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By: Brooke Allen, Huiling He, Naa Larbi, Mike Magnacca, Dina Shah, and Fanqi Xue for Markus Giesler’s MBA course Customer Experience Design at the Schulich School of Business.

Link to The article on the Huffington Post Blog

The Passenger Journey

From London to New York, Tokyo to Tehran, subway travel is a necessary public service to move mass amounts of people throughout a city. The subway has many valuable characteristics, the most obvious being public transportation. It also decreases the number of cars on the road and contributes to a city’s economy. Approximately 160 countries around the world employ some form of rapid transit. The subway, underground, metro, however you call it, moves over 200 million people a day throughout urban areas.[i] Just like a metronome that regulates a beat to help musicians improve their tempo, the unspoken code of conduct regulates the rhythm of a subway system. This is a well-orchestrated symphony, conducted by an unwritten playlist of social norms; managing passengers is instrumental in maintaining some semblance of safety and decorum, which in turn keep delays to a minimum. Obviously, there are no dress rehearsals with this “symphony” and it is up to the passengers and the transit authorities to keep the dissonance to a minimum.

It should be noted that subway experiences vastly differ from system to system and there are metro systems that are generally quiet and without disorderly conduct. This however, is a discussion about the ‘others’, the ones where people are supposed to be mindful of others but instead their behaviour is abysmal, rendering the subway experience the equivalent of being in a mosh pit at a rock concert — trapped in a tightly enclosed space with hundreds of clamouring strangers surrounding you, shoving back your every move for a little bit of space. Why is it there is a different mentality that emerges when one travels beneath a city on a mode of transit that is predominantly void of sunlight? The rules that govern appropriate behavioural patterns above ground seem to have no bearing on some below ground and disappear along with the light. “This is a discussion about the ‘others’… their behaviour is abysmal rendering the subway experience the equivalent of being in a mosh pit at a rock concert — trapped in a tightly enclosed space with hundreds of strangers surrounding you.”

The Mosh Pit

Subway systems are becoming overtaxed with more people travelling than ever before; consequently, the metronome broke and many systems are now frequently out of tune. Building more infrastructure only solves one piece of the puzzle because some of the most problematic issues stem not from the system but from the people who depend on it for transportation.[i] Bad behaviour is having a negative impact on subway systems around the world. For instance, the London Underground transports 4 million people a day and at least a third of rail delays are attributed to customers behaving badly.[ii]

People have become increasing unaware of their surroundings or worse, they don’t care, choosing disruption over discipline. Some of the biggest pet peeves sited by passengers include: those who are channeling their inner stripper and hog the pole, people who sit across multiple seats, those who support the purses are people too campaign and require a seat for their handbag, the man-spread, the loud cell phone talker, and the music blaring DJ. Then there are the physical offences: being pummeled in the face with a knapsack or people who keep touching your hand when you’re holding the pole—we aren’t dating! In an age where personal space is no longer personal and a subway experience is influenced by the unpredictable behaviour of those around you, what is the solution to this situation?

A Classic Cure

The passenger subway journey is somewhat determined by an agency’s ability to run the trains and they are now looking at ways to provide passengers with more than the typical utility of being on time and to offer travel without disruption. Thus, transit authorities around the world are making concerted efforts to create a more convenient, attractive, and pleasant transit experience for the passenger.

One idea that is being explored is trying to curb crime and control behaviour with the classics. Piping in classical music is currently being tested in subway stations in North America and the in UK; McDonald’s, shopping malls, and 7-Eleven stores in Canada have already brought culture to the masses to deter lingering, and thus delinquency, with much success.[iii] Speculations as to why it works vary but regardless of the reason, playing classical music has had positive results; there is also the additional benefit that it can alter people’s moods, making them feel less stressed and more relaxed. [iv]

Sit Back and Listen

Another option is creating opportunities for passengers to provide feedback—your audience will tell you what they want, so listen. Thus, feedback forums are being initiated to bring together customers, management and staff together to encourage open channels for dialogue and customer engagement. One example is Hong Kong’s MTR. The agency introduced the “Listening x Responding” program, a system that composes responses that directly reply to passenger requests to deal with problems like overcrowding, wait times, and improving station accessibility. Seoul’s MTR has launched a Citizen Monitoring Committee to actively assist in enhancing customer service. It’s comprised of citizens who are experts in various fields of urban rail operations. As well, the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority hosts “Metro Lunchtalk Online” chats, providing passengers the opportunity to ask questions and submit comments to top staff members. [v]

Designing a first-class customer journey is a full-on concerto, involving the collaborative effort of both passengers and agencies to create an ensemble that performs together in unison. While, there will always some people who are completely tone deaf (the next time you’re in the mosh pit try tranquilizing them with Mozart from your mobile), this is ultimately about tuning the passenger experience and adjusting it to the correct pitch by creating new transit touchpoints and cues. As transit authorities seek new ways to provide passengers with more than just the basic services, they have an opportunity to design a new sequence of interactions with passengers that can end on a positive note.


[i] (, 2017)

[ii] (, 2017)

[iii] (Frank, 2015)

[iv] (The Independent, 2008)

[v] (Dr. Young-In Kwon, 2012-2014)

[i] (Richard, 2017)

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