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It's not unusual for Cleanliness to pop up as a top pain point for transit riders. Cleanliness is an important aspect of the customer experience, and clean transit systems are more likely to keep and attract riders.

Cleanliness, however, means different things to different people, so it is important to drill down to identify the aspects of cleanliness that most need improvement. Is it litter? is it stains? Is it spills? is it the hygiene of surfaces? Is it smell? Biohazards?

cleaner pushing cleaning cart at train station

And where and when are the biggest concerns? Are people concerned about cleanliness on the bus? The train? On floors? On seats? At bus stops? On station elevator, escalators, or stairwells? Are problems worse in the morning, afternoons, evenings, or weekends?

To answer these questions, transit agencies should ask customers for specifics. For example, you can email customers who rated cleanliness low in previous surveys to ask them to provide detailed feedback. You can also review comments received by your phone center, or you can organize rider focus groups. The best approach though is to ride-along with riders and interview them "in-the-moment" to get their detailed feedback. Important details can quickly recede from memory, so "in-the-moment" surveys are really helpful.

survey taker holding surveys and pens

Detailed customer feedback may yield useful insights. For example, you may find that regular riders are forgiving about minor litter in areas they quickly pass through, as they may not notice as much when they are on the move. You may also find that there are certain areas like stairwells that prompt customers to look down at their feet so as not to trip and fall, causing customers to also notice cleanliness issues more in those locations. You may also find that there are certain issues like smell that are more intrusive than other cleanliness issues, grabbing riders' attention even when they are on the move. Or you may find that there are certain areas, like waiting zones, where riders are exposed to conditions for a longer period of time and may therefore notice them more...

homeless encampment at bus stop

customer seated on bench at train station. they are surrounded by trash.

These kinds of insights can help guide CX interventions and prioritize improvements.

Once you have detailed feedback from riders, write a problem statement that highlights the top priorities for cleanliness improvements. For example:

Sample Problem Statement: Most riders tell us that cleanliness gets worse and worse throughout the day, and trains and buses are a mess by the time the afternoon rolls around. At rail stations, customers complain about odor and puddles on stairwells and in elevators, and at bus stops riders would like to see the benches disinfected from time to time. Overall, riders are especially concerned with biohazards and smell, including odors from people who may be experiencing homelessness and seeking refuge on transit.

train car interior, with lots of trash on floor and seats

Using the Problem Statement as a guide, cleaning and passenger environment experts in your organization can educate you about constraints and possible solutions. You should ask them to provide an assessment of cleaning standards, supervision, adequacy of staffing, adequacy of supplies, work rule issues, and other factors that may hamper cleaning efforts. Also ask them to recommend the best path forward, and to estimate the costs.

person sleeping on two seats aboard a train car, with their feet projecting into the aisle (unshoed, with socks on)

One option that is NOT an option is to do nothing. If the collaborative effort is stuck because there are intractable issues that cannot be easily addressed, start again with the customer experience and ask the stakeholders how the obstacles can be overcome. Bring in outside experts if needed from organizations that successfully clean other large public facilities.

For both vehicles and facilities, it's not enough to ensure they are clean at the start of a day. Imagine if an airline only cleaned its planes before the start of a day. That would create unacceptable conditions for air passengers. The same is true for transit. You need a comprehensive plan to keep vehicles and facilities clean throughout the day.

If your cleaning workforce is unionized, it's important to include them in the conversation. They may have valuable insights and ideas. Another important group to include in the conversation is women. Studies have shown that women often have different standards and expectations for cleanliness than their male counterparts. Make sure you tap their observations and suggestions. Also include staff responsible for addressing homelessness on the system, and communications staff who educate riders about your code of conduct and how riders can help keep the system clean.

One common issue in unionized transit agencies is the idea that cleaning is reserved only for workers classified as cleaners, and no one else is allowed to infringe on their work. This is important to the cleaners to ensure that other groups don't take work away from them. It helps protect their jobs. That being said, there is value in having an allowance for others to engage in "incidental" pick-up, meaning occasional "light" pick-up of litter that doesn't amount to a significant amount of time. For example, a bus operator, supervisor, customer service agent, or even the CEO might pick up a bottle they see rolling around on a bus because it is a safety hazard. That is not significant enough to take work away from cleaners, and therefore should be allowed. Not only will this make transit cleaner, it will also show customers that your agency cares when they see employees scoop up litter when they see it. Conversely, when customers see uniformed personnel walk by litter without picking it up, it sends a message that your organization doesn't care and detracts from loyalty to your brand....

bus operator picking up rolling beer bottle in the aisle of the bus

Tip: if you get agreement to allow employees to occasionally pick up litter as "incidental" work, consider providing them with small plastic bags and gloves. Also have those supplies on hand for your CEO or other top officials so they can "walk the talk" when they ride transit.

Beyond cleanliness, it also important to assess the condition of your vehicles and facilities. Graffiti, etching, cracked surfaces, missing tiles, divots in the flooring, permanent stains, inadequate lighting, etc. may need to be remedied through your State of Good Repair (SGR) investments. A facility or vehicle may be pristine in terms of cleaning, but if it looks old and tired because of these other issues, customers may judge it to be unclean or in disrepair.

One final note - cleanliness is an ongoing effort that requires ongoing vigilance. It is important for top managers and cleaning supervisors to tour vehicles and facilities to observe conditions and hold staff accountable. Also, ask customers to rate various aspects of cleanliness in your regular customer experience surveys to gauge progress and surface any new issues.


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