If you have not already noticed, each time we are told how the public transport system has become better, two things tend to happen.
One, a series of breakdowns will ensue, almost immediately.
In the days following the release of the 2016 Public Transport Customer Satisfaction Survey results last Monday, there were no fewer than six rail disruptions.
Two, there will be widespread disbelief, going by the many comments on social media ridiculing the finding that 96.4 per cent of commuters were satisfied last year - a marked improvement from 91.8 per cent in 2015. Even industry players were surprised.
"What happens when it reaches 100 per cent?" one senior manager of a service provider asked.
Other than attributing it to pure coincidence, explaining the first phenomenon is probably next to impossible. There is, however, a good explanation for the second.
First, it is not uncommon to find differences between perception and reality.
A popular perception here is that the public transport system is completely broken. In reality, it is not, even if the rail system does not rank as high as those in places such as Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo.
The disconnect between statistics and sentiment is also less puzzling if we look at how satisfaction surveys are conducted. Typically, respondents are asked to rank a service on a scale of one to 10.
The rankings are then weighted against the importance respondents attach to qualities such as safety, reliability and comfort.
Anything from 6 is considered "satisfied". Herein lies the nub of the issue. Does a 6 qualify as "satisfied"? Sure it does. But it does not qualify as "fully satisfied". So, it might be more accurate to say that 96.4 per cent of commuters were "moderately or mildly satisfied" last year. That would certainly gel better with other realities, such as the number of rail breakdowns here, which has not changed much.
Then again, such a term would be unwieldy, and certainly less snappy than saying 96.4 per cent were "satisfied".
Separately, respondents in the latest poll gave public transport a score of 7.6 out of 10, up from 7.2 in 2015 and 7 in 2007.
Now, this paints a slightly better picture. In spite of all its shortcomings, Singapore's public transport system ranks pretty decently among other systems in the world (even if it is not among the top performers).
And since 2011, many improvements have been put in place. The public bus fleet has been bumped up by nearly 30 per cent; two stages of the Downtown Line have opened to bring MRT accessibility to several new precincts; and a massive upgrading of the older rail systems is more than half-completed. At the same time, more stringent service standards have been prescribed. A higher satisfaction level - and, indeed, a 7.6 score - is thus believable.
The results show that if enough will and resources are applied to fix a problem, it is only a matter of time before success will follow. But as Public Transport Council chairman Richard Magnus says: "The work certainly does not stop here."
Part of that work should include tracking how well (or how poorly) the public transport system is doing. Satisfaction surveys can be useful if they are well designed.
On that score, a separate recent poll, which showed commuters were more satisfied with private-hire services such as those provided by Uber and Grab than they were with regular taxis, may have compared apples with oranges.
The two forms of point-to-point transport operate under vastly different regulatory regimes.
They also operate on vastly different financial models, with the private-hire players such as Uber and Grab having seemingly endless sources of funds and not having to pay any heed to the bottom line. The business model is unsustainable. For one thing, the freebies they are heaping on commuters will have to end sooner or later.
It would thus be risky to conclude that one is better than the other on the basis of a poll that does not take into account the fundamental differences between the two.
Can we say the same about the Public Transport Customer Satisfaction Survey?
To be clear, it is not a perfect indicator (few surveys are). But its consistency makes it a useful barometer. If the numbers rise, it means that the public transport system is on the right track. If they fall, it means something is amiss.
As it turns out, the public transport system is indeed on the right track, even if the end point is nowhere as near as the 96.4 per cent figure seems to suggest.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2017, with the headline 'What public transport surveys tell us about customer satisfaction'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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