadn't made it clear by now, the problems I've outlined I've witnessed for nearly two decades, and they certainly pre-date Walker.
The time has come to seriously try and fix MCTS with real solutions. Let's stop chasing our tails and worrying about placing politically motivated blame and get things done!


Nick said...

Do yourself a favor Dave, and if you haven't already, get a copy of Bob Newhart's Button Down Mind album and listen to "Bus Driver School". It's not a comedy sketch... it's a documentary sketch.

David Casper said...

When I was younger I had almost all his comedy albums (on tape). I bet I heard this one. My personal favorite, though, was the speech the submarine commander gave his crew after the sub had been at sea for nearly a year.

"I've always said you can talk to me whenever you'd like, because my door is always open. Actually, it has to be, since someone stole my door."

Nick said...

My personal favorite has always been the Grace L. Fergeson Airline and Storm Door Company.

capper said...

Of course you recognize the fact that it is impossible to try to legislate common courtesy.

But I do like that last part with the analysis of efficiency. So much I even gave you credit for it:


David Casper said...

In no way am I suggesting that we legislate behavior. I am, however, strongly recommending that in order for MCTS to attract more riders it will need to do everything within its power to influence behavior, particularly discouraging that which infringes upon other riders' experience. The system does have the right to remind riders what being a "good" passenger means, and to some extent already does that. But that's apparently not good enough. For whatever reason the idea of being considerate to others seems lost for so many people. Unless the system does something about that, it will remain the least desirable mode of transportation for far too many people.

And I appreciate you recognizing that one of my suggestions is useful in improving MCTS. But I cringed when I read the final statement on your post (that taxes need to be raised). MCTS should make every effort to try and make these changes within its existing budget.

capper said...

In an ideal world, I'd agree with the no new taxes.

Unfortunately, for the past twenty years, the state has been giving either a frozen or shrinking reimbursement on mandated services, which forces continuous cut backs on non-mandated services like transit.

It is getting to the point where we find a dedicated funding source or the whole economy tanks.

But on the bright side, even though it would raise the sales tax, it would drop the property tax.

Nick said...

Part in parcel of the idea of "influencing good behavior" is recognizing the fact that nobody has a right to ride a bus. It is a service provided, and that MCTS must enforce a rule of right of refusal. If you do not behave yourself, you will be kicked off, or potentially banned for a long period of time. If you don't own a car, then get used to walking or paying for a taxi.

I believe a certain segment of the bus riding population believes (and perhaps rightly so at the moment) that their ability to ride a bus is an entitlement, and therefore, that encourages them to act differently than they might normally if they feared some sort of retribution.

That is the cost we pay for how highly we politicize a service which ought to have very little (if any) gov't involvement.