Op-Ed: The ‘Customer’ Is Always Right — Except When Being Called ‘Customer’

It's bread and circuses time in the subway system.


When Andy Byford became New York City Transit president in January, 2018, he wasn’t only hired for his technical competence. He also demonstrated talents in communication and public relations — talents, frankly, that the subways sorely needed.

In order to repair the subways’ tattered image, Byford put improving the “customer experience” front and center in his Fast Forward plan, and hired a “chief customer officer,” Sarah Meyer. They have consolidated efforts to explain service changes and progress on repair work in a “customer commitment” page, complete with an online “customer satisfaction” survey offers free rides for submitting a response.

The author, in a non-urban setting.
The author, in a non-urban setting.

Any New Yorker can appreciate can appreciate better communications from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But why has the agency leaned into “customers” as its term of choice for users? Whatever happened to “passengers,” “riders,” or the old standby, “straphangers”?

Criticizing this language may seem nitpicky. But the words symbolize the political tensions at the MTA and in the city and state at large — what gets built, who pays for it and, at the end of the day, who is it all for anyway?

We as New Yorkers pay dearly for this political game. The slogan “the customer is always right” in public services — and the neoliberal notion that service users must pay their own way — cheerily papers over the attrition of our infrastructure.

That’s why language turning riders into “customers” is so pernicious. Conceptually, it obscures the subways’ true nature as a huge benefit for the wealthy and the common property of city residents, and it impoverishes our language of public service.

Moreover, it produces what might be called a “bread and circuses” approach to transit policy.

As the MTA faces a yawning budget deficit, pressure has mounted to raise fares without even a solid capital plan to reestablish subway infrastructure to last the 21st century. In order to deflect from this unpleasant financial reality, the authority has focused on fare evasion,  resulting in the brutal police treatment of turnstile jumpers, often people of color. Governor Cuomo has doubled down on the “blame-the-victim” approach: This week he announced that he is adding 500 police officers to the MTA, in part to catch more fare evaders.

Several initiatives by Cuomo, such as fancy station renovations and USB charging stations, also reflect the notion that “customers” will be satisfied with surface improvements, allowing him to postpone paying the billions necessary to overhaul the hundred-year-old signals system. Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio has attempted to score transit achievements outside the MTA system with NYC Ferry and the BQX streetcar proposal.

With “customer”-speak, Byford is playing by these cold political rules. Like many other state and federal agencies, the MTA adopted the term “customer” for service users in its media during the 1980s. After the 1970s budget crisis, the authority cleaned up and rebuilt infrastructure and launched a new fleet of cars; it enhanced its messaging in hopes of increasing ridership.

That’s understandable. After a decade in which the city lost 10 percent of its population, the MTA worried about losing its rider base to driving at a time of far less congestion in Manhattan. But appealing to riders with customer relations also reflected a new political-economic ideology: that competition between public and private services was not only positive, but inevitable.

This neoliberal creed survives today, even as the city’s population has rebounded. By neglecting to regulate the rideshare industry or to impose congestion pricing until earlier this year, city and state politicians chose to create a competitor to the subway, forcing it to focus on “customer experience” while facing falling ridership and crumbling infrastructure.

New York is not like other cities, and its subway is not a consumer product. The subway made New York America’s densest city; it’s an existential part of our life. The majority of its riders don’t own cars and rely on it as their only affordable means of travel. Most travelers to Midtown must use the subway or city streets would become gridlocked solid.

Even more so, the subway underpins the city’s economy, conveying the workers of its vibrant creative and service industries and creating the land values that enrich real-estate investors beyond reason. Political efforts to get businesses or landlords to pay more through new taxes or value capture face predictable hurdles, but they are the only just and practical way to pay for a system that will endure.

We should call riders what they are — citizens. Then we might begin to muster the political courage to keep our subways running.

Eric Schewe is a historian and Queens resident. He writes regularly for JSTOR Daily and on Twitter @nychistorybiker.

  • Joe R.

    I’ll go with inmates instead of passengers, customers, riders, or straphangers. In many cases, the decision to use the subway or bus is involuntary, as there exists no viable alternatives, just like with being in prison. The conditions in terms of filth, crowding, noise, etc. are often no better than in prisons, either. The fact a large part of the ridership is in essence a captive audience accounts for the reason the MTA got away with providing the poor service it has not only over the last few years, but in the years from the 1960s through the late 1980s. The subway had a relatively brief golden era from the early through mid 1990s. Then you had the trains slowed due to the Williamsburg Bridge incident after 1996. Still, the subway was tolerable even if a bit pokey. The trains still mostly adhered to their slower, but predictable schedules. Then a few years again everything started unraveling. If a private company whose customers could go elsewhere provided that kind of service, it would have long been bankrupt.

    I’m happy for the recent improvements but I’ll stick to calling the subway users inmates until things get close to what they were in the first half of the 1990s.

  • Oy.

    First of all, the subway was performing at historically good levels as late as 2010 or 2012.

    Secondly, notwithstanding its decline over the past decade, it still does its job remarkably well.

    Social media amplifies the complaints from individuals who find themselves stuck in a train delay or those who experience other unpleasant conditions. It’s not that these complaints are not valid; but they should not be taken to represent the typical daily experience.

    On any given day, the vast majority of the subway’s passengers are transported to their destinations on time. But nobody ever tweets “My train was on time and my ride was fast”, even though that describes most people’s experience

    If one person out of eight million tweets about a bad ride, then that person’s tweet becomes the dominant story.

    The reality is that the subway, even with its chronic problems, is still something that we New Yorkers can be proud of. And the appropriate comparison is not to the high point of 2012, but to the low point of 1977.

  • Tooscrapps

    Furthermore, you never see highways, bridges, toll-booths, etc ever use the term customers.

  • Dexter

    THANK YOU. I’ve been saying this for the last three years. Visibility comes with technology. Just like with crime.

  • ?? “Customer” was the preferred term of 1990s green capitalism, courtesy of Paul Hawken. Its supposed advantage is “customized” service, which isn’t exactly the right etymology.

  • Joe R.

    While it’s true the ultimate low point was 1977 or thereabouts let’s not drop to the level of assuming every complaint about a bad ride is simply one person’s story, and not the norm. When you have a pattern of such complaints something else is going on. That was the case starting from a few years back. It even matched my anecdotal experience. I’ve seldom taken the subway since I started working from home in the early 1990s but before about 2014 most of my experiences were positive. After that, most of them were negative. Now it can’t be that before I just happened to ride only on good days, and after I only happened to ride on bad ones. Add to this the frequent Gothamist articles on major subway meltdowns. Something negative has definitely been going on.

    Even before major problems started the subway lost much of its efficiency after they slowed the trains down in 1996. I’m very sensitive to minimum possible running time, where the train speed is only limited by track geometry and equipment limits. That should dictate the schedules. Artificially crippling equipment, then compounding this by adding timers even on sections of straight track, added many minutes to people’s commute. Even if the trains still ran on time, it was on time keeping to a much slower schedule. That’s unacceptable. It wasn’t even necessary from a safety perspective. The MTA had other alternatives it could have used, like increasing the braking rate to compensate for the signals which were too closely spaced. Instead, it choose the worst possible solution of slowing the trains down. Moreover, instead of trying to find a better long term fix, it kept this solution in place for a generation.

    To be fair, my last two subway rides were positive. Again, this matches what I’m reading, namely that things are finally headed in the other direction. CBTC on the #7 is a huge win. It’s nice to finally see trains running like they should. Now we just need to accelerate the rollout of CBTC so the entire system works that way.

  • vnm

    If you can get past the Newsday paywall, this article has some of the history on when and why the MTA began shifting to the word “customer” — which implies a certain slate of responsibilities on the part of the MTA — instead of mere “rider” or “passenger.”


  • AMH

    The “customer” language definitely predated Byford; I think it began with Walder. I was never a fan of calling passengers “customers” any more than I like stores to call their customers “guests”.

  • AMH

    The signals weren’t “too closely spaced” — newer trains’ braking power was reduced by design (a design flaw for sure).

  • Joe R.

    Right, I meant too closely spaced for the (now reduced) braking power. Either way though the best solution was to bring back braking rates to what they were, not slow down the trains for 23 years and counting.

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