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17 chapter three Survey reSultS: extent and nature of the Problem of difficult cuStomerS Survey methodology The purpose of any TCRP Synthesis is to summarize the current state of the practice within the tran- sit industry, usually requiring a survey of public transit agencies to provide insight and information on agency experiences. The APTA electronic membership directory, available to APTA members on its website, served as the source of identifying the appropriate agencies and people to contact for this survey. An initial e-mail was sent to 100 agencies notifying them of this project and asking if they would be interested in participating. From that initial inquiry, 49 transit agencies responded positively and were sent the survey instrument. Of the 49 agencies that indicated they would partici- pate, 41 ultimately completed and returned the survey, for a response rate of 84%. The respondents represent transit agencies of all sizes, from those with only 24 vehicles to those with more than 1,000 vehicles. These agencies are located in 20 states from every geographic sector of the country and the District of Columbia. The name, location, and size of the agencies are listed in Figure 6 and Appendix B. The survey asked a series of questions intended to gauge the extent and the nature of the problems transit agencies have with difficult customers. To better understand the nature of difficult customer situations, one of the questions asked: â¢ âWhat have been the most challenging/difficult customer situations to deal with? What have been the most frequent?â The 41 transit agencies that responded to these questions offered a variety of answers, although clearly the most challenging and frequently occurring difficult customer situations deal with fare disputes, customers who are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, or people with mental/ emotional challenges. Often all three issues can be involved with the same passenger. Tables 1 and 2 provide a quick snapshot of the types of situations transit agencies face more often than they or their customers would like. The tables identify each type of incident and how many different agencies reported that it was either the most challenging situation or the one that occurred most frequently. Most transit agencies identified only one situation in each category, but a few listed more than one. Because agencies were asked to identify the most challenging or frequently occurring situation, the list is not necessarily a comprehensive one that enumerates all of the difficult passenger situations that agencies face. Disputes over fares are the most challenging and the most frequently occurring difficult passenger situation reported. Passengers might pay no fare or partial fare, or present fare media that is invalid. It is now common practice for vehicle operators to advise the passenger of the correct fare but not to argue over the issue in the hope that a physical confrontation can be avoided. However, violating passengers often act indignant and offended and create a sceneâwhich is embarrassing to the operator and might send a message to other passengers that all one needs to do to avoid paying a fare is complain loudlyâbut not to the point of causing the operator to call a supervisor. As reported by responding agencies, customers who have mental/emotional challenges may present problems because transit operators may find it challenging to explain the transit systemâs policies to them. It is difficult for a bus operator, customer service agent, or paratransit vehicle operator to know just what to do without endangering himself/herself or other customers.
18 FIGURE 6 Locations of transit agencies that responded to the survey.
19 Type of Difficult Passenger Situation Number of Agencies Reporting Fare disputes 11 Customers with mental health issues exhibiting erratic behavior 9 Customers under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol 7 Passengers upset at late bus or missed connection 4 Assaults on operators 3 Disruptive student passengers 2 Poor hygiene of customers (particularly people who are homeless) 2 Abusive language toward operator or passengers 1 False injury claims 1 Fights or arguments among passengers 1 Customers disobeying grade crossing warnings at commuter rail stations 1 Disputes over flag stop policy 1 Arguments over storing items in wheelchair docking space 1 Use of firearms 1 TABle 1 MOST CHAllengIng TyPeS OF DIFFICulT PASSengeR SITuATIOnS TABle 2 MOST FRequenTly OCCuRRIng TyPeS OF DIFFICulT PASSengeR SITuATIOnS Type of Difficult Passenger Situation Number of Agencies Reporting Fare disputes 13 Customers under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol 6 Rudeness of customers (profanity, verbal abuse, discourteous behavior) 4 Customers with mental health issues exhibiting erratic behavior 3 Passengers angry over being passed by 3 Disruptive student behavior on vehicle 2 Passengers blocking aisles or failing to fold strollers and carts 2 Customers who demand immediate recompense when they miss their bus (even if due to poor planning on customerâs part) 2 Conflicts with regard to ADA issues (service animals, priority seating, use of wheelchair securement area) 2 Passengers angry over late bus 1 Talking too loudly on cell phones 1 Smoking of e-cigarettes 1 Those sleeping on the bus or train 1
20 Customers who are intoxicated present similar problems. Such customers pose a safety hazard for the bus operator and other customers and sometimes exhibit uninhibited behavior. Such cus- tomers have a greater possibility of creating a service interruption because of the higher chance that the bus may need to be stopped for assistance from local police or because of excretion of bodily fluids. Customers with poor hygiene pose unusual challenges. Two agencies noted that it is problematic to address the customer in a sensitive way without offending or making one feel uncomfortable. Tables 1 and 2 show the most frequently occurring and most challenging difficult customer situations, but other types of situations were mentioned in other parts of the completed surveys, including â¢ eating and drinking onboard transit vehicles; â¢ Standing in front of the white line in the bus; â¢ Refusal to wear a seat belt in a wheelchair; â¢ Refusal to give up a seat for a senior; â¢ Bringing nonservice animals aboard; â¢ Attempting to get on or off at unofficial stops; and â¢ Playing music too loudly on the bus or train. Significance of difficult cuStomer SituationS for tranSit agencieS The following question was included in the survey to better determine the significance of difficult passenger situations: â¢ âDo you think difficult customer situations affect transit ridership? Do you have evidence of any kind to support that?â Somewhat surprisingly, four of the 41 responding agencies reported that they did not believe dif- ficult customer situations affected transit ridership. One noted that 74% of their riders had few travel options, and 66% used transit to get to or from work, causing them to rely on the service no matter what might occur during their travel. Another noted that they found no correlation between customer complaints and ridership statistics, whereas another said it might have an impact on a particular trip but not on system ridership in general. However, more than 90% of the responding agencies stated their belief that difficult customers can affect transit ridership negatively, but relatively few of them could provide statistics to quantify the magnitude of the impact. Most agencies said it was common sense to conclude that negative experiences caused by difficult customers would make transit less attractive to other passengers. Almost all agencies noted that the evidence they rely on is anecdotal. Manatee County Area Transit in Florida stated that the reactions the agency sees from passengers when reviewing a video of dif- ficult customer incidents provide a stark reminder of how seriously concerned passengers are when such an incident occurs. A number of transit agencies reported receiving negative feedback regarding difficult passengers through phone calls, letters, e-mails, social media, and community meetings. The Mountain line Transit Authority of Missoula, Montana, reported five phone calls received from people who stated that unpleasant encounters with individuals who may be homeless and passengers who were drunk or on drugs caused them to discontinue their use of the bus system. The primary reason difficult passengers can affect ridership, as reported by almost a dozen respondents, was that disruptive or threatening behavior can clearly influence peopleâs perception of safety. âSafetyâ in this case is related to feelings of personal safety while riding rather than feeling endangered as a result of potential vehicular accidents. Three agencies noted that because of senior citizensâ vulnerability and concern for their own physical safety, their use of transit was especially affected when difficult customers engage in activities on transit vehicles or facilities. The northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (nAIPTA) also noted that parents in
21 their community had expressed concern about allowing their children to ride transit when they heard reports of disturbances or disruptive passengers. long Beach Transit (lBT) in California offered objective evidence of the negative effects of difficult customers on transit ridership. According to data from lBTâs Fiscal year 2015 Customer and Community evaluation Survey, one half of one percent (0.5%) of people who no longer ride lBT responded that it was personal safety concerns that influenced their departure from riding the system. In a market segmentation study conducted by the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Denver, Colorado, those who indicated safety was an important factor in transportation mode choice were either more or less likely to report having ridden RTD services within the past 12 months, depending on whether they perceived public transportation to be safe. The Transit Authority of northern Kentucky (TAnK) reported the specific loss of ridership from a park-and-ride service that served an area that had attracted a dedicated group of mostly middle-aged riders. The route also serves a busy industrial area that recently hired a lot of temporary employees; those businesses attract a more transient and younger rider, which made the established riders feel uncomfortable because of boisterous behavior by the younger riders. In the past 2 years, ridership on the park-and-ride service has decreased sig- nificantly. Two other agencies noted that choice riders and elderly passengers are careful to avoid routes and times where there is expected disruptive behavior. A number of agencies pointed out that difficult customers who cause disturbances have a greater impact on new or choice riders than on riders with fewer mobility choices. Two agencies pointed out that not only would these new or choice riders be less likely to ride in the future, they would also be less likely to recommend the service to anyone else, thereby affecting future ridership growth. One agency noted that any incident that is shared through social media gets magnified and has greater impact on the image of the transit agency than in the past, when only those on a vehicle or at a facility at the time would be aware of the negative incident caused by a difficult customer. Another noted that incidents that become more widely known have the ability to erode the confidence people have in the transit agency and contribute to a negative image of transit in the community. Transit agencies also reported that in addition to negatively affecting image and ridership, incidents with difficult passengers can cause service to be interrupted, making the system less reliable and causing passengers to be delayed in arriving at their destination. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) reported 550 hours of service delay in 2015 resulting from incidents of broken glass caused at least in part by irritated or destructive passengers and affecting 32,500 passengers. Poor schedule reliability can discourage transit ridership. These types of incidents also can cost the transit agency additional money for maintenance and increased security. how well do tranSit agencieS track difficult cuStomer SituationS? Another question on the survey was asked to determine how closely and carefully transit agencies track the difficult customer situations they experience: â¢ âDo you keep track of the number and type of difficult customer situations you experience in your system on a regular basis? Do you have an example of your records that you keep that you are willing to share that show what types of difficult customer situations you track?â Most transit agencies record the incidents that occur on their vehicles and at their facilities. However, none of the agencies surveyed kept track of incidents involving a category they referred to as âdifficult customers.â This is not surprising because the definition of âdifficult passengerâ was created as part of this TCRP Synthesis report. It would take a good deal of effort for transit agencies to review their various records to identify all the types of difficult customer incidents that have been described in this report. However, some agencies indicated that they are getting closer to being able to retrieve such information in the near future through queries of databases they keep. A variety of responses were received to the question of whether agencies track the number and type of difficult
22 passenger situations they experience. The Champaignâurbana Mass Transit District (CuMTD) in Illinois logs customer complaints using a program called Service Desk in their Fleetnet management software. The program logs complaints received by phone, letter, e-mail, or social media, and each incident is given a case number. However, the agency does not have aggregate reports on complaint categories, noting such categories are not easily synthesized or shareable. Many transit agencies focus on tracking particular incidents. The Rochesterâgenesee Regional Transportation Authority (RgRTA) in new york keeps careful files on those who have been banned from using the service or arrested at the agencyâs transit center. Palm Tran (Palm Beach County, Florida) keeps track of passenger assaults with the agencyâs Trapeze management software. The utah Transit Authority uses its legal department to monitor particularly difficult passengers. MiamiâDade Transit (MDT) tracks only the incidents that negatively affect service. A few agencies described more comprehensive databases they maintain that offer promise of the ability to monitor all incidents of difficult customers in the future. greater Chicagoâs Metra uses Issue Trak software to record customer e-mails that are sent to the Metra Responds address that appears on metrarail.com as well as calls logged by the agencyâs customer service center. Before the agency began using Issue Trak, it used an excel spreadsheet to track customer issues. However, the issues are tracked by responsible department, not by the nature of the issue, although that information may be searchable through key words. lBT uses a customer relations management system (CRMS) to track all comments and concerns regarding the agencyâs services and products. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) does not track all difficult customer situations. However, the agency tracks a number of situations that would fall into such a category, including assaults on operators, assaults on passengers, disorderly passengers, disturbances, medical emergencies, passenger ejec- tions, and vandalism. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in Florida tracks customer incidents using two databases. One is Fleetnet (also used by CuMTD), which produces service sum- mary reports, and the other is an in-houseâcreated MS Access database used to enter and document daily incidences. The Access database is being developed and will give PSTA the ability to query specific information regarding data on difficult customer incidents in 2017. are incidentS of difficult cuStomer SituationS increaSing? A final question was asked to get a broad sense of the extent of difficult customer situations and what trends might be happening over the past few years: â¢ âBased on your records and/or knowledge, have the incidents of difficult customer situations increased over the past five years? If so, please provide numbers if available. Are there any ânew social normsâ or a different clientele among customers that is proving challenging? Does it seem people are more quick to anger or have more agendas that impact other customers?â As noted in the responses to the previous question, no transit agencies keep records of incidents that are categorized as âdifficult customers.â Although a few agencies provided some statistics, most of the agency responses are based on anecdotal information. Six agencies reported they simply do not have the data to make a statement either way, but 14 of the 41 respondents stated that the incidents of difficult customer situations have not increased over the past 5 years. A few stated that incidents have decreased in the past 5 years for a variety of reasons. Respondents for Star Metro in Tallahassee, Florida, reported that they believe disruptive behavior is minimized at least slightly because their bus operators wear uniforms with badges that look similar to local police uniforms, which might discourage rowdy behavior, particularly at bus terminals. The nAIPTA credits decreased incidents to an effective rider suspension policy. The lehigh and northampton Transportation Authority (lAnTA) in Pennsylvania attributes fewer difficult customer incidents to enhanced software applications that allow them to track buses better and provide more accurate information to customers on when buses will arrive. This reduces the anxiety and tension some passengers might feel as they wait for their bus, which helps minimize anger that could be displayed toward a bus driver. Similarly, Metra reports that actively engaging customers through Twitter serves to calm customers and create a more constructive interaction, helping to reduce uncertainty and anger among passengers. Officials at
23 Sarasota County Area Transit (Florida) reported that complaints regarding difficult passengers have decreased because most passengers focus their attention on their cell phones and social media to the point that they are âtuned outâ and not observant of conditions on their trip. The slight majority (22) of the 41 respondents reported that incidents of difficult customers have increased in the past few years. Transit agencies offered a variety of reasons for what they believed were the causes. Palm Tran, Mountain line, Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), and RgRTA all reported that the increase in the number of passengers with mental health issues has contributed to increased incidents that could be classified as difficult customers. The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) in Ohio and the uTA serving Salt lake City reported that the increased presence of people who are homeless at transit facilities or on vehicles causes other passengers to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. The Central new york Regional Transpor- tation Authority, the RgRTA, and lBT all have substantially increased numbers of school students among their riderships because of local policies and decisions to discontinue some or all yellow school bus service in favor of having students use the local transit services. These students can be quite boisterous and their behavior disconcerting to other passengers, and their presence can result in overcrowding and schedule reliability issues. WMATA in the District of Columbia also reported more disruptive behavior by youth, particularly on the agencyâs rail service, but conceded that poor service reliability probably has contributed to passengers venting their frustrations, including alter- cations with frontline employees. VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Texas, reported that some customers get angry about insufficient wheelchair positions or bike racks. Sunlink in Tucson, Arizona, offered a cautionary note to systems that might experience work stoppages. In 2015, Sun Tran experienced a work stoppage that lasted 42 days. Because people depended on the bus to get to work, many lost their jobs and remained unemployed. Some passengers affected still complain about being unemployed as a result of the work stoppage and bring an aggrieved attitude with them when using the system. A few agencies offered thoughts on whether new âsocial normsâ contribute to more difficult customer incidents. lBT reported that California passed AB 109 (Prison Realignment) in 2011, and Proposition 47 (Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative) passed in 2014. These laws resulted in the forced reduction of California prison and jail populations by about 15%. lBT notes that since then, statewide crime levels have risen demonstrably, and the City of long Beach, California, experienced both violent and nonviolent crime category increases. The lBT respondents said that it is reasonable to presume that these and other new social norms have increased the number of âproblem customersâ on or affecting the lBT system. Other transit agency respondents offered opinions on other changing social norms that might be contributing to more difficult customer situ- ations. Officials at Salem Area Mass Transit District (Cherriots) in Oregon reported that poor behav- ior appears to be tolerated at a higher level than in the past. Officials at the greater Peoria Mass Transit District (Citylink) in Illinois indicated that it appears there is more of a feeling of entitlement by some of the agencyâs customers, who seem to believe public transportation is âtheir ownâ and can be used anyway they want (e.g., carrying too many packages, bringing baby strollers that will not fit in the bus, or waiting for the bus from their porch) and argue when they are advised otherwise. The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) of San Diego, California, reported on what agency personnel perceive to be a new social norm in the form of the introduction of public record requests, which are becoming more common and can tax the departmentâs resources. According to MTS, these requests typically are made by individuals with complex issues and agendas that create tension for those in the agency who must respond to such requests. Manatee County Area Transit in Florida reported that most disputes between passengers and operators are about fares. Passengers see that loud, dis- gruntled, and profane attitudes may get them a free or discounted ride as long as they do not go âover the top,â which may escalate into a call for a supervisor or police. PSTA in St. Petersburg, Florida, reported the following regarding new social norms: We can assert with a measurable degree of certainty, that the advent and progression of mobile technology (smartphones) and social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.) as the new widely (and accepted) preferred platform for direct, fast, and mass distributed communication combined with increasing access to free data (Wi-Fi) has made it easier for customers to immediately express any displeasures or malcontent he/she may be feeling at
24 the very moment theyâre feeling it. The reason this becomes disruptive and creates difficult or chaotic situations aboard the bus is essentially that the right to privacy for the operator and other customers is stripped away with one personâs insistence on taking pictures and video to âliveâ capture their frustrations with a situation as it may be unfolding. The act of doing this aboard the bus can create tension-filled situations for all involved. The tendency of this type of thing occurring more and more often can increase feelings of vulnerability among operators as well as create uncomfortable environments for both operators and other unassuming passengers alike. There was no consensus as to whether customers are more quick to anger now than in the past. Ten transit agencies from nine states reported that to be true. One northeastern transit agency suggested that in areas with recent increases in unemployment or poverty there are increased cases of drug addiction and mental illness, which in turn can create new difficult customer situations. However, the remaining respondents either did not comment or reported that the composition of their ridership has remained relatively stable with no noticeably different behavior.