Winter 2019 Issue

Transit Agencies Turning to Customer Service

Storefronts Enable Personal Connection with Riders

San Diego MTS
San Diego Metropolitan Transit System
operates a store near Petco Park.

It may not be as widely known as Melrose Avenue or Rodeo Drive but La Brea Avenue holds its own among Los Angeles’ trendy streets. Until recently, an arresting storefront of shimmering turquoise and teal tiles stood at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard amid the artisanal pizza restaurants, mixology bars and vintage clothing shops.

Despite appearances, it didn’t sell Japanese denim, nor did it spin drum-and-bass until 2 a.m. Far more humbly, it sold transit passes, collected lost items, and dispensed — for free — information about the nation’s second-largest transit agency. 

The center was recently relocated to make way for Los Angeles Metro’s subway extension, but when it was open, it set an important tone of the agency’s relationship with the riding public. 

Transit agencies, whether they run buses, trains, ferries, bike share systems, or other mediums of mobility, exist in a state of paradox. While their vehicles, signage and street furniture is highly visible and they serve millions of customers each year, many lack a physical connection with their customers. But some transit providers are working to change that.

During a time when there are apps and websites for just about everything — including purchasing train tickets and viewing schedules — some transit agencies are turning to storefronts to better serve their customers.

“What it really provides is for somebody to be able to walk in and get immediate service. I think it satisfies an immediate need,” said Adrian Paniagua, supervisor of San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s customer service center. “I think the philosophy here is it’s an essential component to overall customer satisfaction. We have a 90-plus percent satisfaction rate with our customers. We want to keep it that way.”

Los Angeles Metro’s storefront customer service center is one of four spread throughout the agency’s service region (not counting the shuttered La Brea location), which roughly corresponds with the boundaries of Los Angeles County. Its network is among the most extensive. A handful of other agencies operate similar service centers. TriMet in Portland, Oregon, runs a service center in Pioneer Square. San Diego’s MTS runs one near the Petco Park baseball stadium playfully called “The Transit Store.” The Utah Transit Authority has four throughout the Salt Lake City area. 

While specific services differ, each of these brick-and-mortar centers are designed to make the transit experience a little more tangible, a little more transparent, and, from a marketing standpoint, a little more appealing. 

As a practical matter, most storefront service centers are retail operations. They sell monthly transit passes and other tickets. This retail option is especially important for passengers without internet access. Some serve as lost-and-found centers, accumulating a predictable stock of castoff umbrellas and decaying groceries. Perhaps most importantly, they field every imaginable question from passengers. 

“It has helped people feel that they’re not lost among hundreds of thousands of riders,” said Taylor Gill, assistant transit store supervisor at San Diego MTS. “They get to their jobs, their doctor’s appointments. If you can’t trust your transportation, you’re not going to use it. We let them know we care and will find a way to get them moving again.”

Glen Becerra, executive officer for marketing at Los Angeles Metro, said in-person services can be crucial for elderly passengers or others who do not have access to or are not comfortable with technologies such as wayfinding apps or online route maps. 

“At the end of the day, we are a big government agency that, for some, might feel very impersonal,” Becerra said. “These customer service centers are the next step to that, to make sure that we’re exceeding expectations when it comes to customer support.”

Even if the number of passengers who walk into a storefront pales in comparison with an agency’s overall ridership, proponents say the opportunity to speak face-to-face can be invaluable. 

“Any type of ticket outlet where you can interact with a brand face-to-face is really important,” said Jon Bell, manager of customer experience at Portland TriMet. 

Moreover, the value of customer service centers can extend far beyond the transactions that take place there. 

Branding and marketing pose perennial challenges to transit agencies, which try to attract customers but do not offer “products” the way conventional businesses do. Whereas some agencies do relatively little marketing — under the theory that a ubiquitous service advertises itself — others run sophisticated campaigns to raise their profiles, encourage regular passengers, and attract discretionary and occasional passengers. Gill said, for instance, that San Diego’s Transit Store is frequented by comic book characters and superheroes who visit during the city’s annual Comic-Con. 

“Public transit needs to compete in that realm for those choice riders and that has become critically important,” said Alex Bitterman, chair of the Department of Architecture and Design at SUNY Alfred State College of Technology. “If someone grew up thinking of public transit as a potential last resort, it’s incumbent upon the operators of public transit systems to help to brand their systems, to change the minds of those choice riders.”

Bitterman said customer service centers can rise to the level of the Apple Store, where products that can be purchased online become more appealing through the store’s presentation. That approach may become increasingly important as agencies compete with new mobility options, such as slickly branded ride-hailing services and even electric scooters. 

“Public transit agencies are going to need to really work or redouble their efforts in order to convince folks that it’s a cost effective and good option relative to the others that are on the table,” Bitterman said. “My sense is that there’s going to be a need for more of these centers.” 

More fundamentally, storefronts give agencies the chance to extend a personal touch. 

“I think the customer service centers are critical because they offer a human touch in what can be an impersonal world,” said Los Angeles Metro’s Becerra. “Every phone call you make to a major corporation you get an automated AI interface.”

San Diego MTS

For all the potential benefits that storefronts may offer, organizations that are used to shuttling thousands of people around cities should be circumspect when approaching the retail business. Bitterman said that agencies should not open storefronts on a whim or simply because they perceive a trend. 

“Is it because other agencies are doing it?” Bitterman said. “Or is it because I really feel there is a need in this community to educate people?”

Those that do should be mindful of putting customer service centers where they’re going to be both accessible to passengers who need services and to discretionary riders who might happen upon them. 

“Location, location, location. Location is everything,” said Vanessa Smith, director of customer programs and services at Los Angeles Metro. “You want to make it centralized. You want to look at the demographics of the folks that you serve.”

TriMet operates only one such center, but agency officials say that a strategic location is the key to its success. 

“It’s lovingly referred to as ‘Portland’s living room,’” Bell said. “Pioneer Courthouse Square is prime real estate. That location generates 7,500 sales per month — and that doesn’t include the number of visitors who come in to ask questions but do not make purchases.” 

And, of course, service centers must be staffed by true experts — people who can serve as walking, talking maps and timetables. 

“Knowing your system is really important,” Gill said. “We have clerks there who have been there for 15 years. That knowledge is so crucial.”