What public transport surveys tell us about customer satisfaction


  • ASEAN+
  • Sunday, 26 Feb 2017

On the move: Commuters heading down to the Raffles Place MRT station in Singapore. — AFP

IF you have not already noticed, each time we are told how the public transport system has become better, two things tend to happen.

One, a series of breakdowns will ensue, almost immediately.

In the days following the release of the 2016 Public Transport Customer Satisfaction Survey results, there were no fewer than six rail disruptions.

Two, there will be widespread disbelief, going by the many comments on social media ridiculing the finding that 96.4% of commuters were satisfied last year – a marked improvement from 91.8% in 2015. Even industry players were surprised.

“What happens when it reaches 100%?” one senior manager of a service provider asked.

Other than attributing it to pure coincidence, explaining the first phenomenon is probably next to impossible. There is, however, a good explanation for the second.

First, it is not uncommon to find differences between perception and reality.

A popular perception here is that the public transport system is completely broken. In reality, it is not, even if the rail system does not rank as high as those in places such as Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo.

The disconnect between statistics and sentiment is also less puzzling if we look at how satisfaction surveys are conducted.

Typically, respondents are asked to rank a service on a scale of one to 10. The rankings are then weighted against the importance respondents attach to qualities such as safety, reliability and comfort.

Anything from six is considered “satisfied”. Herein lies the nub of the issue. Does a six qualify as “satisfied”? Sure it does. But it does not qualify as “fully satisfied”.

So, it might be more accurate to say that 96.4% of commuters were “moderately or mildly satisfied” last year.

That would certainly gel better with other realities, such as the number of rail breakdowns here, which has not changed much.

Then again, such a term would be unwieldy, and certainly less snappy than saying 96.4% were “satisfied”.

Separately, respondents in the latest poll gave public transport a score of 7.6 out of 10, up from 7.2 in 2015 and 7 in 2007.

Now, this paints a slightly better picture. In spite of all its shortcomings, Singapore’s public transport system ranks pretty decently among other systems in the world (even if it is not among the top performers).

And since 2011, many improvements have been put in place.

The public bus fleet has been bumped up by nearly 30%; two stages of the Downtown Line have opened to bring MRT accessibility to several new precincts; and a massive upgrading of the older rail systems is more than half-completed. At the same time, more stringent service standards have been prescribed.

A higher satisfaction level – and, indeed, a 7.6 score – is thus believable. The results show that if enough will and resources are applied to fix a problem, it is only a matter of time before success will follow. But as Public Transport Council chairman Richard Magnus says: “The work certainly does not stop here.”

Part of that work should include tracking how well (or how poorly) the public transport system is doing. Satisfaction surveys can be useful if they are well designed.

It is not a perfect indicator (few surveys are). But its consistency makes it a useful barometer. If the numbers rise, it means that the public transport system is on the right track. If they fall, it means something is amiss.

As it turns out, the public transport system is indeed on the right track, even if the end point is nowhere as near as the 96.4% figure seems to suggest. - The Straits Times/ANN


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