Just Ride It

If you were the C.E.O. of an airline, say, or a chain of restaurants, it would be pretty easy to put yourself in ...
by | November 22, 2006

Subway_1 If you were the C.E.O. of an airline, say, or a chain of restaurants, it would be pretty easy to put yourself in your customers' shoes. Fly on your own airline. Eat in your own restaurants. If the service is horrible, it tells you something that may not show up in your management reports.

In government, it is often harder to for managers to experience the services they provide more or less as their customers do. If you run a Medicaid program, for example, you are making way too much money to qualify for Medicaid. That's a handicap, management-wise. If you care about customer service--and most government managers do these days--it means you're reliant upon second-hand surveys to tell you how you're doing.

A big exception to this is public transit. The manager of a transit agency is like that airline C.E.O.--he or she can ride the trains and buses alongside the customers. What's amazing to me, however, is how many of them don't do that.

Richard White, the former manager of our Metro system here in D.C., drove to work for four years before switching to the subway. When I interviewed Roger Snoble, the head of L.A.'s Metropolitan Transit Authority, for this story on buses, he told me after the interview that he, too, drives to work.

(I would love to see statistics on how many managers of the nation's top transit systems drive to work. If you've got any dirt, please send it to 13thfloor@governing.com or leave a comment below).

At any rate, it was good to see that the new transit chief for Washington, John B. Catoe Jr., says he plans to ride Metro. In a Washington Post story that was mostly concerned about Catoe's big salary, the new chief said:

"Are you kidding me? . . . In this industry, the heads of transit need to use their own services, not just because of the public perception. They need to know what the public experiences."

Way to go, Catoe. You'll set a good example for your peers around the country, and will do better by your customers here in D.C. As a transit manager, it's not enough to show that you can manage billion-dollar budgets, handle a big workforce and all that. You've also got to just ride it.

As a D.C. resident, Catoe's statement is also helping me get over a bit of heartbreak. That's because Dan Tangherlini, the transit guru who was supposed to have Catoe's job, is headed to city hall to work for incoming D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty instead. Tangherlini didn't just ride transit to work because he felt like he had to for political reasons. He also knew that understanding the customer experience is a huge part of the job.

When I called Tangherlini for that same story on buses, I caught him on his cell phone, riding the new Circulator bus. He ultimately had to end the interview because he was transferring to an underground train and would lose the signal. As a reporter, I'd normally find that annoying. In this case, it was enlightening. Tangherlini had lots of big ideas about little things--ways to make buses faster and more user-friendly. He didn't dream up those ideas driving in an SUV.