Public Comment

Commentary: Customer Service Hard to Come By on AC Transit

By Earlita Chenault
Tuesday November 14, 2006

On Sept. 6 I boarded the No. 51 AC Transit bus in Alameda and, after putting in money, was told that the transfer machine was not working. The driver subsequently gave me an expired transfer card on which he’d written that the transfer machine was broken and signed his employee number. He instructed me to give this to the next driver.  

When I boarded the No. 43 bus (bus 1071) heading towards Telegraph at 9:55 a.m., I silently held out the transfer slip to the driver, as instructed. The driver indicated with a gesture for me to put it in the transfer machine. I told her that it was expired and that my previous driver—here she cut me off by snapping “Then throw it away.” I was taken aback by her tone and I thought she might have meant to throw away the expired transfer slip and pay the fare of $1.75, so I tried again to say that the other machine was broken and the driver told me to give this to—I was interrupted by her barking at me, in a carrying, rude voice to “Put it in the trash! Put it in the trash!” I still had no idea what her intention was and I was very shaken by her manner of speaking to me. I dropped the slip in the trash and headed to the back of the bus. (I muttered “Good morning to you, too”) half expecting her to call me back and force me to pay. She didn’t. 

I was just a woman on my way to work. I ride AC Transit every day, and always get on the bus with a “good morning” or “good evening” to the drivers, about half of whom respond. This woman spoke to me as though I were some sort of delinquent inciting trouble, rather than a regular paying customer. I was embarrassed and shaken and I determined at that time to call AC Transit’s Customer Relations line—I later realized that the title, customer “relations” as opposed to customer “service,” was significant. 

The woman who answered the customer relations line listened while I told her what bus I was then on and what had happened. She didn’t see the problem—the driver had let me on, hadn’t she? I inquired whether it was their policy that, so long as they allowed you to ride, AC Transit drivers could speak to riders however they liked. She said no, she was willing to take down the complaint, but that the drivers were on a deadline that I was taking up time (words to this effect) and I explained, again, that I did as my first driver told me to do. I reiterated that I did not understand what she meant by yelling at me to throw away the ticket—that it wasn’t as though the driver had responded like a rational person and said “Okay, just throw it away and take a seat.” That would have saved time and confusion. The customer relations rep said that she didn’t mean to stick up for the driver but they didn’t have time for me to stand there and ... it became clear that she saw nothing wrong with the incident, and that if she did, I was the one in fault. Beyond frustrated by this time, I told her I would find someone else at AC Transit to speak to, that I would just go over her head, and hung up. That’s when it hit me: there was no one at AC Transit that I could contact who would give a damn.  

Consider just two examples of this I have from past experience: 

1. A few years ago while on Bay Farm Island (Alameda) waiting for my regular bus home I saw the bus approaching on McCartney. While I waved at the driver in disbelief he turned onto Island and drove off towards “main” Alameda, instead of crossing Island to pick me up. It was the last bus heading my way; I was stranded. Eventually another bus (not the same number as the one I took) came along and the driver took me as far as Broadway, where I walked a quarter of a mile in the dark to get to another bus stop. When I called AC Transit’s Customer Relations line the next day I was told that the route had changed. But when I took the bus to work it was the same—had the route changed during the day? No, but it is a different route now in the evening. But the sign is still there, I pointed out—were they going to remove the sign, or post an explanation on it? The rep did not know, nor did they seem to care. For weeks that sign stayed there, same as it always did. Every so often in the evening, on my way home, I would see another AC Transit rider frantically waving their arms at the bus I was on went by. 

2. A couple of years ago when I arrived at the 40/43 bus stop across from Oakland City Center there was a large amount of human feces next to the bench. Sickened, I called the Transit hotline to report it. “Oh, that has nothing to do with us. You need to call Public Safety,” I was told. I explained that I was on my cell phone on my way to work and did not have the Public Safety number, that I was calling because it was their bus stop, with their phone number posted next to it, and maybe they could call Public Safety. No, I was told. It had nothing to do with them. Perhaps I could call Public Safety after I got to work. Uh-huh. Customer Relations. 

So yesterday, after I had been yelled at by a Transit driver who hadn’t learned how to “use her words” (my 3-year-old granddaughter could give her lessons) and dismissed by another AC Transit employee whose job it was to take my complaint, I had no real hope of having this issue addressed. They have figured out that most people take the bus out of necessity, not convenience, and they don’t really have to work for our business. It is like they are the last store on Earth. 

And the sad thing is, most of the drivers that I encounter are courteous, if not friendly, and take pride in their jobs. Having employees like this one, and others like her, reflects badly on the majority. 

So maybe this letter to the editor, which I have also sent to the Board of Directors from the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, will result in my being contacted by AC Transit and assured that they do care about customers, and that verbally attacking AC Transit customers will not be tolerated. 

But I doubt it. 


Earlita Chenault is an Alameda resident.