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TTC users come and go through the entrance to the TTC in Toronto on March 1, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
TTC users come and go through the entrance to the TTC in Toronto on March 1, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

TTC should take a page from Money Mart's book Add to ...

The other day I walked into a Money Mart on Yonge Street to send some money to the United States. It was a payday for many people, so there was a lineup, but the line moved quickly and I soon found myself at the window. The clerk apologized for my wait, gave me a clear explanation of what forms I needed to fill out, completed my order, asked me whether there was anything more I needed and thanked me for my business. She was pleasant and friendly throughout, looking me in the eye and giving every impression of actually enjoying her work (whether or not she actually does).

This wasn't Holt's, remember. It was Money Mart. Yet the company obviously cares enough about keeping and attracting customers to give its people excellent training in dealing with the public.

The experience made me think about customer service at the TTC. If Money Mart can have brisk, friendly service, why can't a public organization dedicated to public service? Why are transit workers so often indifferent, grim or outright rude?

These questions have been occupying minds at the Toronto Transit Commission ever since media splashes over sleeping ticket-takers and texting drivers threw a hard light on the issue of customer service. To be fair, the commission has made some progress. It has hired a new customer-service czar, Chris Upfold from London's Underground. He starts work May 31. It has appointed the first of 22 subway-station managers. They are supposed to field questions from riders, make sure stations are clean and jump into action in case of a service disruption.

It is rolling out a new system that lets riders text a number posted at a streetcar stop to find out when the next car is arriving. It is experimenting with information screens at bus shelters and subway station entrances. It is stepping up training of drivers and ticket-takers. Its online trip planner has recorded its millionth visit.

Recently at the TTC's head office, chair Karen Stintz and chief general manager Gary Webster showed off the commission's bustling operations centre for giving out directions over the phone and fielding complaints by phone and e-mail - about 34,000 of them a year. The energetic and with-it Ms. Stintz has the bit in her teeth on the customer service issue, insisting that the TTC must improve the riding experience if it is to compete with the comfort of the automobile.

Progress, sure, but goodness there is a long way to go. A recent incident in which a cellphone video showed a ticket collector ranting at two young black men is the latest sign of trouble at the TTC. The system's fare system is years behind other transit systems like Hong Kong's or London's, which long ago replaced tickets or tokens with smart cards.

Many of the improvements recommended by a customer-service panel last year will take money, and that is something the TTC never has enough of. To provide continuous cleaning and maintenance of the often-filthy subway washrooms, for example, would require 37 extra cleaners, a recent TTC report estimates. "This," it dryly notes, "has not been budgeted."

Years of under-funding and bureaucratic inertia have left the TTC in a sorry state. Emerging from one of the dingy downtown stations on the Yonge line into the bright lights and cleanliness of an office-building lobby or shopping mall is like crossing from the Third World into the First. Introducing a customer-service culture to an almost paramilitary organization like the TTC, with its old-fashioned union-management divisions, will be a challenge. A system accustomed to seeing riders as freight, to be moved efficiently from A to B, has to start regarding them as valued customers instead.

But all is not lost. A big part of the change can be accomplished simply by training TTC staff to be unfailingly courteous and respectful to the people who use their service (as a precious minority already is). If Money Mart can do it, so can the TTC.

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