Mass transit isn't easy.
Things go wrong. Equipment breaks down. Schedules don't mesh. The public can be cranky and unreasonable. And the 95 percent of the time things go right is quickly forgotten while the 5 percent of the time they don't remains firmly embedded in the minds of riders.
So, in many ways, I'm inclined to cut the folks at the Maryland Transit Administration some slack. If a section of track needs to be shut down for a few weeks, that's life - not proof of incompetence. If a bus doesn't show up on time, it may be a matter of traffic rather than callousness.
But a recent e-mail from Dr. John Hasler of Sparks gets to a cultural problem that afflicts the MTA. Simply put, some MTA employees have contempt for the people they serve.
Here's Hasler's account of a Sept. 7 incident on the light rail:
I wanted to attend a convention at the Baltimore Convention Center, and chose to take the train to avoid parking problems. I knew the Hunt Valley and Gilroy stops were out for rail repair, so I drove to Warren Road. I got on the train and noted when I did that it said North Avenue. I went up to the woman driving the train, when it had stopped, and tried to ask if the train went to [the] Baltimore Street stop. She refused to speak with me.
After she left Warren Road, she went about 1/4 mile, stopped and announced that she was "taking a break" and would wait there ten minutes. During her "break," she came out and told me that she was upset with me for asking her, for two days in a row, about the "new schedule." I told her I hadn't been on the train in over a year, and she hadn't spoken with me. She still refused to answer my question about the train being to North Avenue only.
When I got off at North Avenue, another passenger told me I had to wait until another train came along, marked Cromwell. The driver could have told me that. (Editor's note: Actually the rider could have taken any southbound train.)
Then, coming back from Baltimore Street, the train said Timonium. I again asked the driver about how to get one more stop to Warren Road, and he too refused to tell me. ... What could have been a customer service opportunity left me not wanting to use the light rail. I wonder why a public service organization like this can't have some customer service commitment. My e-mail to the light rail administrator went unanswered.
I forwarded Hasler's e-mail to Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning and engineering. His reply:
"Our expectation is that all MTA employees provide a high level of customer service. This includes responding to questions from customers except when safe operation of a bus or train prevents it.
"Naturally, we are disappointed to hear about Dr. Hasler's experience. If he has additional information about the operator (her badge number would be best) we can discuss the issue with her in the context of our disciplinary policy."
COMMENT: Kay's response is entirely appropriate. Riders who encounter operators with an attitude should get all the specific information they can and contact the agency.
I would hope, though, that the MTA not require a badge number in order to pursue a complaint. Sometimes it's difficult for a rider to see the badge, and asking an operator for badge information could escalate into a confrontation. If a passenger can specifically identify a bus or train by boarding time or by a car number, the MTA should be able to work from there.
Confronting this attitude head-on is essential to a much-needed turnaround at the MTA. Judging by my e-mail, there's a small contingent of MTA operators who believe that as long as they don't curse riders, they're free to ignore them or give them the icy-stare treatment.
All it takes is a few of these operators to cancel out the good will earned by the vast majority of MTA workers who are helpful, friendly and professional.
A 'Simpsons' insider
Speaking of the MTA, somebody at the agency has a sense of humor. And is a big Simpsons fan.
If you go to the MTA's Web site and click on "Commuter Bus," you can go to the list of routes and schedules and click on the PDF version. Print it out, or, if you prefer, magnify the part called "How to Use the Timetable."
If you look closely you will see the sample schedule is for the mythical No. 900 line from Springfield to Capital City.
Look even more closely and you'll see a series of bus stops in Springfield that fans of The Simpsons would recognize, with some "l's" deleted for amusement: Quik E Mart, Evergreen Terrace, the Nuc ear Power P ant.
The Capital City stops include the Crosstown Bridge, The Penny Loafer, 4th St. and D, and - Homer's favorite - the Duff Brewery.
While the missing l's look like Bart's work, the use of Simpsons geographical locations appears to be an inside job over at the commuter bus division. Similar schedules for city routes contain no such references.
I asked Richard Solli, the MTA's new communications chief, for the lowdown. He agreed that he was the right person to ask because, as director of marketing also, he's responsible for the Web site. But, no, he wasn't in on the joke, which has apparently been up on the MTA Web site for a long time.
"There may have been an element of humor, but no maliciousness," he wrote. "We will rethink this when we print new PDFs."
I'd rather they didn't. The MTA doesn't put a whole lot of smiles on people's face with its service. If it can do so with its schedules, why not?
(Shortly after I pointed this out to the MTA, the stolen l's were restored though the timetables themselves remain.)
Somehow I have the image of some chastened bureaucrat standing in front of a blackboard in a drab MTA conference room after everyone else has gone home, writing:
"I shall not slip Simpsons references into official documents."
"I shall not slip Simpsons references ... "firstname.lastname@example.org
Find Michael Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser