Dallas Area Rapid Transit
Supporting record ridership puts premium on resourcefulness.
When commuters looked for options to $4-a-gallon gasoline, they came to transit in record numbers. Nationwide, trains and buses were filled, park-and-ride lots were jammed, customer service phone lines lit up, transit Web sites had record hits and transit operators paid record prices for fuel — particularly diesel.
Just as commuters scrambled for options, transit operators looked for solutions to the challenges created by this demand spike. Some raised fares, others modified or even cut service and some did both to manage skyrocketing costs. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) modified existing service and added trips when possible. The crunch came as we were taking some light rail vehicles out of service to add new low-floor inserts. While we will get some relief with longer LRVs with more capacity, it’s a two-year project, so hardly a quick fix. Thanks to some aggressive agency-wide belt tightening, we’ve avoided a fare increase for now.
But while it’s easy for us to dwell on our challenges, we have the opportunity to make temporary ridership growth permanent by holding on to customers — both new and veteran. The key to managing these dramatic ridership changes is communicating with staff and customers.
Start with Employees
Front-line employees are the first ones to notice any change in day-to-day operations, good or bad. It was important to empower them with information about what we were doing to manage higher ridership and overcrowded parking lots. We reinforce their role as customer ambassadors. Using employee meetings hosted by executive management and online communication, we encouraged them to share our actions with our customers to make sure they knew we were doing everything possible to take care of them.
We heard our employees’ concerns about the impact of higher prices on their family budgets and the new stresses of record ridership. But we were also encouraged by their commitment to welcome new customers and continue taking care of the regulars on their routes.
Customer Communication is Critical
Daily transit customers have a routine. They take the same vehicle on the same route every day and often want to sit in the same seat. The double-digit influx of new customers disrupted those routines, and our regular customers want to know what we are going to do about it. At the same time, the new transit customer needs to know where to park, what time the bus or train leaves, how much to pay, who to pay, where to sit and when to get off. They’re looking for information and maybe even a little handholding.
Since many of our customers drive to their bus or train facility we needed to start by helping them find parking. We’re building more parking, but that won’t happen overnight. We created special materials, both print and online, to help them find a place to park. We also helped them better plan their commute by reminding them of schedule choices. By simply leaving a little earlier or a little later they could have a less crowded trip. We also found the local news media helpful in delivering this information.
As our customer service calls and Web site traffic revealed, new riders needed to know everything about using DART. Until $4 gasoline they’d frankly never considered transit. We also determined that many of the new customers started looking for information by going online. Working with customer service, our Web developer created a special page for new customers and gave it valuable Web site real estate so it was easy to find. We’re well aware that the rising price of gasoline in the past several months motivated the majority of our new customers to try us. Like most of our customers, they have personal autos and are coming to us because a daily pass is cheaper than a gallon of gasoline. In all of our ongoing external communication, particularly advertising and news media, we’ve continued stressing the economic value of transit compared with the personal car or truck.