Archive for August, 2012
Exactly one year ago today, we quietly put FixMyTransport.com live. We’d built it as a place where you could contact transport operators, and receive their responses, in public. But would it work?
That depended, of course, on the transport companies, and how they would rise to the challenge. A year on, we’re in a position to see how things have panned out.
As you will know if you have submitted a message to them, there are a handful of operators who refuse to engage via FixMyTransport, even though this requires less effort for them than holding the conversation in private. Worst offenders include Northern Rail, Scotrail, Arriva Trains Wales and South West Trains.
These operators are starting to look as if they might have some customer service secrets to hide. You can see some of their excuses in our archive of correspondence, and frankly, they aren’t all that persuasive:
Scotrail: “We encourage our customers to contact us directly to help give them the service they expect and deserve.”
South West Trains: “In order to guarantee a full and consistent response to the concerns raised, would you please advise our customer to use one of our established methods of contact.”
Arriva Trains Wales: “Receiving feedback from our customers is important to us, and I am grateful for you taking time to report these issues. However, we would ask any customer wishing to log an issue with us to make direct contact with us, rather than submit it to us via a third party.”
Meanwhile, Northern Rail – perhaps not coincidentally one of our most-contacted operators – has a policy of sending a one-liner to say that comments have been ‘passed on to the relevant teams’. That does not comfort those who submit some of their more upsetting or important complaints.
While we are disappointed by this lack of communication, we still think it’s worthwhile using FixMyTransport to make initial contact with such companies.
Why? Because you gain the benefit of comments, advice and support from other users – and your complaint is in public for everyone to see. Even if the operator doesn’t respond, that has to make a difference. Plus, FixMyTransport users will often suggest next steps, such as contacting pressure groups or passenger watchdogs.
You see, while we may have faced difficulties with some operators, there were no such issues with the general public. You came to the site, and you quickly understood what FixMyTransport was trying to achieve. And you chose to use it in preference to the transport companies’ own channels. Perhaps the operators might like to think about why that is.
But let’s not dwell on the negatives. We have to give kudos to East Midlands Trains, First Capital Connect, First Great Western, London Midland, Southern and Virgin, all of whom stepped up to the mark and had no problems whatsoever replying to you via FixMyTransport. Equally, praise is due to Transport for London who act as the central contact for a variety of operators across the city, and Stagecoach Buses’ many subsidiaries.
These companies, along with many other smaller outfits, have consistently responded to your complaints via the site. As a result they have created a large public archive of their good customer service.
A helpful, friendly community has grown, too, aided by our team of volunteers. Over 3,500 people have sent messages through FixMyTransport, and with monthly visitors to the site now coming in at over 180,000, each of those messages has had an average of 50 readers.
This is our first year of many. We’re certainly here for the long haul, and confident that eventually, even the most reluctant operators will come on board. If they don’t, increasingly, their customers are going to be asking why. The last year has shown that there is a demand for our service, and we see ourselves as part of a wider shift towards holding companies to account in public. Think how often you’ve seen a disgruntled customer tweeting or blogging their experience.
Meanwhile, we hope you’ll keep using the site, and telling others about it. You might even consider telling your local transport operators how FixMyTransport can work for them.
We hope, too, that you’ll carry on telling us what works or doesn’t work, via the feedback button at the top of every FixMyTransport page. We’re still in active development, and every suggestion is discussed and considered.
Thanks for helping make FixMyTransport what it is. Now, have a piece of birthday cake.
Image credit: Magnus Franklin
This is the second in our ‘meet the FixMyTransport volunteer team’ posts. See also: Peter.
Paul was already an active user of one of mySociety’s other websites, WhatDoTheyKnow, when FixMyTransport launched – his requests on that site reveal his deep interest in the country’s public transport systems. Like all FixMyTransport volunteers to date, we approached him when we spotted the in-depth and practical comments he was leaving on others’ campaigns.
He accepted, liking the idea of “being able to use my many years of experience travelling on public transport, pushing for improvements to help other people do the same.”
Paul reckons FixMyTransport work takes “typically an hour or two a week, although sometimes more – especially if there is a campaign which needs some research or correspondence to help it along.”
Tasks generally include “sending help, ideas and suggestions to people who have contacted the team, and browsing recent reports and updates on the website to see where I can help.
“I am a regular rail traveller so tend to concentrate on all types of rail issues, but am also keen to see improvements in bus services such as improving service levels, reliability, journey planning and real time information.”
Volunteer work can be rewarding. Paul’s favourite aspects are “learning more about ways to improve public transport, getting appreciative messages from people I have helped, and finding and corresponding with helpful, interesting people – that’s both users of the site and people from the public transport industry. And also, working with the enthusiastic FixMyTransport Team.”
Paul’s top journey is one that makes you want to jump up from your desk and run to the station: “Travelling to the West Highlands on the overnight sleeper from London, waking up as the train heads out across Rannoch Moor for breakfast in the lounge car, taking me to Fort William then Mallaig for ferries to the Scottish Islands on holiday.”
If you’re interested in becoming a FixMyTransport volunteer, find out more here – or read about volunteering across other mySociety projects here.
A bus stop’s a bus stop, right? So long as it’s functional, accessible, and in a good state of repair, who’d complain?
Well, a look at the following shelters from around the world (all found via a Flickr Creative Commons search) might change your mind.
I’m not suggesting that you request similar modifications to your local bus stop via FixMyTransport. But I think there’s a valid point here to be made about how public spaces can be playful – perhaps if there’s a new bus shelter being commissioned in your area, that would be the time to ask the council to explore some more adventurous options.
And if you’re short of ideas, well, read on.
Bronze Bus stop by Vlasta Juricek This remarkable bus shelter, reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk, is in Liberec in the Czech Republic and was created in 2005 by the sculptor David Černý. I like the way that it can obviously also be appreciated from the path running above it. And now that I’ve seen the potential of waiting for a bus underneath a giant’s table, the bog-standard shelters in my own neck of the woods seem curiously unsatisfactory.
Macondo Bus Stop by Kidz Connect It may not look much at first glance, but this shelter on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, encapsulates many of the same ideals as FixMyTransport. For a start, it was campaigned for by local residents who felt cut off from the city centre. It contains a map of the local area, on a whiteboard to encourage additions and comments from local people. The idea is that they might help first-time travellers find their way – just as we hope FixMyTransport allows people to get friendly advice from other users. More about the social art project here.
Unst Bus Shelter by Birdfarm Unst bus shelter on the Shetland Isles is pretty famous – it’s won awards and even has its own website. Again, there are parallels to be drawn with FixMyTransport, since the shelter was first constructed when a seven-year-old wrote to the local paper to ask whether the roof could be repaired on the previous, rusting one.
According to the website, “A few days after the completion of the replacement shelter, a wicker sofa and table appeared in it with nobody claiming responsibility for putting them in. Soon afterwards, a small TV was added, closely followed by a ‘hot snacks’ counter. In the winter, a 2-bar heater was installed, allowing an even more comfortable wait and it wasn’t long before a carpet was fitted. ”
Still feeling satisfied with your own local bus shelter? Mind you, you might not feel so well-disposed to all that clutter if it starts tipping down with rain, and there are more than a couple of people needing shelter.
See also the work of Mick Sheridan, who upholsters chairs and puts them in remote rural bus shelters for the infirm and elderly.
Bus shelter – Aachen, Germany, by Jim Linwood This one is public art, as well as a practical shelter that you can see clearly out of to check whether your bus is arriving. It even features in the Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture – and apparently it’s used as a climbing frame by local kids, as well as for shelter. The screen on the left displays the time, and local news stories. Room for something like this on your high street?
Sophisticated transit stop in Chicago by Clarkmaxwell We’re all used to seeing adverts on our urban bus shelters, but a couple of years ago, Absolut Vodka took the idea a step further by giving a series of Chicago bus stops a complete makeover. The one above is my personal favourite, but the one featuring thrones outside the opera house is a close second.
Message on a bus shelter, by HoxtonChina Seems there’s a whole genre of art that can only be seen from the top of a double-decker bus. There are messages like this one, and a few years back, a series of strange, spiky sputnik-like objects. The former would seem to emanate from a group named Bus.Tops.
While we’re all comfortable with the idea of council-commissioned art cheering up a dreary bus shelter, I suspect that many would be a bit more nervous when it comes to guerrilla art. But this project uses spaces that most people will never notice, and adds a little surprise into a boring commute for those who do – does it do any harm?
The photographer of this image handily geotagged it, so I can identify its page on FixMyTransport too. No-one’s complained, so does that mean no-one minds this sort of thing?
See also: green roofs for bus shelters and stations – an environmental use for this under-used spot.
Giulia and the bus people by Aine D in Madison, Wisconsin. Heard of yarnbombing? It’s the beautification of the environment around you, via the medium of wool. Again, not always officially-sanctioned, it certainly cheers up a dull, grey bus stop.
Birds on a Wire by Serakatie shows a bus shelter in Seattle. If not for the bird painting, you couldn’t really class this as ‘unusual’: that sand-blasted wave pattern seems to be prevalent on bus shelters around the western world. Not that I’m complaining: it’s a nice piece of jaunty graphic design that has the air of a very adept woodcut.
Bus shelter Auckland by Anne Beaumont Here’s a slightly more distinctive example of the same technique. I imagine this sort of decoration goes a long way towards discouraging vandalism and graffiti – and just as I’m all for every high street having its own character, I’d definitely vote for every bus shelter to be contributing to that local character.
Bus Stops by Sam Kelly It’s hard to keep this list down to ten, but I’ll finish by picking a shelter from my own home town of Brighton. This stands for all bus shelters that have their own distinct architectural style, the more so if they echo their surroundings.
In Brighton, the shelters along the Old Steine are all Deco like this, and very elegant they look too. Along the prom, we also have some wooden shelters that fit effortlessly into their surroundings.
I suspect that their upkeep costs the council an arm and a leg, but their style is part of what makes Brighton different, and in some small way, I suspect they contribute to our tourist economy.
- Not enough bus shelters for you? I’ve put all these photos, and quite a few extra that I haven’t featured, in some Flickr galleries.
- Is there a special or interesting bus shelter near you? Please do share in the comments.
- Something wrong with your local bus stop? Report it on FixMyTransport.com.
If you’ve posted a particularly sticky problem on FixMyTransport, you have probably received a comment from one of our friendly volunteers. Like faithful butlers, they can also be summoned at the touch of a button – in this case, our ‘ask for further advice’ button, which you can see on any campaign page that you have created.
We’ve just published a page on the main mySociety website (mySociety being the organisation that created and maintains FixMyTransport) explaining a bit more about becoming a volunteer – and we’ve included short profiles of some of the team.
Our volunteers have plenty more to say than we can fit onto that page, though, so we thought we’d introduce them more fully here on the FixMyTransport blog, starting with Peter.
Like many volunteers across all mySociety’s sites, Peter has followed his interests to shape his own role. Here’s how he talks about his experience as a FixMyTransport ‘anorak’.
“As a volunteer, I keep an eye on the most recently updated issues. I try to think about these issues from the operator’s perspective and ask users to clarify anything that needs it. A great benefit of social media is that, when appropriate, comments from users can be referred to operators instantaneously.
“On an ad hoc basis, I am currently reviewing our bus stop issues and encouraging users to come back to us with an update. They are a really quick win with most of them concerning repairs (broken glass or bus stop flags) or the quality of timetable information. These are really cheap and easy to sort out compared to the provision of new buses or additional train carriages.
“The responsibility for bus stops and shelters is so varied, and I am currently emailing councils to find out who is the best contact for these types of issue. Some areas are really simple with just one email address covering a whole county, whilst others are frustratingly difficult. I would encourage all of those involved with this valuable asset to keep things simple to minimise the amount of contact.”
How much time does Peter spend on his FixMyTransport volunteer work? “My partner would argue that it is too much time (“too true!”), but I think it would be fair to say that I spend around five hours per week on the website at least. A lot of it depends on what is going on. If there is nothing going on and the emails are quiet, I will not be on the site for long. If there is plenty to do, I am happy to chip in. It expands to fill any time you have available to it but it doesn’t take over if there are other things going on.
“I think my favourite aspect of the work is showing a FixMyTransport user the opportunities available to take their issue to other authorities. It is amazing how many people are frustrated by their local bus operator or a bus stop that is damaged but they do not know who to turn to. Thanks to the experience we have, we can show them the opportunities available and make it easier. It is great to support users and show them that they are not alone with the problems that bug them.
“At university I undertook a dissertation that demonstrated to me that passengers really want some friendly support when they are using public transport, particularly when they encounter issues with it. I stumbled across FixMyTransport while finding news stories for a website I was working on, and found it a great opportunity to use my experience to help users get more information. The set up has been fantastic and we have helped users understand some of the developments occurring on their local services. We are helping to turn passengers into informed customers. Whilst informed customers are harder to satisfy, they are great ambassadors for operators when they are kept informed – and they provide a good opportunity for operators to get views from people who use their services.”
Like all the FixMyTransport team, Peter is a frequent user of public transport. “My favourite route is one that gets me to my destination in comfort and on time! But a specific one should be the Settle and Carlisle line which has done amazingly. It is hard to believe that just 25 years ago, the line was under threat of closure.”
Read more about volunteering for FixMyTransport, or for other mySociety sites.
Or find out some low-effort ways to help us with our work!
Image credit: Broken Bus Stop by Lee J Haywood