There are essentially two kinds of people who ride transit on a regular basis: the “choice riders” like me, and the “obligate riders,” those who lack another means to get to where they need to go.

Why do I choose public transit? Yes, it take a bit longer to get to work each day, but unlike driving, I spend my time on transit as I choose, catching up on e-mail, connecting with friends on Facebook or simply relaxing as the world slips past my window. In case it’s not clear, I really like transit.

As much as I prefer using public transportation, it’s getting more difficult for me to like it. The reason boils down to two words: customer service.

Last week I was caught in a service outage on the Orange Line after work. I boarded the train at 5th and C that arrived 20 minutes late. No announcement was made, and no mention of the outage was listed on the new light boards MTS installed at the station where I boarded. After pulling out of 12th and Imperial, the train announced a track closure and our next stop would be our last. An impromptu “bridge-bus” was waiting to take passengers to the 47th Street station.

Unfortunately, the bus driver didn’t know the route, and passengers had to shout at him to stop after he overtook the station. He let people out a half-mile away. I walked to the station, though many stayed on the bus, pleading for a closer drop-off. I saw some people from the bus board at the Euclid Avenue the station – apparently they persuaded him to take them there.

While this experience was unusual in its severity, it is an unfortunate example of MTS’s approach to customer service. Fortunately, there are things MTS can do.

For starters, make customer service a priority. I often get the sense that making sure everyone has paid his or her fare is the highest priority. In transit jargon it’s called “fare box recovery.” How about instead we ensure all employees understand that their first responsibility is to make sure passengers have the best possible transportation experience. Transit officers have a demanding job, but they should focus first on creating an atmosphere that ensures customers feel safe and comfortable. Do that, and the fare box recovery will be just fine.

Second, we all know that equipment breaks and things sometimes don’t go as planned. If a trolley is going to be late, announce the delay over the loudspeaker or on the light boards at the trolley station. People don’t like delays, but they like uncertainty and being kept in the dark even less. Keep customers in mind by keeping them informed.

Third, it’s a given that trolleys and buses are going to get dirty and messy when they are used by tens of thousands of people daily. Keeping up with this is no easy task, but the condition inside some vehicles needs to be addressed and addressed quickly.

Finally, improving the choices for how we pay transit fares would be a good way to improve the very first interaction between customers and MTS. KPBS recently revealed that the Compass Card leaves customer data vulnerable to identity theft. That’s no way to attract customers. Moreover, most transit systems have a card that provides stored value. You load up the card with a certain dollar value and each time you ride, the fare is deducted from the card. Here in San Diego, the Compass Card has no stored value, but rather an expiration date, which is great for riding every day with a monthly pass but not so great if you only ride five or six times a month. It will still cost $72.

Again, I ride the trolley by choice, but some people must use transit whether they like it or not. Whether you are a choice rider or an obligate rider, everyone deserves a better experience than what they are getting.

I would love to see transit ridership increase in San Diego. Until MTS begins to treat their riders as valued customers, to create the best possible experience for passengers riding the trolley or a bus, it’s just not going to happen.

Jim Stone is executive director of Circulate San Diego.

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