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Courtesy Lessons May Help MTA Turn Corner on Ridership

Ralph Kramden would never have passed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new class for bus drivers.

Among the lessons: Smile.

The MTA is trying to become more customer friendly--sort of the Nordstrom of public transit--and in turn put a smile on riders’ faces.

Complaints about buses arriving late or not at all are at the highest level in several years. Los Angeles’ fleet is one of the nation’s oldest and most crowded. All this has made the drivers’ jobs as stressful as police work, officials say. “We’re out there dealing with the public between eight and 12 hours a day,” said Harvey Brown, a driver-turned-instructor at the MTA’s new Transit Institute. “We’re exposed to every kind of situation, and we’re unarmed. Our only defense is our training.”

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Drivers are taking a two-day class that includes a video, “Strategies for Dealing With Difficult People.” And they are encouraged--though not required--to smile and greet passengers.

“We show them why smiling is an appropriate strategy for increasing ridership,” said William Frazier, operations instruction project manager. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

But one driver said, “What good does it do to smile if we aren’t providing on-time service, if the bus is filthy and there is no security?” He declined to give his name for fear his superiors wouldn’t be smiling upon hearing his comment.

Some drivers say some passengers need the courtesy training more than they do.

The classes are designed not only to reduce confrontations between drivers and passengers--162 assaults on drivers were reported last year--but to make the often difficult chore of riding a bus in Los Angeles a more pleasant experience.

In doing so, the MTA hopes to boost bus ridership, which has dropped from 1.7 million boardings a day in the mid-1980s to 1 million today.

Officials see the training as a fast and inexpensive way to improve service while they seek to implement a court order mandating $1 billion in bus improvements, including putting more buses on the street to relieve crowding.

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Peter Freeman, a 50-year-old driver, said that when he first heard about the training, he thought, “What are they coming up with now?” But after taking the class, he has applied the techniques to deal with a troublemaker.

A passenger was threatening another passenger, Freeman said, when he stopped the bus and asked, “ ‘What are you doing? . . . You have a choice,’ I said. ‘You can either keep quarreling with people, but I won’t move the bus. . . . Or you can sit there quietly, and I’ll take you wherever you want to go.’ ”

When drivers first go to work for the MTA, they undergo a wide range of training, from practicing defensive driving in the dry Los Angeles River to sensitivity training. Drivers annually must take eight hours of refresher courses in safety procedures.

At the Transit Institute, housed in a classroom at MTA headquarters, the training has been expanded to 16 hours and covers more topics, with an emphasis on customer service.

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Drivers are taught how to say, “Please move to the rear of the bus” and other phrases in Spanish. Some drivers also have asked for the phrases in other languages.

The training includes new strategies for defusing difficult situations--from fare disputes to unruly passengers.

The videotapes are provided by Seattle-based Strategies Training Systems, which has conducted similar training for more than 100 transit agencies around the country.

“We teach [drivers] to take responsible control,” said Joe Hixon, the company’s managing partner. “You have to do more than push the pedal and turn the wheel.”

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Until now, if a passenger boarded the bus and refused to pay the fare, MTA drivers delivered a “one-time courteous, professional request to comply with the rule,” Frazier said.

“If the customer refused to comply and that inappropriate behavior became detrimental to other customers, then we called the police.”

Under the new strategy, drivers “engage the difficult customer to help them understand” the rule, Frazier said.

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Class participants play the roles of bus driver and difficult passenger.

Ellen Levine, MTA executive officer of operations, who came up with the idea of the Transit Institute, said drivers are being encouraged to develop a new attitude about serving customers--even if it means bending a rule, so long as it is safe.

MTA rules prohibit drivers, once a bus pulls away from the curb, from stopping--even if passengers are giving chase.

Under the new “customer first” initiative, drivers can stop after pulling away from the curb if it is safe.

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On the first day of the class, drivers are given a 148-question quiz testing their knowledge of safety rules, emergency procedures and other topics, but no one flunks. “It is more to see how we are doing as an agency,” Frazier said.

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Elsewhere, the agency has been putting “How Are We Doing?” cards on buses and trains, asking riders to grade drivers and the service.

It also has reduced waits on its 1-800-COMMUTE bus and train information hotline, from as long as half an hour to an average of five to seven minutes.

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Soon callers will be able to leave a phone number and receive a call back within 10 minutes, officials promise.

A new feature also tells callers how long the wait is for the next operator. Operators can enter the origin and destination of bus trips, then turn the call over to a computer, which will give callers the route and schedule. The system allows the 30 operators to more quickly answer the 7,000 calls received daily.

Scott Mugford, deputy executive officer for communications, said the improvements are a far cry from the system in use 15 years ago, when operators had to unfold maps and timetables.

Michelle Caldwell, director of finance and administration for transit operations, said there is a new culture at the MTA.

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“If you smile at me, I’m going to smile back at you.”

Richard Simon can be reached by e-mail at richard.simon@latimes.com or the old-fashioned way at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.


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