Is this the American Airlines counter at JFK? Read on to find out. Photo by Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTE: Customer service — that should be a top priority for any company and it is for the most successful ones. Adequate signage and responding to customer complaints and taking appropriate action are key components to a good customer service plan. Although the MTA has made significant strides during the past generation in improving its signage and notifications of service changes, it still falls short in some areas. It often ignores customer complaints and suggestions or gives nonsensical or inappropriate form responses.

Regarding signage, the IND provided timetables accurate to the half-minute at major subway stations informing passengers when trains would arrive. The MTA doesn’t wish to burden us with such details and has instead taken the path of simplicity. For example, a typical sign now reads “No B (in an orange bullet of course) Nights and Weekends.” Although useful information, what does one do at 10 or 11 p.m.? How do you know if you missed the last B train or not? I am all for simplicity and clarity, but sometimes functionality should override. While I think the IND went overboard by using half minutes, and that timetables on the stations are not really necessary today, the MTA at least should inform passengers on their signage when the first and last trains are due. “No ‘B’ before 6:20 a.m. or after 10:18 p.m., Mondays through Fridays” is far more useful information than “No ‘B’ Nights and Weekends.”

Sometimes it is difficult for a company to determine the exact wording of the signage because those in charge may be too close to the system to recognize potential problems. That’s where the customer should play a role either through focus groups or surveys.

The MTA rarely conducts either because they are expensive. I reported last year on the MTA’s latest Satisfaction Survey and criticized it extensively because it seemed apparent from the questions asked that the purpose of the survey was to provide a validation for MTA improvements, rather than using it as a mechanism to learn about problems and seek solutions.

Department of Transportation

I have previously written about Customer Service as it relates to the MTA. However, DOT (both state and city) also are guilty of not paying enough attention to customer service. State DOT is responsible for the highway signage, I believe, while the City DOT is responsible for street signage.

It always amazed me why those in charge do not realize how confusing some highway signage in New York City must be for a tourist. For example, if you are going west from the Prospect Expressway toward Manhattan, you cross the Gowanus Canal using I-278 East although you do not change driving direction.

Even more confusing is the lack of signage on the Belt Parkway notifying you of the highway you are driving on. Coming off the BQE going south (or westbound as the signs indicate) following the signage for the Belt Parkway, the first sign you see after you exit the BQE is that you are now on Leif Ericson Drive. You thought you just took the exit for the Belt Parkway, didn’t you?

The next sign you see a few feet further is that now you are on the POW/MIA Highway. What happened to Leif Ericson Drive, you ask yourself, and why aren’t you on the Belt Parkway (which, of course, you are)? How many accidents are caused by last minute decisions due to poorly-worded, misleading, or missing signage, or signage placed too close or even beyond the actual decision point?

The POW/MIA sign is not even placed in the correct location since the POW/MIA Highway is a co-named highway going cross-country starting from Sunrise Highway in Long Island, then along the Belt Parkway, Verrazano Bridge, Staten Island Expressway and on into New Jersey and beyond, never touching the segment of the Belt Parkway where the sign near Exit 1 is located.

A similar problem occurs as you are leaving the Belt Parkway and entering the Cross Island. You never see a sign notifying you that you are on the Cross Island. Instead immediately after the exit for the Cross Island, there is a large green sign notifying you that you now are on the 100th Division Infantry Highway, not the Cross Island Parkway. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

Now, I see nothing wrong with co-naming. In fact I like the idea of a POW/MIA Highway connecting many highways across the US. However, using the same signage styling for these co-named highways and failing to provide signage for the commonly used highway names only causes needless confusion. Signage is supposed to clarify, not confuse.

The NYC DOT is just as guilty by not distinguishing co-named street signage from regular street names using an alternate color or typeface. When a sign falls off and is not replaced for years, often the only sign remaining is the sign for the co-named street, as is the case on Sheepshead Bay Road. If a friend called you for directions and told you he was lost and needed directions, would you know where he was calling from if he told you he was at the corner of Emmons Avenue and Lena Cymbrowitz Way, as the signage indicates? Or would that be as useful to you as if he said he was at the corner of “Walk” and “Don’t Walk?”

The New York City Council is co-naming or renaming streets all the time, yet no one sees the need to rename streets for clarification purposes. Do we really need a second two-block Sheepshead Bay Road in Coney Island or a West Avenue a block away from a West Street? Aren’t two West streets in Brooklyn confusing enough? You would think that the so-called experts would see the problems with confusing street and highway signage, but they do not, because they do not put themselves in the place of the tourist or first-time users who rely on signs to guide them.

American Airlines

Apparently the MTA and the DOTs do not have a monopoly on the lack of common sense when it comes to signage. It also extends to private industry. You would think that the picture above is one of the American Airlines Counter with all the signs prominently reading “American” and an even larger lit up sign above not in the picture. That’s what my two friends and I thought on Friday while waiting to pick up a boarding pass at JFK for my friend who was returning to Israel.

You are actually looking at the ticket counter for Jet Airways. The American Airlines ticket counters are around the corner and look almost identical except for small Eagle signs instead of Jet Airway signs. So, after 30 minutes of waiting on the wrong line, we naturally complained to American Airlines personnel. The gentleman we spoke to could not understand why there was a problem. It was clear to him that those were the Jet Airways counters. What about all the large “American” signs we asked?

His response: “Oh those. They merely indicate that you are in the American Airlines Terminal. They don’t indicate that this is the American Airlines Counter.” Gee whiz, they fooled us. How could we make such a dumb mistake?

We were then questioned why we didn’t just use the self-service kiosks. The answer was simple. British Airways issued my friend’s ticket to London for an American Airlines flight, and he had a British Airways flight number. He wasn’t sure if the kiosk would recognize it, having had difficulty using it on his trip to the US. An American Airlines official pressed all the buttons for us and we were on our way. But we couldn’t have done it ourselves because the American Airlines flight number showed up on the display — not the British Airways flight number on his itinerary, and that would have confused us.

We asked why they don’t just cover up all those misleading American signs over the ticket counters since you no longer need to know you are in the American Terminal once you are already inside the building. They seem to be there only to confuse you. We were met with puzzled expressions from the two American Airlines personnel we asked. They could not understand why anyone would be confused because they see the signs every day and didn’t put themselves in the place of a first time traveler.

MTA

Signage also has to be appropriate for the intended audience. The MTA for years posted signs in construction zones on subway platforms stating “No Standing – RCA”. How many subway riders knew what RCA stood for? As an MTA employee, I knew it meant “Restricted Clearance Area. When I suggested that it should be spelled out, I received a response that the existing signage was adequate and clear. The following year they started spelling out RCA.

Jay Walder was primarily interested in reducing the deficit. Let’s hope that the next MTA chairman recognizes the importance of customer service and that this recognition spreads to both DOTs and companies like American Airlines. When David Gunn ridded the subways of graffiti, it inspired the city and neighborhood associations to also clean graffiti and not to tolerate it.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

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  • Anonymous

    I’d be willing to help the City with DOT signage……..

    however, nice written article.

  • Guest

    Sadly, I doubt the MTA will do anything further to help their customers. They only seem to be interested in hindering those that pay their salaries. I will never forget before Jay Walder’s arrival there was an interview with someone who was top brass at the MTA, I will never forget his words that we the lowly peasants that occupy the subways and buses were “the common folk”. The MTA will continue to deceive us into the foreseeable future.

    As for the DOT, well they are too busy turning the cities many streets into a hipsters paradise. Those belt parkway signs are for automobiles which are evil and all those that use them deserve a horrible death since we are all maniacs. So we don’t need clearer signs, we need all the money for ridiculous bike lanes and out of sync traffic lights and stop signs that do more harm then good.

  • winson

    i am annoyed at how riders’ advocate groups recently attacked the MTA for not informing riders of service changes and disruption when this is so not the case. The agency has spent millions of dollars making clearer, larger flyers at subway stations and even sending emails and text messages straight to you if you sign up. I think riders are just too lazy to read the flyers and go on the MTA website because they are always in a rush. Every time I plan to railfan, I always check online the day before for service disruptions. They are absolutely needed to maintain and upgrade a 100+ year old system.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    This should be required reading for involved in making decisions that concern signage.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the support.

  • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

    I have to  come out and say I resent this guy’s  constant articles criticizing the MTA.

    How about a little balance? How about an article comparing the subways of the 70′s and 80′s to the service now?  When I started working back in the late 70′s, I was discharged off a train virtually every day. Grafitti was everywhere, and so were dirty newspapers on the floor. There would be locked cars with no fan and no air conditioning. One day I was discharged off THREE trains. IN ONE DAY! Not to mention you couldn’t ride a subway past, say, 10pm.

          Nowadays, if i’m thrown off 3 in 6 months it’s a lot. Every car is airconditioned, they run decently on time. I’ve been on trains past midnight, and so are many other people.
      
     
        I really can’t stand people who complain and criticize and criticize. Doesn’t make one intelligent. Just makes one easy to ignore and no longer read. Until I see more balance from these MTA articles, I’m going to continue to ignore them.

    • Allan Rosen

      Also, the vast majority of my criticisms of the MTA has been directed toward their bus system (which you make no mention of) not the subways.  And what about this article where I devoted an entire article to complimenting the MTA regarding their efforts during during 911 and for the World Trade Center cleanup? http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2010/09/honoring-the-sacrifices-of-mta-employees-on-911/

      And there was nothing critical in this article http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/03/a-brief-history-of-mta-station-art/ 

      I also initially sided with the MTA stating it was not their fault that the buses got stuck in the snow storm, blaming DOT for not clearing the streets, that was until I found out the complete story.

      I’ve highlighted the need for more funding: http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/05/golden-proposes-transit-funding-lockbox-act/

      I’ve suggested how others can help the MTA:

      http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/03/how-kcc-can-improve-bus-service-for-all/

      and I’ve made suggestions: http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/03/b44-select-bus-service-how-to-make-it-better/

      • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

        You make good points in articles, I don’t deny that. But I wish the tone of the articles didn’t always seem to me to be “they all suck, they’re all morons”. Lord knows I hear enough of that day-to-day.  If it’s my own paranoia, oh well, wouldn’t be the first.

      • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

        You make good points in articles, I don’t deny that. But I wish the tone of the articles didn’t always seem to me to be “they all suck, they’re all morons”. Lord knows I hear enough of that day-to-day.  If it’s my own paranoia, oh well, wouldn’t be the first.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

      If we don’t point out the flaws in any system they will be ignored. The MTA is certainly operating better than it was 30 years ago. That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. It’s easy to fall into a complacency and ignore criticism from inside. Allan Rosen came from within the MTA itself, and his experience as an insider has shown him that what does sometimes motivate then is criticism from outside, such as the articles he has written here. This is not negativity for its own sake. This is an outgoing constructive effort to make a system that basically works work better. For that endeavor Allan Rosen should be thanked, not objected to.

      • Allan Rosen

        I wonder how many people realize the number of improvements we have today that we owe to the critics.  Do they know that the original position of the New York City Transit Authority was that the subways could never be air conditioned because the stops were too close for the cars to get cold enough. That it took over ten years of critic complaints for them to purchase the first articulated bus?  Their original position was that longer buses were not suitable for NYC streets and that maintenance costs would increase because of the need to keep more spare parts on hand.

        What about all the ADA improvements required through legislation because the MTA would not make them voluntarily.  Or the 1978 bus routing improvements I spearheaded that required a lawsuit to become reality.  Even something as simple as a little padding on the hard bus seats came from passenger complaints.  The sad fact is that the MTA takes far too little initiative on their own to make needed improvements and that’s why criticism is necessary.  Their usual response to any suggestion is that it can’t be done without doing any evaluation of the suggestion.

    • Allan Rosen

      (This reply should have appeared first.) 

      You obviously have been ignoring them.  Your problem is that you draw
      conclusions from only the headline (which is to draw in the reader) not
      by actually reading. (Some of the headlines were not even mine.  They
      were left to the editor.) Yes, I often criticize the MTA because they
      deserve criticism.  Do I also compliment them when they do a good job?
      Certainly.  I do believe in being balanced. 

      First of all, less
      than 25% of this article was even about the MTA. Is there come
      criticism of the MTA in it? Certainly.  But reread the beginning and
      ends again.  The first thing I do is compliment the MTA for making
      significant strides in improving signage over the past generation. Do I
      need to explain how?  Yes, if that was the subject of the article. 

      I
      do not only criticize but I also suggest improvements. For you not to
      see that shows that you have not been reading the articles. Read the
      final sentence again.  Do I not give David Gunn a big compliment for
      extinguishing graffiti?

      You want an article comparing the
      subways of the 70s and 80s to today. I’ve mentioned how much better the
      subways are today on several occasions, though not a complete article.
      (Maybe I will get to that one day.) Look at this one: http://www.sheepsheadbites.com… 

      It
      begins: “Often we forget that we have one of the most extensive and
      best transit systems in the world. There are not too many other places
      where you can take a train 24 hours a day without having to rely on a
      schedule.” 

      Or how about this in the Walder article where I provided a link to read about his accomplishments  http://www.sheepsheadbites.com… and wrote the following? 

      The
      last MTA chairman with a transit background prior to Walder was Peter
      Stangl in the 1980s. Stangl and David Gunn, the New York City Transit
      Authority President who he hired, were responsible for turning the
      subways and buses around from the dismal days of the 1970s when subway
      cars were breaking down every 6,000 miles and there was a chronic bus
      shortage. Today, that number is something like every 150,000 miles and
      we have a fairly new and reliable bus fleet.

      You can’t get more
      complimentary than that. But is the MTA doing everything right?
       Certainly not and I will continue to show where and how they can
      improve.  That is a lot different from merely criticizing as you have
      accused me of doing.

  • Allan Rosen

    You obviously have been ignoring them.  Your problem is that you draw conclusions from only the headline (which is to draw in the reader) not by actually reading. (Some of the headlines were not even mine.  They were left to the editor.) Yes, I often criticize the MTA because they deserve criticism.  Do I also compliment them when they do a good job? Certainly.  I do believe in being balanced. 

    First of all, less than 25% of this article was even about the MTA. Is there come criticism of the MTA in it? Certainly.  But reread the beginning and ends again.  The first thing I do is compliment the MTA for making significant strides in improving signage over the past generation. Do I need to explain how?  Yes, if that was the subject of the article. 

    I do not only criticize but I also suggest improvements. For you not to see that shows that you have not been reading the articles. Read the final sentence again.  Do I not give David Gunn a big compliment for extinguishing graffiti?

    You want an article comparing the subways of the 70s and 80s to today. I’ve mentioned how much better the subways are today on several occasions, though not a complete article. (Maybe I will get to that one day.) Look at this one: http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/03/what-do-you-want-from-our-transit-system/ 

    It begins: “Often we forget that we have one of the most extensive and best transit systems in the world. There are not too many other places where you can take a train 24 hours a day without having to rely on a schedule.” 

    Or how about this in the Walder article where I provided a link to read about his accomplishments  http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/07/the-real-reasons-jay-walder-resigned/ and wrote the following? 

    The last MTA chairman with a transit background prior to Walder was Peter Stangl in the 1980s. Stangl and David Gunn, the New York City Transit Authority President who he hired, were responsible for turning the subways and buses around from the dismal days of the 1970s when subway cars were breaking down every 6,000 miles and there was a chronic bus shortage. Today, that number is something like every 150,000 miles and we have a fairly new and reliable bus fleet.

    You can’t get more complimentary than that. But is the MTA doing everything right?  Certainly not and I will continue to show where and how they can improve.  That is a lot different from merely criticizing as you have accused me of doing.

  • Allan Rosen

    You obviously have been ignoring them.  Your problem is that you draw conclusions from only the headline (which is to draw in the reader) not by actually reading. (Some of the headlines were not even mine.  They were left to the editor.) Yes, I often criticize the MTA because they deserve criticism.  Do I also compliment them when they do a good job? Certainly.  I do believe in being balanced. 

    First of all, less than 25% of this article was even about the MTA. Is there come criticism of the MTA in it? Certainly.  But reread the beginning and ends again.  The first thing I do is compliment the MTA for making significant strides in improving signage over the past generation. Do I need to explain how?  Yes, if that was the subject of the article. 

    I do not only criticize but I also suggest improvements. For you not to see that shows that you have not been reading the articles. Read the final sentence again.  Do I not give David Gunn a big compliment for extinguishing graffiti?

    You want an article comparing the subways of the 70s and 80s to today. I’ve mentioned how much better the subways are today on several occasions, though not a complete article. (Maybe I will get to that one day.) Look at this one: http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/03/what-do-you-want-from-our-transit-system/ 

    It begins: “Often we forget that we have one of the most extensive and best transit systems in the world. There are not too many other places where you can take a train 24 hours a day without having to rely on a schedule.” 

    Or how about this in the Walder article where I provided a link to read about his accomplishments  http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/2011/07/the-real-reasons-jay-walder-resigned/ and wrote the following? 

    The last MTA chairman with a transit background prior to Walder was Peter Stangl in the 1980s. Stangl and David Gunn, the New York City Transit Authority President who he hired, were responsible for turning the subways and buses around from the dismal days of the 1970s when subway cars were breaking down every 6,000 miles and there was a chronic bus shortage. Today, that number is something like every 150,000 miles and we have a fairly new and reliable bus fleet.

    You can’t get more complimentary than that. But is the MTA doing everything right?  Certainly not and I will continue to show where and how they can improve.  That is a lot different from merely criticizing as you have accused me of doing.

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  • mike baglivo

    a hearty slap on the back for you al! your the only person who has ever brought these inconsiderousies to lite.we agree with all you’ve writen i am sure it failed to reach the people who actualy can make and correct these inefficiencies.not that they can’t undo it’s they don’t give 2 —- to move there fat asses to improve and make things easier.you did say that there too close to the sbjects that they don’t see the problms.   i  agree  –your friend mike baglivo