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What the MBTA needs to do

The past three weeks haven’t been kind to Massachusetts, with a record-setting winter in both snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures. Snow accumulation that would typically make up two or even three winters has fallen in less than a month.MBTA--train

Not surprisingly, people are frustrated and taking those frustrations out on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), the public transportation service responsible for running hundreds of trains a day in and out of the Boston area. So far, fallout from the winter of 2015 has cost the MBTA scores of derision, and the General Manager of the MBTA her job.

A lot of the criticism isn’t exactly fair—even the most modern trains and brand-new tracks would perform poorly when dealing with 7 feet of snow in the span of a few weeks—but still, while the MBTA deals with financial and technological limitations, one area where the service can make immediate improvements is in the way it communicates to its millions of customers. Here are a few steps the MBTA can take to improve its standing with the public:

  1. “Over-Inform” people on what you’re trying to do to fix the situation. To be honest, when you have commuters who depend on you to get them to work each day, it’s almost impossible to give them too much information when that service is disrupted. The solution is simple: be up-front with a situation, even when it’s bad news. When a train is disabled, say where and when. If you know when it may be up and running again, say so. If you’re still determining how long it will take, then say that. No one wants to hear that a train is “temporarily delayed” and nothing else. And, by all means, if you’re not going to have updates to a situation for more than an hour, don’t say “updates coming soon.”

 

  1. Keep people updated. Recently, I drove to my local MBTA Commuter Rail station to catch an early train to work. I went online before I left and continually checked for news of any possible delays. No news, so that’s good, right? Wrong. I sat and waited as the train became 10, 20, 30, 45 minutes late, and the only update I received was a brief line about “10 to 20 minute delays” on the MBTA web site. After the train was about an hour late, an announcement went out that train service was cancelled for the day. This was frustrating for me and many other commuters, not because the train was cancelled (though that wasn’t great), but because we found out about it so late. Some commuters were there for over two hours. In an age where we have GPS and smart phones, real-time communication for public transportation should be a standard.
  2. Educate. Using social media, the MBTA has an opportunity to educate the public when it comes to its current challenges and solutions. How are the tracks cleared after a blizzard? What do they look like before and after? We’ve heard about the “Hurricane Jet Snow Blower,” a behemoth that removes snow and ice from train tracks. A few video clips or photos showing what the MBTA is up against (it can be all done with a smart phone, no need for an expensive video production) could go a long way for the public to get a better understanding. And if the public is learning about what you’re up against, chances are they will be more understanding.
  1. Make sure all your messages are consistent. Remember that story I mentioned earlier about the train that never came? Making things even more frustrating and confusing were the bright red scrolling messages broadcasted at the station, which kept giving out false information, even after all service for the day had been cancelled. Long after the cancellation announcement, people still lingered in the parking lot because they kept seeing messages such as “Train to Boston Arriving in 9 Minutes.” Then, when the messages said the train was approaching, people scrambled up the stairs and stood in sub-freezing temperatures for a train that wasn’t coming. Clearly, these messages were running on an automated system meant to synch up with the train schedule. It’s great if the trains are on time. But if they’re not…

 

There are just a few ideas that could help repair the MBTA’s relationship with Boston. The good news is, all of these tips work in all kinds of weather.

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