MTA Begins Drive to Put Customers First

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the Metropolitan Transportation Authority about as popular as Oakland Raiders' owner Al Davis, MTA officials are seeking to make riding a bus more like a trip to Nordstrom--customer friendly with fast, reliable service.

A top MTA official has taken to reading "The Nordstrom Way" and consulting the department store chain for advice on its method of doing business, described by a family member as "literally and metaphorically getting down on your knees for the customer."

At the MTA, officials are getting down to serious business, if not on their knees, about improving their treatment of long-suffering bus riders--becoming a sort of Nordstrom-on-wheels.

The county's bus fleet is undergoing its largest expansion in decades. A new campaign will soon be launched to remind bus riders of the "on-time performance warranty," which offers free rides if buses are more than 15 minutes late. Customer suggestion forms will soon be placed on buses. An "adopt a bus stop" program has been established to beautify the places passengers wait for buses.

And while Nordstrom has its mystery shoppers, the MTA has mystery riders who check on service. MTA managers are being required to occasionally ride the bus, too.

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The Customer First campaign couldn't have come sooner. The MTA received 16,376 complaints from riders last year--a 31% increase over the previous year.

"Clearly, our customers' greatest expectation and desire is that the bus be on time; when it is not, they do not hesitate to complain," said an MTA staff report.

Officials attribute the increase in complaints to mechanical problems that sidelined a number of buses.

Rae James, whose title recently changed to MTA executive officer for communications "and customer services," is organizing a conference where transit officials will hear from Walt Disney executives and other companies and from a co-author of the "Nordstrom Way."

Some of the bus improvements are the result of a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups on behalf of poor and minority bus riders. As part of the settlement, the MTA agreed to put more buses on the street, lower the cost of monthly passes and assign more police to the bus system.

Some say that the best customer service would be for the MTA to roll back fares from $1.35 to perhaps the 50-cent level in effect between 1983 and 1986. That was when bus ridership rose to a record 1.7 million boardings a day. Today, MTA buses record about 1 million daily boardings.

The 50-cent fare was needed to get approval for the first of a pair of half-cent sales tax increases approved in 1980 by Los Angeles County voters to fund transit improvements. Then county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, author of the 1980 ballot measure, saw the reduced fare as critical to winning public support for the tax increase.

Marvin Holen, a former president of the now-defunct Southern California Rapid Transit District, said that it may be time to ask voters whether they want the tax money to be used for reducing fares.

Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a plaintiff in the bus riders' lawsuit, said now that the cost of bus passes has been reduced, riders most want to be assured of frequent and dependable service and a seat.

"Our slogan would be, 'No seat, no fare at all,' " he said. "If they want real customer satisfaction and increased ridership, we've got to get more buses on the road rapidly."

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MTA officials say it would cost an estimated $200 million a year to roll back the fare to 50 cents, something that the agency can ill afford while facing a court order to expand bus service and a shortfall in subway construction funds.

Meanwhile, officials are looking at other ways to make bus travel faster, safer and more pleasant. A credit card system for paying fares and sales of bus passes through ATM machines is under study.

The MTA also has begun receiving its first "talking buses," where a recorded voice announces stops and safety messages ("No talking to the operator" and "Don't eat on the bus"). In other cities, the system also plays advertisements.

Buses also are undergoing a make-over: the familiar red and orange stripes will soon be replaced by orange-gold ribbons. ("Service as good as gold," said an MTA spokesman). Buses will be painted a brighter white.

The agency also is assigning discourteous drivers to answer the customer complaint hotline. "They're usually reformed after listening to six weeks of customer complaints," James said.

The MTA has no plans to offer the kinds of commissions or bonuses that Nordstrom offers to its salespeople.

But the agency is planning to recognize outstanding employees. At one bus yard, drivers who go a full month without a complaint receive a $25 gift certificate to--where else?--Nordstrom.

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