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Capital Metro picks up its customer service game

Monday, June 25, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Austin’s transit agency is putting renewed emphasis on the customers who make up the bulk of its service.

On Monday, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority staff revealed to the board of directors details about a new initiative dubbed the Bus Customer Service Enhancement Plan.

The multifaceted approach is aimed at all aspects of a bus trip, including the wait, the ride and the aftermath.

“What I said right from the start is, I want everything we’re doing to be focused on the customer,” Capital Metro’s new CEO and President Randy Clarke told the Austin Monitor. “At the end of the day, we’re in the customer service delivery business.”

The comprehensive plan encompasses driver training, security, enhanced responsiveness, improved shelters and tweaks to the flagship MetroRapid routes.

Its debut also comes less than a month after the launch of Cap Remap, the agency’s largest bus network overhaul ever, aimed at reversing a years-long drop in ridership that parallels trends in many other U.S. cities.

In 2017, the agency provided just under 30 million rides across its system. Of those, 27.8 million were trips on local buses, University of Texas shuttles or MetroRapids.

The agency has faced criticism, however, for placing unbalanced attention on its single MetroRail line, which served just under 825,000 trips last year.

“I want to make sure that bus customers know that I’m a bus customer too and that I value a bus customer any day of the week just as much as a rail customer,” Clarke said. “All customers are equal to this organization.”

Under the new plan, bus drivers and other employees at the agency’s two bus yards will take a new curriculum focused on better customer service and bus cleanliness. Additionally, more uniformed security personnel will ride buses and post up at stops.

Clarke noted that the agency hasn’t necessarily been lagging in any of those areas.

“We’re an incredibly safe system. But just having uniforms around goes a long way to reinforce the message that we have a secure system,” he said.

The agency is also beefing up its responsiveness to customer feedback. It has already made changes to its social media accounts to provide more interaction with complaints or compliments. And over the weekend, based on demand, it rerouted the No. 350 from its Cap Remap-altered northern terminus at Crestview Station back to the North Lamar Transit Center.

“We really want to just tell the customers, ‘We know there are issues that can be improved. We’re getting aggressive on doing that. Keep telling us what you want us to work on. Not everything will be done tomorrow, and sometimes the answer will be no, but we know we can continually improve,’” said Clarke.

Along with the improved signage the agency rolled out with Cap Remap, the agency is also looking at how it names its MetroRapid stops.

“A good example of that might be Seaholm,” Clarke explained. “Why not Seaholm/Library? We want to do a little bit of analyzing of place-making and wayfinding concepts at our stops.”

The plan will also tackle the sticky issue of bus bunching along the MetroRapid lines. The problem of back-to-back Nos. 801s and 803s became exacerbated when the agency increased the two lines’ frequencies last November. Capital Metro has already taken steps to fix the issue, including bringing pro bono experts from New York-based TransitCenter during the spring.

“There’s always going to be some of that that we can’t control,” Clarke said. “They’re long, long lines, and there is so much city infrastructure, but we think we can make the on-time performance better than it’s been and reduce some of the bunching.”

The new plan will also explore ways to bring new stop amenities online through innovative revenue sources. The idea, Clarke explained, is to accelerate the introduction of better shelters, benches and trash cans at more bus stops.

The agency is already demonstrating improved shade structures at four stops across the city.

“Most of the feedback has been, ‘Yeah, this is great. Now give us more,” Clarke said.

Photo by David Ingram made available through a Creative Commons license.

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