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Buses as Fixtures

January 27, 2012

image courtesy of il Messaggero

I just viewed a news video about a new project by Rome’s public transit company, ATAC, for “mobile ticket kiosks” and have a few thoughts to share.

The main task of ATAC is to help people get around the city, in order to free up city streets from private automobile traffic which has devastated it for years.  Dedicating electric buses to a fixed function, occupying public space doesn’t further these aims. In the photo above, these buses literally create a wall across the “pedestrian” space of Piazza del Popolo.    In fact, buses should never be fixtures, but rather always on the move fulfilling their principle function of mobility.  A big problem with Rome’s buses is that spend most of their time stopped, in deposit areas or at capolinea, terminal stops, where they serve only to occupy valuable space and create visual pollution. Could it be that since ATAC makes more money from advertising on the sides of buses than from tickets it’s cost effective to just park buses in public areas?

As for the ticketing system, I always thought it worked pretty well.  If you use transit regularly (and any resident of Rome should be practically forced to do so by proper disincentives toward private vehicles) you buy a yearly or at least monthly pass and think no more of it. If you are from out of town you probably arrive by train or plane and one of the first things you do is go to the fixed ATAC kiosk at the station or airport where you pick up a route map and buy a 3-day, 1-week, or other pass. That’s where ATAC’s customer service efforts should go, making sure these fixed kiosks are visible and well-staffed.

If, like me, you generally get around by bicycle or on foot but occasionally use public transit you simply stop by a Tabaccaio or Giornalaio and buy a bunch of single tickets and keep them in your wallet to use when needed. These shops are already there, already providing services, and selling tickets helps attract customers for their other products, a win-win situation.   If tourists don’t know where to get them or how to use them, better information should be made available.   Not new, confusing places to buy tickets, which might be there one day but when you think you’ve learned where to get a ticket you go back only to find it has moved.  That doesn’t make sense at all.

To quote my American architecture students who just reported on their impressions yesterday, public transit in Rome is still confusing, frustrating and slow. Too often the wait for a bus is longer than the time it takes to walk. Schedules are not enforced, buses come sporadically, often two at a time after long delays. The ATAC Mobile system which promises to use gps to track buses in real time, allowing you to verify waiting times, would be great if a. it really worked all the time instead of shutting down at night and b. it provided information about a functioning system (“the next bus will leave in 3 minutes”) and not a dysfunctonal one (“no buses”, which is what I often see when I check, or, right now on the 44 line “Bus terminus (dep. 9:35 AM)” which is great except the time stamp on the message is 9:45!).

Customer care is important, but doesn’t require mobile kiosks and special marketing campaigns.  What about a web site that works to allow feedback– this is currently not working–and a phone number with a link to bi-lingual customer service beyond the recording (the only English-language option at 06.57003 now is for tour bus info.).

ATAC, please concentrate on providing efficient, frequent, cost-effective public transit, and leave the innovative new customer service initiatives to those who know how to do that better.

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