THE VOICE OF THE COMMUTING PUBLIC
The mission of the Public Transport Council (PTC) is to collaborate with commuters, public transport operators and Government agencies to improve Singapore’s public transport system. One of the ways to achieve this mission is to provide objective, evidence-based advice to the Government to improve the service quality of public transport and commuters’ travel experience.
On 8 January 2016, the PTC took on a new role as advisor to the Minister for Transport on public transport matters. The PTC’s new advisory role complements its primary role as the regulator of train and bus fares. Under its new mandate, the PTC will conduct public transport research, surveys and focus group discussions to build up its understanding of commuters’ diverse needs, experiences, and expectations.
For the PTC, hearing first-hand from commuters helps us ensure that our recommendations are based on feedback obtained directly from the people whose needs we are serving — the commuters. We also have to engage stakeholders to better understand the challenges they face in service delivery so that our recommendations can be balanced, practical and cost efficient.
A COMMUTER-FOCUSED ENGAGEMENT PROCESS
We approached the engagement process with an open mind. Whatever issues were raised came spontaneously from commuters, without any prompting on our part. These views formed the basis of our first advisory report, released on 1 August 2016.
Hearing first-hand from commuters helps to ensure that recommendations are based on feedback obtained directly from the people whose needs we are serving.
During our interviews and focus group discussions, we kept our questions general,1 so that commuters could raise any topic that they felt strongly about. We distilled the findings into seven matters of importance to our commuters: safety, reliability, affordability, comfort, ease, customer service and helpfulness. Our subsequent recommendations directly addressed the seven matters of importance to commuters, if they were not already being looked into by the Government, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) or public transport operators.
For example, seniors may be afraid of using escalators which were too fast and steep. This was an issue relating to their safety when taking trains. To take care of the needs of our seniors, we recommended that escalators’ speeds be slowed down during non-peak hours at stations with a high volume of seniors, or at stations located near hospitals. Another group of commuters we talked to was parents with young children. We discovered that many such families with young children would like to buy a car if they could afford it, due to the challenges faced when taking public transport with their young children. In particular, the policy requiring prams and strollers to be folded when boarding buses meant that parents were not allowed to seat their child in an open stroller during bus rides. This was challenging as they had to carry the child, fold the stroller and carry other bags all at the same time. Arising from this feedback, the PTC recommended that the LTA review its stroller policy in consultation with parents, public transport operators and experts.
INSIGHTS FROM THE PUBLIC
In the course of our engagement process, we uncovered some interesting insights from commuters. First, we found that commuters were generally helpful with each other. Day-to-day acts of kindness and care, while not always reported widely, do indeed occur. Whenever there is a need, commuters do step in to help, whether to assist seniors with directions or to take care of someone feeling faint on a train. There is great potential to develop this sense of community among commuters. Second, we found that commuters themselves were pleasantly surprised to be consulted for their views. They felt that the attitudes and responsiveness of our public transport frontline staff could make a difference to their commute. Such insights remind us not to underestimate the power of the human touch. While no system is perfect, the human touch can mitigate many issues.
ENHANCING THE ENGAGEMENT PROCESS
It was not easy to find some 400 commuters willing to spend 1 to 1.5 hours of their time with us. We wanted to be closely involved in the process, so we facilitated many of the discussions ourselves. This meant that we had to rely on our contacts to get us as many people as possible. As we were meeting many of them for the first time, we wanted to make it convenient for them. Participants got to decide on the places and times where we would meet: we travelled to many different parts of Singapore for these engagements, arranging for discussions to suit their schedules, be it the lunch hour, in the evenings, or on weekends and public holidays. Our objective was to make it as fuss-free as possible for the people we engaged.
Given how our commuters have responded and how our recommendations have been accepted, the PTC plans to continue with a similar approach for future engagements. Our commuters’ views were captured through a variety of qualitative and quantitative research methods. We conducted 44 in-depth interviews and 51 focus group discussions. These face-to-face discussions were complemented by findings from a survey of 2,132 commuters and also 513,413 social media sentiments from the period between 1 June 2015 and 31 May 2016. The triangulation of results from the different streams of research helped to ensure that our findings were robust.
DIVERSE VIEWS MAKE FOR BALANCED RECOMMENDATIONS
The PTC also engaged stakeholders such as the Land Transport Authority, National Taxi Association, National Transport Workers’ Union and public transport operators, sharing with them what we had learnt, and seeking their side of the story on issues raised by commuters.
In our engagement, we focused not only on quantity, but also diversity. We ensured that there was widespread and diverse representation from different groups of commuters. Specifically, we spoke to six groups of commuters, and engaged them in English and other local languages, including dialects. The six groups were working adults from different geographic areas in both business and non-business hubs; tertiary students; parents with young children; seniors; wheelchair-bound commuters travelling independently; and car owners who use public transport.
Commuters felt that the attitudes and responsiveness of frontline staff make a difference to their commute. Such insights remind us not underestimate the power of the human touch. While no system is perfect, the human touch can mitigate many issues.
The PTC only had about six to seven months to complete this entire engagement exercise. We therefore had to focus on certain segments of commuters first. However, our engagement efforts have not yet ended. We are continuing to reach out to other groups of commuters that we have not had a chance to engage for our first advisory report, such as hearing- and visually impaired commuters. The findings will be released in future reports. We will continue to use the approach of wide representation and a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods in future engagement efforts.
PTC CHAIRMAN RICHARD MAGNUS: FIVE LESSONS ABOUT ENGAGEMENT
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heng Ju-Li is Director, Research and Advisory at the Public Transport Council. The author thanks CSC Lead Researcher Lai Szu Hao for working with her on the article.
- Some of the questions put to commuters included: What are your positive experiences on buses/trains/taxis? What challenges do you face when taking buses/trains/taxis? What improvements can be made for buses/trains/taxis?