Technology has dramatically altered the way Metro Transit’s customers plan their trips, offering real-time information that allows users to see the best way to get from Point A to Point B with just a few clicks.
That doesn’t mean Metro Transit has lost its personal touch, however.
Nearly 40 transit experts at Metro Transit’s Fred T. Heywood Office Building in Minneapolis work all but two days a year to provide customers with personalized transit directions over the phone. Callers can get directions by simply telling the experts where they are and where they want to go. Experts can also help customers learn how to walk to their nearest station or final destination and help plan a future trip. Trip planning assistance is available in 170 languages.
While Metro Transit’s website and third-party apps now play a growing role in customers’ trip planning efforts – Metro Transit’s online trip planner drew more than 6 million users last year – there is still a healthy appetite for a more personal experience.
Transit experts receive about 5,000 calls a day and have together handled more than 1 million annual calls each of the last eight years (in 2012, there were 1.2 million calls answered; the record was set in 2009 with 1.24 million calls answered).
“It’s not as if we’re hauling lumber around. We serve people, and people really appreciate that one-to-one contact,” said John Howley, who has managed the Transit Information Center for the last seven years.
While the basic function is the same, technology has changed the way the Transit Information Center works. Before Metro Transit’s online Trip Planner launched in 2000, transit experts manually plotted trips using a giant map, where each route had been taped.
Today, that labor-intensive approach has been replaced with a computerized system that can instantantly provide experts the information they need to serve customers. Calls that once took up to 20 minutes to resolve now often take less than two minutes.
Gary Bier (who goes by another name on the phone) has seen the evolution since becoming a transit expert nearly 35 years ago, when fares were just 35 cents. Besides the changes in technology, Bier has seen the level of service grow dramatically.
While there is more to remember now, Bier has developed a vast knowledge of Metro Transit’s routes and schedules and can quickly come up with solutions when customers call. Some of that knowledge comes from memorizing routes before the call center moved to a computer-based system.
“Kind of like a GPS, I can picture it all in my head,” Bier said.
Cathy Taylor has spent 13 years helping Metro Transit customers navigate the system. She said most callers are looking for directions to appointments, school or a new job.
During a recent Friday morning, Taylor helped a man in downtown Minneapolis find his way to a medical appointment in Golden Valley, confirmed weekend departure times for a man with an outdated printed map and walked a Minneapolis resident through her early-morning commute to Edina.
The calls showed how Taylor is able to come up with more creative trips based on how much time people are willing to wait, whether they will walk longer distances to their final destination or are comfortable transferring to another bus, giving people more options than they might come up with on their own.
"This is really much more of a personal schedule," she said.
Those needs are why Howley believes transit experts will continue to play a vital role for Metro Transit customers, no matter how much technology evolves. “That need will always be there,” he said.
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How to reach the Transit Information Center
To reach Metro Transit’ Transit Information Center, dial 612-373-3333. (This is the same number that provides access to NexTrip, Customer Relations and a number of other resources). Transit experts are available from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays. The Transit Information Center is closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
Photos: Transit expert Jared Fette speaks to a Metro Transit customer at the Transit Information Center, June 2013 (top). A transit expert uses a guidebook to manually plot a trip in the Transit Information Center in 1999, before the system was converted to computers.