Our Chat With Muni, Part 3: ‘We need to do a better job of communicating’

muni_iphoneEver feel stuck in the dark with Muni? Like, somehow the problem your bus or LRV has encountered pales in comparison to a lack of knowledge of what’s wrong, when it will be fixed, and what your alternatives are? For the third part of our conversation with SFMTA spokesperson Judson True, he and Tara talk about the system’s communication shortcomings, and the frustrations facing the agency, its personnel, and we, the riding public. (This and all posts in this weeklong series are cross-posted at SF Appeal.)

Muni Diaries: There was another reader who had some suggestions to improve the rider experience: In the tunnel, if a train is stuck. One of his main wish-list items was that the operator provide information clearly and quickly as to when there’s a delay and when it’s expected to be resolved. I think part of the problem is that a lot of us feel left in the dark, like, “Oh, we’re going to be here X amount of time. I’m not sure why or when. Hold tight.” What are drivers supposed to do in that case? How do we get that information, and are drivers already told to be giving us this information?

Judson True: Yes. Whenever one of our light-rail vehicles is stopped under Market Street, our operators should be asking people to remain patient, and they’ll update them with information as soon as they have it. Our Central Control staff can make announcements directly. I’ve made them myself. That should happen once there’s about a 3-minute wait. And then every two to three minutes thereafter.

Sometimes there isn’t an explanation initially. I think that one of the frustrations our customers experience is shared by our operators, who don’t know why they’ve been stopped yet. And Central Control has to deal with the particular problem.

We know we need to do a better job of communicating with our customers both in the tunnel and throughout the system. It’s something we’re constantly discussing here and trying to figure out how to do it given our resources and all the challenges that we face.

MD: That stems from my next question, which is, what are the ways Muni can be better about communicating things like this to people? Is it someone manning the website and posting updates? Or sending out tweets (on Twitter)? Can you subscribe to a text alert? Are there things that are not really expensive that Muni can do?

JT: I think the place to start on this is our control center. That is where information about the system has to originate. It’s a 24-7 facility. There’s been extensive media coverage in the past about how incredibly outdated the facility itself is, and the equipment. We’re also understaffed at the facility, in terms of …

MD: Is that true? Is it out-of-date and understaffed?

JT: We have a program to replace it, and we have a radio-replacement program. These are long-term capital projects that don’t particularly address exactly what you’re saying. We know that technology is moving very quickly and will allow us to communicate with our customers much more quickly than we are now.

Our goal is to make sure that we are set up to make that communication as consistent and accurate as possible. That’s the challenge. The technology is getting cheaper and cheaper, but the training and the resources and the people to get that information out remains a challenge. I can’t tell you how many conversations we’re having around the office about Twitter and texting and we’re getting closer to making some moves, but I don’t have any exact timelines for you right now.

I’m getting a lot of requests to Twitter from friends who use the system and other city staff. It’s a time issue for me in part because I don’t work 24-7, and we don’t want to set up expectations that we can’t sell. We want to communicate, as I said, accurately and consistently.

MD: Basically not just between 9 and 5?

JT: Right. We have a staff who are involved in these efforts to improve communications to the public. I have colleagues who are working on that. Working very hard on those issues.

We’ll take suggestions, too. A lot of it’s out there. Twitter, Facebook, texting. But if other people have ideas …

Monday’s post on Muni’s budget crunch is here; Tuesday’s, on a litany of rider gripes, can be found here. Check back tomorrow for a talk about Muni’s future and capital improvements.


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