The STM and the illusion of participationDecember 3rd, 2010 by ant6n
The STM, Montreal’s public transportation agency, presents itself as fresh and new and user-oriented, with a recently revamped corporate design (which is admittedly pretty nifty) and a public campaign involving tv spots and a new blog. They try to project an image of user focus.
Just now the STM offered a new set of exciting choices to its users: the color scheme of the new metro cars. The choices are: blue and white, white and blue, and… blue and white. Really…
If the only choice they allow Montrealers to make is the color of the cars, why not at least have an open competition allowing the submission of actual designs – rather than this top-down approach?
This is not the first time the agency has invited Montrealers to vote: back in March, users could choose a new seating configuration in the metro cars (which needed more standing room for the rush hour crush). This was a two-step process with somewhat narrow choices. The STM probably should have gotten somebody to explain that maybe putting benches all along the sides is the best compromise to keep the most seats while providing much more standing space, even if it doesn’t look like it on paper and gets rid of those precious individual seats.
Back then the vote seemed like a ruse, an attempt to conceal the fact that the metro was at capacity, and the new contract still in the courts.
Now, the bitter aftertaste is the price of the cars – up to a billion dollars more to replace the whole fleet, because nobody seemed to have a problem with foregoing the open bidding process and awarding the contract directly to a Bombardier-Alstom cartell, despite a cheaper offer from a foreign builder. Nobody, except some opposition in the city council, and of course many users – but they don’t have much say.
We don’t get all that much say, whether it is about awarding an expensive contract to put GPS units into buses and build a new communication center (the suburb of Laval paid much less), or about selling station and metro line names to the highest bidder (particularly ironic: the color scheme of the metros car is part of our identity and heritage, but the system itself apparently is not).
I also don’t remember any public hearings regarding their recent fare hike, either. They simply get announced. Unlike in New York, where the recent fare hike was part of a long and angsty debate (the conclusion of which was to make the unlimited ride card more expensive, rather than cap it).
There was a debate this summer about putting air conditioning into buses and new metro cars, but right away the STM decided top-down that it would cost too much money. It was not deemed a priority, and the funds would be better spent on service improvements.
Yet just recently, the agency introduced new sharp, but dysfunctional bus shelters, that are slated to replace existing ones. The new ones have exactly the same geometry; they are simply more expensive. Admittedly, the STM did ask their users for their opinion. But just like when asking us our opinion regarding the “bus of the future” line 467 upgrades (which are actually pretty nifty), our participation is more like a foot note. A survey that feels a bit as if it is mostly in place to reaffirm the usefulness of the investment.
My problem is not that their service is bad, or that the organization is going in the wrong direction. In fact most of the initiatives are good – the frequent service network, the ‘bus service of the future’, the new corporate design. And I don’t disagree that the metro cars should follow the heritage colors, and are part of the Montreal’s identity. And that most of the times, transport planners probably make better choices than the crowds.
I simply don’t like how they interact with their users. Why pretend that the users have some sort of say? And why take already decided issues (e.g. the removal of seats from the metro), and let people ratify them via mundane votes that attempt to hide the underlying decision?
Participation should not be a marketing-tool, but a way for a public institution to be accountable to the public. And trying to give people a sense that they are being listened to should not come through a giant campaign to illicit votes on mundane choices, but, well, listening.
Trying to talk to them can be a bit difficult. On car-free day earlier this year, where some local transportation agencies each had a stand, I spoke to STM representatives (some hired PR people, really) and tried to point out a small mistake on their 10-minute max map. They weren’t really interested. I also emailed the STM. They didn’t respond, and the mistake is still there online. In fact they never answered any of my emails.
At the same event I had a lengthy discuission with a representative from the RTL (the transit agency of the South Shore suburbs) about the merits of fixed interval schedules and timed transfers; leaving a much more positive impression without all the spark.
The silly thing is that Montrealers will choose the traditional color scheme.