What did a change like this mean to Nashville MTA's perception among its riders? Everything.
"We primarily served the folks who had no other alternative," Ballard says.
"That was pretty much what it was. And that was the service level. And that was the condition of the equipment. And that was the mindset of the employees."
Ballard says that while the changes started with the vehicles, the next step was to change the people who drove them. And to do that the agency had to change the whole way it looked at hiring drivers.
"In the past what we would do is we would look for drivers with commercial drivers licenses," Ballard says. "Now we don't care if you can drive a bus or not.
"In fact, most people we hire can't. What we look for are people with customer service skills. Do you like people? Do you want to work with people? Do you have a customer service focus? And then we will teach you to drive. So we had to completely change the whole mindset of what we were looking for."
Ballard relates the agency to a retail business with a customer service focus. Changing that attitude went a long way to helping change the agency for the better. It also improved its marketing materials, maps, schedules and all around communication process with its customers.
"We've just improved significantly how we communicate in print and on the Internet," Ballard says.
"It has [changed the public opinion] quite a bit. We've had some good editorials recently about support for public transit. And I think it has changed significantly."
Shifting Into Gear
One of the things Ballard saw that needed change was system safety. This was a key component for them and started with the keys on the buses. In a partnership with Gillig Corp., MTA devised an innovative safety mechanism for their incoming fleet of new buses.
"You may be aware that in transit, in a lot of fleets you can go in and push a button and start the bus and it goes," says Bob Baulsir, MTA's chief operating officer.
"Now you have to have a numbered key. You have to be authorized to have it. So it is now one of our homeland security-type things. You can't just jump in one of our vehicles and take it and go. You need to be issued a key that controls the shift."
The shift-lock is on every revenue vehicle in the MTA fleet. You don't get a key until after you've received training and been cleared to operate a vehicle. And that training also explains the necessary steps to operate the shift-lock even if you do have a key.
"[You have to] put it in neutral. Have your foot on the service brake. Release the parking brake while your foot is on the service brake. Then you can turn key," Baulsir explains.
"[You] can't park this bus without setting the parking brake, and you can't take the key out without setting the parking brake," Baulsir explained as an example of how the new shift-lock also helps prevent parked vehicles from breaking free and rolling into something.
Every driver has to take the key with them when they leave the bus, but with the new shift-lock on its buses, MTA drivers can leave the bus engine running when they leave the bus — even with passengers onboard. This allows them to allow passengers to remain on a heated or air-conditioned bus safely without fear of them taking the bus for a joyride.
The shift-lock has proven so successful (no jams in two years of operation) that MTA has retrofitted all of its fixed-route buses to have it. And the keys are numbered (Ballard has No. 1, Baulsir has No. 2 – rank has its privileges) and assigned to drivers — and they can't be copied.
Other bus safety improvements include GPS and cameras on all of the buses with more to come.
"We're in the process of expanding [our automatic stop announcements]. We are just about to award a contract for voice communications. And then the next step will be AVL where we will have the display in our dispatch office and it will show where everything is," Ballard says.
"But it's mostly common sense stuff," he notes. "We added roof numbers to every bus in the fleet so that if there ever were an incident the helicopters could quickly identify the vehicle as MTA 8202 or whatever. Quickly identify the vehicle from the air. Just common sense things like that."