Calls For Greater 311, MTA Efficiency

Next_Muni.jpgFrom rick via Flickr

While the list of budget problems facing the MTA is long, Supervisor Bevan Dufty believes he can save them a few million just by changing the way they do customer service.

In a special hearing on work orders to the MTA yesterday, Dufty proposed that the MTA come up with a solution to reduce the costs of 311 calls from the public seeking information for the arrival of the next bus.  311 bills MTA on average $1.96 for every call and bus schedule calls account for 41 percent of total calls to 311 (total MTA-related calls account for 63 percent of all call volume at 311), despite the existence of automated NextMuni timetables already on 311, on over 750 bus shelters, and online through and

At Dufty’s request, the MTA itemized total costs of using 311 to provide customers with information that could be transmitted automatically and determined that they could save $4.5 million if 311 no longer manually assisted schedule requests. 

In an interview, MTA Executive Director Natthaniel Ford said that the agency would work with the Board of Supervisors and the public to streamline the system and cut down on the cost of providing bus schedules.  He also noted that call volumes to 311 were higher than they had initially anticipated.  He denied that the agency doles out work order money without good cause. 

I wouldn’t say it’s a rubberstamping of it but it’s clearly a situation where there are increased levels of work that we have identified and at the same time these other departments are suffering through budget cuts and challenges and they’re trying to make sure that whatever services they’re providing for the MTA that we’re adequately reimbursing them for it. Is it a perfect system? No system is perfect.

In a document presented to the public at the hearing, the MTA suggested that the agency could work with 311 to provide much more information automatically through, but argued that it shouldn’t rush to abandon manual assistance completely until customers have had time to adjust to the changes (PDF).  They also agreed they could do a better job of advertising the services to the riding public:

From a customer service perspective, the SFMTA would make an investment in “stickering” existing shelters and stops with “511 Stop IDs” (and simple instructions) to facilitate the transition from 311 to 511 for departure prediction assistance.  This one-time cost would be an extremely small percentage of the annual cost of departure prediction assistance via 311.  Not only would this improvement ease the move to 511, it would significantly improve the level of service at a number of stops throughout the city that are not currently equipped with NextMuni display signs.

311 Deputy Director Andrew Maimoni said his agency was doing the job that MTA had asked it to do in the first place and that if MTA decided to change how it wanted its service, they would comply.  "We take guidance from the MTA.  If MTA decides that they want us to do it another way, they will tell us.  The initial agreement was to take over passenger service calls from MTA’s former passenger service desk.  This is what was advertised."

Maimoni also noted that unlike the former passenger service desk at MTA, 311 provides the information to the public around the clock and in many languages.  He said they were always open to evaluating the options and working with Supervisor Dufty and the MTA to arrive at a solution that worked for everyone. 

"We’re here to do the work that the city asks us to do," he said.

  • 311 is another “Gavin on the Toilet” idea that they come up with, have a pretty press conference, and then it’s another hit on the budget and it duplicates existing service. Time to pull the plug and put more next muni signs on the stops!

  • j

    the whole notion of having to talk to either a human or a robot is (or rather should be) mostly unnecessary to get nextbus times. If MTA would just post at every stop (and publicize) the individual stop ID number (which you can currently find buried on the 511 website), then all you would have to do is punch in the stop ID number. It’s as simple as stencilling or posting a sticker of the ID number at the stops, and it would work for stops that don’t even have shelters or signs. It’s a very simple and cheap fix.
    People would then just start saving on their cellphones a list of the common stops that they use or transfer at. Plus, if you’re standing at one of the majority of stops around the City that don’t have digital nextbus boards, you can get the info. This would go a long way to really reducing the number of situations in which you would need to vocalize a request to a human or robot.
    The only situation that wouldn’t preclude the need to talk to someone is if you haven’t gotten the stop number in advance (i.e. it’s not a stop you regularly use) and you’re not at the stop yet. From my personal experience, that’s only a fraction of the times you need nextbus information. Most of the time, people need information for stops or transfers that they commonly use. If the stop ID number were widely available, it’s very simple for people to store in their cell phones a list of dozens of their most commonly used stop ID numbers, even for a techno luddite.

  • Aaron B.

    There’s an unofficial text message service for Muni times that I always use when I’m out – I haven’t called 311 in forever. It links information from, I think they should try to get this out more.

    Send text to: 41411
    Example message: Mymuni Haight & Ashbury

    All you have to put in the message is “mymuni” and then the intersection/stop you’re at. It will text you back with up to 3 nearby route times. Besides an intersection, you can also type in a station (ex: “Mymuni Powell Station”).

    All the info is on a page on

    (It will give you other variations besides “mymuni”, but they all work just as well.)

  • theo

    Au contraire, Greg, 311 is a great idea that Gavin stole from a few other cities including, I think, Chicago.

    The idea of having a clearinghouse for the hopelessly complex matrix of local government functions (or any bureaucracy, public or private) is fantastic, money permitting. Give people something empowering to do about problems they observe, instead of just whining!

    The city’s just now discovering what every company (especially the computer industry) already knew: good customer service with a human on the other end is expensive.

    They should’ve implemented the 511 stop tagging idea much earlier — but 511 is somewhat dysfunctional, as you know.


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