Stores have "secret shoppers" who visit to assess their customers' experience. Now the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority has something similar: "ghost riders."
And during recent observations, TARTA drivers routinely failed to wear seat belts, didn't use their buses' "kneeling" systems regularly to help riders board, and failed to make stop announcements if their buses lacked automated announcements based on global positioning.
But in an interview and in their reports to Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority managers, two "ghost rider" supervisors from Laketran, the transit authority in Lake County east of Cleveland, gave generally positive marks to the Toledo system, even as they recommended certain areas for improvement.
"The drivers are very courteous," said Tom Gabor, a Laketran road supervisor who rode eight buses during his visit on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. "You ask a question, you get an answer. A lot of them make a point to greet their passengers when they get on."
"My overall impression was very good," agreed Nancy McDaniel, whose visit covered seven bus rides. TARTA, she said, "is doing well in comparison to other agencies" she has visited.
Tom Metzger, TARTA's transportation superintendent, said the Laketran supervisors' Toledo visit followed by about three weeks a similar tour that two Toledo road supervisors made of Laketran buses.
It was the second such exchange TARTA made with another Ohio transit agency during 2011 under a program organized by the Ohio Transit Risk Pool, a public transportation insurance consortium.
"This takes place throughout the year, and makes our system better," Mr. Metzger said, adding that the reports on individual drivers' performance will be used only to critique them, not as a basis for disciplinary proceedings.
Both "ghost riders" cited, in their reports, drivers' apparent reluctance to "kneel" their buses to curb level to make it easier for passengers to board and failure to announce stops in the absence of automated announcements.
The latter issue, Ms. McDaniel wrote, creates "a challenge for someone unfamiliar to [the area], or impaired in any way" to know where to disembark. She also noted that half the drivers she observed didn't wear seat belts, a shortcoming Mr. Gabor also noted for drivers on several of his trips.
Altough both "ghost riders" credited most of their bus drivers with providing smooth rides, Mr. Gabor flagged two, and Ms. McDaniel one, for rough acceleration and sharp stops.
One driver whom Mr. Gabor gave "five stars for passenger courtesy" nonetheless made "lots of abrupt speed changes," followed other vehicles too closely, and accelerated approaching red lights before braking hard. Another, he said, "displayed a lack of interest in the task of safely operating the vehicle" and occasionally drank "something from a can" while driving.
Ms. McDaniel described one of her bus drivers as having "appeared agitated when traffic was slowed due to a minor [traffic accident] and chose to abruptly change lanes, blowing horn and making non-obscene hand gesture." But she described others generally with terms like "smooth" and "competent."
In his summary remarks, Mr. Gabor noted that passengers often crossed the street in front of their stopped buses after alighting.
"This could present a safety hazard, as impatient motorists frequently pass stopped fixed-route buses without anticipating someone could unexpectedly step out into their path," Mr. Gabor wrote.
He also noted in an individual trip report that the advertising "wrap" on that bus made it difficult to see outside and thus hard to know one's location.
Ms. McDaniel's overall observations, meanwhile, included a complaint that timetables were easy to follow, "but not always available on vehicles."
James Gee, the transit authority's general manager, said the announcements issue would likely come up during disabilities-oriented driver training scheduled for January, while the seat-belt findings were discussed during an employee meeting last month.
Specific drivers' performance, he said, will be addressed by Mr. Metzger, he said, perhaps through further observation and employee counseling.
"It's very helpful and very beneficial to have transit professionals evaluating professionals," Mr. Gee said. "Overall, we were pretty happy with the feedback we received."
Contact David Patch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6094.