On a recent Tuesday evening I walked from my apartment on the west side of Capitol Hill into downtown to pick up a friend for an evening. The plan was to ride the bus to Eastlake for a quick dinner and concert. It was rush hour and downtown was alive with commuters anxious to get home. We watched as the bus we needed sped past us at the stop. It was standing room only capacity and the driver was unwilling to let any more riders aboard. Minor disappointment subsided quickly amid the din of an entertaining downtown crowd of office workers, tourists, students and various street life awaiting their next bus. We waited thirty-five minutes on the corner of 6th and Olive with only one bus bound for the Eastside coming past our stop. OneBusAway didn’t have another bus within a twenty-minute window. We then tried our luck in the bus tunnel – thinking there would be more flow coming through those stops. After another twenty minutes with only one bus coming through the tunnel we decided to walk back up Olive to my parked car and drive to our show. Two would-be riders were foiled by an inconsistent transit system at the height of rush-hour in the heart of downtown.
There are many examples of products that delight their consumers. Apple has made a habit of introducing consumer electronics that legitimately instill positive emotion within their owners. The Saturn brand accomplished this feat in the late 1990s developing a loyal customer base that evangelized the product and sold vehicles on a relatively small marketing budget. We need a similar brand appeal for transit in Seattle and any other major metropolitan area. The experience needs to be such a ‘no-brainer’ that anyone who decides to get out from behind the wheel of their car will have no remorse or regret. It should be a relief. Transit and density advocates are fighting to change intrinsic, and deeply imbedded behavior. This is like trying to sell an iPhone to an IT department at a big company responsible for thousands of loyal BlackBerry users. The product better delight the customer.
Rules of thumb to generate the coveted switching user should include:
- A doggedly consistent and predictable schedule, akin to a utility – we expect our toilets to flush and lights to turn on every time.
- Frequent and convenient service – we’re all busy and relatively impatient. Americans generally covet their personal time.
- A fluid and latency-free communication system is a must– OneBusAway and Metro Communications are great ideas, but hampered by little funding and inconsistent information feeds.
- We need to know when exactly a bus or train will be there and when it will be late – no excuses, the car is often just waiting to be driven.
- Things that would bring delight to customers include:
- Wifi access for personal devices – subscription service should be reasonable.
- Approachable and friendly customer service throughout the system – no grumpy bus drivers.
- A high standard for cleanliness and comfort of transit vehicles.
- Additional HOV lanes dedicated to busses and van pools.
If we have a hard time retaining the loyal customers who are willing to plan their lifestyles around transit – we are a long ways from acquiring many switchers. A delightful transit experience is conceivable and attainable. Focus on the execution in delivering this experience is needed.