MUNI Cheapens Its Brand By Not Updating Its Web Presence

SF MUNI - photo taken by Anthony Ramos (Flickr)We’re all in a crisis now…economically speaking, of course. Budgets are as tight as they possibly could be, but things just aren’t getting any better. As a result of this budgetary crisis, businesses and even government agencies are resigning themselves to cut services to their constituents. One such organization that has affected me is the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority (SFMTA) – this agency is responsible for management of the public buses, light rail and cable car operations in the city. I wrote a post about what SFMTA could do to improve their web presence last year to see if it was possible for them to leverage the Internet to help make their service much more tolerable, but unfortunately didn’t even hear back from SFMTA.

It wasn’t until this month’s installment of service cuts by SFMTA did that old post bring me back to writing about them again. To give you a sense of what’s happening, SFMTA or MUNI is undergoing some real budgetary issues and feels that they need to cut down on service in order to close the gap between money needed and money owed. Regardless of political idealism or who’s to blame, I want to focus on one thing…their web presence still sucks. In fact, the efforts by SFMTA towards integrating a web presence (forget dealing with social media) is abysmal and needs to be corrected. I frequently ride the bus from my apartment to downtown and one of things that I hear at least several times a trip is that more information on budget cuts can be found on “www.sfmta.com” and it’s even relayed in multiple languages.

So I went to find out what all the fuss is about…and this is what I saw on the SFMTA website:

SF MUNI's website

How horrible of a site is this? Not really that functional. I’m wondering if anyone at SFMTA is even caring about what people are saying and whether they really put any effort into being online. I can probably relate this best to pretty much paying lip-service to the customers of MUNI by having a website and then throwing crap onto a wall and hoping something will stick. What wins out is what you see on the SFMTA website.

But my qualm isn’t totally with just their website, but their apparent lack of concern over educating their riders who are instructed to visit their website and are greeted with a (pardon my French) “half-ass” approach towards any discernible form of information. SFMTA announced new service cuts and I’ve come to accept that, but one thing that isn’t clear is how will this affect me so when I go to their website to find more information, I see a blue banner with horrible print reading “MUNI Schedule Changes” and figure that I’ll find the help that I need. When the page shows up, all that I see are links to PDFs and a printable brochure. Before I decide to read the brochure – which is really 1990s, by the way – I want to get the general gist of what’s the system-wide impact and possibly some other insights that I might need so that I’m spared from opening up a PDF, but ultimately, I’m left with this copy AND ONLY this copy:

Effective Saturday, May 8, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) will implement Muni schedule changes to most bus routes and rail lines.  These changes include reducing frequencies on most routes and hours of operation on some. These changes are part of a comprehensive cost-savings plan needed to bridge the Fiscal Year 2009-10 operating budget deficit ending June 30, and to aid in reconciling the projected budget deficit for Fiscal Year 2010-11, which begins July 1.

That’s it…how is that getting more information about the service cuts?  This is the same standard jargon that a bureaucratic agency is espousing upon their readers without any care for what information is relevant and actually needed. Again, I associate this website as something the SFMTA believes is lip-service. There is apparently a lack of concern by the internal bureaucrats who view their web presence as nothing more as an annoyance and probably even think that old media is still the new media – to which I say that this is unfortunately not the case.

And even when I click on the PDF link for more information about the service cuts to MUNI, I’m taken to a brochure showing other information that wasn’t needed – why would I be concerned about a St. Francis rail replacement project when all I want to know is how the service cuts will affect me? Apples and oranges are the fruit of the day, it seems. And while I’m looking at this same brochure, I’m shown a table (see below) of the various routes and what could be assumed to be a timetable, but clearly without any noticeable description or understanding of how to even read the data:

SF MUNI

Is it any wonder why there’s a growing negative sentiment against San Francisco’s major (if not ONLY) public transit system? To that end, I’d like to offer some recommendations to SFMTA on how to improve their web presence – simply starting with their website:

  • First of all, determine what your web address will be – it should either primarily be SFMTA.com or 511.org or SFMUNI.com. Whichever it is, point the others to in order to tie it all back and avoid any brand confusion.
  • Establish your objectives – what’s your goal? To educate, alert or display helpful information?
  • Avoid putting in too much information all at once on the website. Make sure that your visitors don’t get overwhelmed by the information you present them and help “guide” them on the path to their information.
  • Make sure that your site is accessible and easily read by most major browsers.
  • If you are going to translate your site into other languages like Chinese or Spanish, then you should make sure to have an option/link to translate conspicuously placed at the top of the page for people to easily find, not below the screen fold.
  • Make content and information legible and easily found – this means that you should stop putting up PDFs when you can easily produce that same content in HTML format which will help search engines find the information and is easily able to be reproduced and edited, if needed.
  • Make sure your website is telling a story and sharing an experience – to make people feel better about finding the information they want and to build upon brand loyalty, SFMTA will need to improve the flow of their website instead of dropping a whole lot of information on a site all at once and hoping people will pay attention. Don’t inundate your audience with trivial data that just looks good because some bureaucrat thinks so. In guiding your visitors to their information, you’re sharing a tale about the MUNI experience. Right now, the MUNI experience people are getting from the website is bewilderment and anger – most likely rightly so as the offline and online experience mirror each other pretty closely.
  • Are you putting enough information out there in ways people can understand? One thing that I encounter when going through the SFMTA website is that the information there sounds pretty and smart, but does the average person understand the lingo? Make sure that your content isn’t in gibberish that someone with an MBA or a PhD will be able to decipher with a graphic calculator. Also, don’t try and be succinct and assume that people will understand your description. If examples are needed, put them down. In the case of the service cuts and the above graph, it would be helpful for SFMTA to have included an example on how to decipher the time schedule so we’re not guessing.

There are probably some more tips that can be included on how SFMTA could improve their website and in fact, it might be more prudent for the agency to go back to the drawing board to create a site that would truly address the concerns of their riders and audience to make sure that the information presented is accurately represented and to show that they are listening.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.