It was a cold and blustering winter day. I had just gotten off of work. An 8 hour shift working outside in the cold had my legs and shoulder feeling like they belonged to a 50 year old man with severe arthritis. Thanks to RTS’s text bus locator all I have to do is text my bus stop number to them and in return I get the arrival times of the next three available buses at that stop. I would really love to sing the praises of this innovation, but its overall convenience has been a bit offset by its inaccuracy on a few occasions. On this particular day though I arrived at the stop about 10 minutes before the next bus was to arrive so I was pretty confident that I was going to get on this bus and out of the cold. You could imagine my excitement as I watched the bus crest the hill, but it was not to be. You see, the bus never really slowed down at it approached my stop.
The driver, who was an older gentleman, had his eyes trained straight ahead like a marine recruit trying not to draw the ire of the hard ass drill instructor. The only thought on my mind as I was hit in the blast of air he left in his wake was, “I can’t believe this is what passes for convenient public transportation.” I knew from having ridden this bus home many times before that the bus was definitely supposed to stop. I, like many before me, had been a victim of horrendous customer service that RTS has grown to be notorious for in recent years. The question I began to ask myself at that point was why? Why have incidents such as mine become more and more common place amongst avid bus riders? This story is a result of my quest for an answer to this question and many others that I believe all those who use public transportation in Rochester must ask at some point in time.
A good portion of the Rochester populace rides the bus regularly, but lets face it, just the thought of having to wait at the bus stop for a bus that you know in all likelihood will be late or may not come at all is annoying and downright frustrating. The negative feelings are towards RTS by all Rochesterians are so deep-seated that when others find out that you riding the bus the next immediate response in most cases is, “awww, I’m sorry”, or something else disheartening along those lines. Its almost like you’re going to the funeral of a distant uncle you met maybe twice in your life. They know you don’t really want to go, but under the circumstances you really don’t have much of a choice The most astonishing thing is that a business (because RTS is privately owned and operated) with an approval rating that is so low amongst it’s patrons could still be operating with such success that they could justify the construction of transit center that cost nearly a quarter billion dollars.
I decided to ask other riders how they felt about RTS and if they had ever had a bad experience on the bus. The stats I compiled were very telling. All 32 of the people I spoke with had 1 or more bad experiences on the bus. I also asked if they had ever called to file a complaint. Only 21 of the 32 had ever done so. When I asked those who hadn’t why they chose not to, they simply responded that they didn’t believe it would make a difference. Those that did call expressed the same sentiment, but they felt that even if no one listened at the very least RTS would know that there some that are not happy and are not afraid to say so.
17 of the 32 experiences were directly related to the drivers themselves. The common thread in each was the bus driver’s poor attitude. They were often described as being rude, mean, and having a “holier than thou” tone when they would address the bus patrons. The other incidents were related to the service. A few, like me, were passed by the bus, others the driver missed their stop, and even worse for some the bus just never showed up. I asked these same 32 people about the new transit center, and whether they thought it was good idea and would improve service, or bad idea that would make things worse. 23 of 32 people said it was a bad idea. The reason given by a majority of those against the center was what surprised me most.
Much of the community is aware of cost and scope of this project. the general feeling that the people I spoke to expressed was that it seemed unnecessary. With failing schools and crime on the rise the detractors felt that the funds used to build the transit center would have been better spent in service to the community and extending service to reach farther into outlying communities. While most would argue that RTS Serves the community, it has become very apparent that the service they provide is not on par with what is expected of any business that dares to make such a claim, and since it is the taxpayers that are footing the bill for around 95% or more of the cost incurred to build the center you would think that RTS might want to make customer satisfaction a higher priority.
I made several attempts to open a dialogue with the higher ups of the RGRTA only to be ignored. I wanted the business itself to have a voice so that it may at least refute some of the claims that RTS does not care about its customers. No one with any real influence wanted to talk to me at all, so I decided to call someone at RTS that would have to talk to me no matter what. The following are excerpts from an actual conversation i had with an RGRTA Customer Service Representative whose name I will not disclose:
DM: I have a couple of questions I would like to ask, is that ok?
DM: You are a representative of the Regional Transit Service, am I right?
DM: My question for you is, as a business that serves the community do you feel that you meet or exceed the expectations of your customers?
DM: You do?
DM: Well I have spoken to a lot of people, about 30 people or so, all from different demographics. All of which have an RTS horror story. Most of them say they voice their complaints, they call in, but they feel like nothing ever happens. How many calls do you think you get daily complaint wise?
REP: Most of our calls are complaints and what we do those is we pass them on to operations and with that operations will take a look at what happened and what we put in the complaint and they send it over to the supervisor of the drivers and they will speak with the driver. We actually don’t get any feedback because the drivers are unionized and its the law.
So RTS is powerless when it comes to driver complaints and discipline. Unions are meant to simplify and streamline operations. Unfortunately in this case the union is only serving to perpetuate a culture of indifference and poor customer relations. The only real way to complain about a driver is to do so with the leader union leadership. The problem with a that is the union leaders work for employees. The union will move to protect members that come under fire. Bad drivers receive the same protection as good driver.
Hypothetically a driver could get on the bus, call everyone out, damn them all to hell, flip the double bird, and still not lose his or her job. The only real way to file complaint about a driver is through the Department of Labor or through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). These are the agencies the unions must answer to, but you should know that filing a complaint through them is a process that will definitely test ones patience.
Another key factor in meeting the needs of your customer base is anticipating needs and effectively reacting to changes in the marketplace. For RTS that would simply mean sending buses to where they are needed most now and being prepared to extend service to places where the need has increased. Supposedly this is what led to the creation of the 52 route. This bus goes from East Ave. Wegman’s to Strong Memorial Hospital. As the Rep and I discussed this route I managed to get a peek behind the curtain at what really motivates RTS.
REP: We encourage customers to get online, you can email customer service and that will get forwarded to the right department. If you have something like schedule change ideas it goes over to the planning department and they will take a look and determine if its possible.
DM: Is that how they got the 52 route?
DM: The route goes from the Wegman’s on East, doesn’t go downtown but goes to Strong then comes back.
REP: Yes, and its usually for people to get to and from work and those people love the service. We have not had a lot of issues with that route.
DM: I understand that, and I had assumed that was the plan, so how do you explain not having a route for a place like Sutherland Global in Henrietta?
REP: Yeah thats one of the bigger one uhh(long pause) lets see… (I decided to help him out and head into the next question.)
DM: You are a privately owned business that has the right to cater to whatever customer base or demographic you please.
DM: Is it just deemed that people that work at Sutherland are not important enough to get a route?
REP: No, usually with RTS companies will contact us for service and they go through our scheduling department to arrange that. Sometimes I know that some companies pay for services to come out to them. That might be why there is not always a lot of service to Sutherland. I know the scheduling department is aware but I am not sure what their plan is moving forward with that. I encourage you to send an email to customer service regarding Sutherland so that it can be document, the more emails the better.
Now in that last response he mentioned companies paying for RTS to their patrons and employees. The reason for poor service, bad drivers, lack of routes, and every other problem in between is that RTS does not feel that everyday riders pay them enough. Its not enough for a large amount of people would use a route, therefore increasing profits. Nope not at all, RTS needs profits on top of profits. So even if the employees would show increased ridership with increased schedule times it just is not enough for RTS.
Nevermind the money the fleeced from us, the people of the state of New York, to build their transit center. Maybe if drivers were paid more they wouldn’t be so rude. That is the power of the almighty dollar. Makes hills flat, curves straight, and the meanest people as nice as can be. As we continued to talk we touched on public disapproval of the transit center and RTS as a whole. Still the Rep had no answer as to why RGRTA does not do more to address the concerns of the community it serves.
In the past when change was needed and no one listened the people took action. Maybe its time we take action. Imagine how much it would affect RTS’s bottom line if everyone decided to boycott the bus for a day. Maybe then they would take notice. Maybe then drivers would treat people like human beings, after all the riders are the reason they are employed in the first place. When I started this article I had questions I wanted answered, and even after getting the answers I demanded I was left with more questions. So where do we go from here. I don’t know, but what I do know is if we don’t speak up things will only get worse.
With all the problems this little city in upstate New York has can we really let our public transportation system, that is considered by some to be the lifeblood of this city, get worse?
*Since this interview a Sutherland Route has been implemented*