Wednesday, February 14, 2007

An open invitation to Dan Grabauskas

The mailbag at planted the seed

from Nancy

I love your blog and I think you do a great job of maintaining a fair and objective forum. Given that you are probably the most "fair and balanced" critic (and believe me I mean no slight by that) I would think that the customer service people over at the MBTA might be inclined to take note. Your site is not a hate site although we MBTA users often hate what we have to deal with in order to get to and from work everyday.

Do you get any sense that they follow or care about what's discussed on your site? It just astounds me that Dan G. is constantly spewing PR when I think most people would respect him if he admitted that there were problems to deal with such as those documented on your site. We get the sense that he's insulated himself from criticism (a predictible defence mechanism).

Does Dan G. dimiss your blog as gliby as he does the rest of us?

and then came this comment to the blog

Paul Levy said...
Charlie,May I suggest an experiment? Why don't you make a post explicitly asking any T executives, managers, or workers to let you know (1) if they read your blog, and how often, and (2) what they do with the information they learn from it?I am curious. Aren't you?
Yes I am curious and last night I stumbled across something that that was done in Toronto last week that would be perfect for Boston.

From the Toronto Star

These ideas emerged during last Sunday's Transit Camp, a day of out-of-the-tunnel thinking on how to improve the Toronto Transit Commission, specifically, its clunky website, its shelters, its subway cars and the way it communicates with its riders.

The 100 or so campers were young, in their 20s and early 30s, mostly people who work in the communications and tech industries and university students, all madly in love with transit. The TTC is symbolic of their relationship with the city – but more about that later.

They wore toques and scarves, and some stayed in their parkas because the ballroom at the Gladstone Hotel on Queen St. W. was frigid. Peering over their shoulders, watching as the younger people moved images around on their white Mac laptops, were the 50-somethings, the people who run the TTC, listening and learning. And politicians were hovering, too. Adam Giambrone, the TTC Chair, spent the day there. Vice-chair Joe Mihevc was also present.

Gary Webster, 55, interim general manager of the TTC, took notes. "Several years ago this is not a group I would likely spend time with on a Sunday," said Webster. "But if we don't show up we send them a message we don't care ... we have to think of it more from their point of view than we usually do."

Many saw this as an important turning point, if not a history-making event: here were the TTC brass and politicians listening to their riders, the people who use the beleaguered system, and young people at that.

Webster came away with at least one idea he'll consider: maps for each streetcar line showing where it intersects with other routes, so passengers on the Dundas car, for example, know where they can get onto the Yonge subway.

"The TTC is, for once, turning to its users," said Bob Brent, former chief marketing officer for the system. Traditionally when the TTC consults, it calls the meeting, usually to tell riders about a route change. "It's an organization that has tended to be xenophobic and claustrophobic."

Brent, 56, started the TTC's first website in 1997. "And it hasn't changed in 10 years."
This became a major news story in Toronto

CityNews – coverage on TransitCamp
World Changing – Unconferences and the Toronto Transit Camp
BoingBoing’s “an unconvention to improve The Better Way”:
NowToronto – Camp out with TTC Geeks
Toronto Star – Minding the gaps on the The Better Way
Toronto Transit’s Toronto Transit Camp wrap-up – Taking back the city: Toronto Transit Camp – Toronto Transit Camp betters the Better Way

The camp laid out ground rules

What is Toronto Transit Camp?
Come ready to share, contribute and collaborate! Transit Camp is inspired by BarCamp. Bar Camp events are powered by participation. The event will be well-documented in the form of blog posts, wiki content, photos, and video for everyone who is unable to attend. (Please use the tag: transitcamp.) If you would like to be part of the event, please keep in mind that we are limited to 100 people and so everyone there must be interested and involved.

Bar Camp: A BarCamp is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos, and interaction from participants.
We will hold simultaneous small-group sessions on a self-organized basis around topics of interest to the community: redesigning the TTC's website, creating and selling user-generated media and articles (music, buttons, t-shirts), photography, illustration and music inspired by the TTC.

This celebration and workshop-oriented event is intended to inspire a fresh approach at the TTC in how it serves users and engages with community in order to achieve its organizational goals.
See the tentative (and evolving!) schedule to understand the format.

What This is Not!
Toronto Transit Camp is not a complaints department, it is a solution playground.
We will not be changing bus schedules, talking about stop locations, complaining about creaky infrastructure or otherwise telling the TTC how to do its core business. The organizers respect that there are many hard-working, dedicated and experienced professionals in the TTC who have been able to accomplish remarkable things for this city's transit infrastructure over the years under very difficult resource constraints.

Bar Camp Principles Apply:
We are equal individuals in an open community.
Leadership can emerge from anywhere.
We are all participants. More on that here.

A complete overview can be found at

Toronto perhaps has the most similar transit system in North America to ours in Boston. The officials of the Toronto Transit Commission accepted the invitation of the Toronto blogging community. I feel we should do the same.

I ask MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas to consider doing a similar event here in Boston.

If you agree I will contact the Toronto people and your staff for help in setting this up. It is pointless to procede any further with this idea without a response from the T. I would ask that you would contact transit officials in the City of Toronto to find out what the experience was like for them.

The only thing I ask from you is a response of some kind.

Thank you for your consideration.

To our readers - how do you feel about this idea? Would you like to take part?
Please let us know.


Ellen said...

I absolutely would attend such an event. By and large I'm a satisfied T commuter, but there is definitely room for improvement on many fronts.

Charlie D. said...

I would attend as well. Like Ellen, I'm rather satisfied overall but there are some definite improvements that could be made, many of which would not require a huge monetary investment.

Brian said...

It would be a step in the right direction, but only if the effort meant something. The last thing I want from the T is more posturing. They need to listen to their riders. Not just appear to listen to them. We've all experienced the charade of the "Write to the Top" campaign. All slogans, but no follow through. Its the follow through that the MBTA needs to improve apon. The fact is that there are a lot of commuters in this region who want to support mass transit and a lot who have to rely on it. Our voices should be a major part of the process, but right now they aren't. We get posters that mean nothing. "Community Meetings" which ignore the community. Its not just the form that is promissing for Toronto. Its the function.

David said...

In think this is a terrific idea. Its clear from your blog that there are many people in Boston who have great ideas about how to improve the T and are not the kind of people who just want to rant. I think the T's perceived, or perhaps real, insularity is something that hinders its own efforts to make a better system and a forum in this "charette" style (as often used in urban planning circles) would be a real boon if the T is willing to do it. However, I think that you would need a really positive response from the highest offices at the T to make this work. If it turned out that the T just consented to do it as a PR issue and had no intention of ever critically thinking about the issues and ideas raised at the discussion, it would just makes things worse by dooming the idea permenantly.

Malbone said...

I'd be very interested in this. After years of involvement with movements of all kinds, my firm belief is that in order to succeed, there must be a goal state in our minds. My suggestion is for riders to design the T of the future and then publicize that design over and over until the T finally starts to implement it.

Anonymous said...

Did any of you even read the 'ground rules'??

All you armchair transportation experts would be pretty upset if all you got to do was talk about merchandising and information campaigns instead of your keen insights into how the T should be run.

Ron Newman said...

A lot of the problems people have had with CharlieTicket and CharlieCard can be traced to insufficient or poorly-executed information and marketing campaigns. So this exercise would still be well worth doing.

Editor said...

Ron Newman wrote: "A lot of the problems people have had with CharlieTicket and CharlieCard can be traced to insufficient or poorly-executed information and marketing campaigns."

I answer: Of course. Blame the user.

Yes, it's marketing campaigns that replaced a one-toss coin hopper with a single, slow, coin slot for buses; marketing campaigns and poor information that produced a fare system which was not cross-compatible with the old one, necessitating a "charlie ticket" system that was, and continues to be, a mess.

Can anyone here read "pathetic excuse-making for the MBTA" in Newman's remarks?

Ron Newman said...

I didn't say "All of the problems", I said "A lot of the problems." And I have no idea how you managed to derive "Blame the user" from anything that I have ever said on this blog.

Things the T could have done better that fall into the "communications" or "marketing" categories:

- telling people exactly which stations had been converted to the new system, on what dates. Keeping this information up-to-date daily. Posting it in every station daily (not just on the web site)

- telling people exactly when and where to get CharlieCards. Keeping this information up-to-date daily. Posting it in every station daily (not just on the web site). Ensuring that enough cards are available at each of these times and places.

- Publicizing the fact that CharlieTickets can be reloaded, so that people didn't throw out tickets with remaining value

- Putting up signs next to every vending machine explaining how much money to put in for how many rides. (Davis and Harvard now have these, but they need to be everywhere.)

- Making the CharlieCard and CharlieTicket look substantially different from each other, and giving them much less similar names to each other

- Adding several months of lead time between the introduction of CharlieCards and the fare increase, so people had time to get used to using the cards

I could go on, but you get the idea. None of this has anything to do with blaming users. The next transit system that converts from a cash-and-token system to an automated system needs to learn all of these lessons so they don't repeat the T's errors.

Editor said...

Ron, I reacted to the association between the problems that have been experienced by users and "marketing campaigns and poor information". I may have reacted without asking your intention so I apologize for this.

I believe that it's high time the blame be put squarely where it belongs: the MBTA is to blame for their failure of a fare collection scheme. This failure has resulted when poor design decisions, poor purchasing decisions, and general mismanagement, all of which the T excels in, collide.

Entrusting the MBTA with yet another project would be a grave mistake. Whether it be yet another web site fix, replacement of a defective-by-design commuter rail information sign system; replacement or repair of a non-working silver "line" GPS system; or the eventual replacement of the fare system, leaving it in the feeble hands of the MBTA to once again screw up ought not be an option.

So rather than discuss how the T's communications and "marketing campaings" have failed (from the T's well staffed "Marketing Communications" department, no doubt), and this talk of even more chattering at "Transit Camp", perhaps the discussion should turn to the more difficult but painfully-obvious: how do we re-form the MBTA?

How do we make this change happen?

It would be terribly discouraging to see more citizen-journalists and bloggers join the leagues of T apologists. I hope this won't happen here.