Archive for the ‘My Montreal’ Category
Last week the Gazette published a rant by a couple of restaurant waiters, in which they angrily chastised customers for committing such cardinal sins as making small talk, asking for allergy-free meals, requesting to be seated in a booth, sending back food when it was not what they ordered, or — gasp! — failing to leave a giant tip. Judging by the tone of the rant, these two waiters probably deserve every lousy tip they get.
Now, I’ve spent most of my career working in the customer service sector in some way or another. From my student days working at Fairview shopping centre folding sweaters, to my career in account services and strategic planning for various marketing agencies, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to make sure that the customer was satisfied. It’s not easy, I’ll grant you. There are days when it’s trying, or when certain people make you want to tear your hair out. There are those clients who make you go home and cry and question your will to live. But on the whole, I love it, and I suspect most other people who deal with other human beings in some way feel the same. I get deep satisfaction from building those relationships, anticipating and exceeding expectations, and making people happy. The one thing that always gets to me is when I’m complimented for simply doing my job. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher: After all, compliments and thank yous are nice, but in today’s highly competitive world, shouldn’t good service be the price of entry?
Bad customer service is one of those universal things that can happen anywhere. People love to complain loudly about airlines, telecom companies, service providers, restaurants, hotels and stores where they had unfortunate experiences or were mistreated. They tell their family and friends. They take to social media en masse. This is hardly unique to Montreal.
What is unique here, however, is this sense that this is perfectly normal. and that nobody really needs to try harder or to do better. There are exceptions, of course. But in general, our service sector is among the surliest, rudest and most indifferent on the continent — and when called out for it, they tend to blame the customer.
Montreal’s bike-sharing system is used by thousands of people, myself included, to get around. Montreal is a city where the ubiquitous orange cone is practically a symbol, with road closures and sinkholes and traffic nightmares and transit service outages the norm as opposed to the exception. In this context, Bixi is often the least stressful and most reliable way to get from point A to point B. My morning commute by Bixi takes about the same amount of time as it would take to drive, or to take the metro. But it’s certainly nicer, more pleasant and much better exercise to hop on a bike on a cool, crisp autumn morning and enjoy the views through the park as I make my way to work, as opposed to elbowing my way onto a crowded and smelly metro, or fighting traffic and circling endlessly for parking. Plus, it’s great for the environment. Win-win, right?
But the service is in financial crisis.
Dear Bixi Montreal,
You and I didn’t exactly get off to the best start. Last year, I wrote you a letter about how badly I wanted to like you, but how, after a few bad dates, I’d decided that the relationship was not meant to be.
Flash forward one year, and these days, I’m singing a different tune. I decided to give you another chance, and while it hasn’t been perfect, this is actually turning into a pretty decent relationship. One I could see lasting long term.
So what changed since last June?
Interesting food for thought by Henry Aubin in the Gazette, with a perspective of the high dropout rates among university undergraduates in Quebec:
According to the organization that represents university heads, CREPUQ, Concordia is the Montreal school with the highest dropout rate. UQÀM is hard on its heels. Université de Montréal is substantially better, though still worse than the Canadian average. McGill is the only Quebec university that graduates a greater share of its students than the national average.
Aubin’s analysis — both of dropout rates and of areas of study — completely ignores/disregards CEGEP. Surely any analysis of post-secondary dropout rates or of the value of trade diplomas versus university education needs to take the CEGEP system into consideration. I don’t have statistics handy, but the CEGEPs typically have higher dropout rates than either universities or high schools. And they’re free. Because of that, students have the freedom to experiment, to switch programs, to veer off from one course only to circle back on another course later on. All without wasting any money, other than failure fees or some textbook costs. But those who do graduate are either completing pre-university programs or are getting those trade degrees that Aubin thinks we desperately need.
And here, I disagree with Aubin’s conclusion. A healthy society doesn’t just need more trained monkeys to fill jobs; we need thinkers and educated people with ideas. We need people to challenge the status quo. We need not only employees but entrepreneurs, not only functionaries but luminaries.
The thing is, not everyone is cut out to be a luminary. And in the fight for “accessible” education, we tend to forget that providing people with the keys to the castle doesn’t mean they’re all going to be kings and queens. Life is, after all, what you make of your opportunities.
There’s a spurious correlation at work in Aubin’s article. Studying geography, sociology, liberal arts or political science does not cause one to drop out. But these disciplines tend to attract the most politicized (in Quebec, that means far left-wing) students and professors. They also tend to have less clear career paths for students after graduation, which may be contributing to those same students’ disillusionment with university education — and with their prospects for success in general. Hence the higher rate of participation in the protests, compared to, say, business or engineering majors.
When I was at Concordia, the Arts & Science and Fine Arts faculties regularly rabble-roused in campus politics, while the JMSB (business) and Engineering faculties routinely stayed out of such things. I remember the oddity of being a marketing student in a communication studies class, the frequent scapegoat for a room full of self-described “anti-capitalists” who liked to wax poetic about the evils of corporations. Some of them have since graduated, and are probably working for the aforementioned “evil” corporations. Others are still out rabble-rousing. Plus ça change.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an important point being made in Aubin’s article. McGill is the only university in Montreal with lower-than-average drop0ut rates. It’s also the only university to attract a majority anglophone student body, largely from other provinces. As a Léger poll published in the Gazette last month indicates, there’s a stark difference between how education is valued among anglophone, francophone and allophones in this province:
Among younger Quebecers, we see the same divergence. About 85 per cent of Quebec allophone students and 80 per cent of Quebec anglophone students see a university degree as a minimal requirement [for success], compared with just 40 per cent of francophone students surveyed by Léger.
It’s a classic chicken-or-egg situation. CEGEP has been free and university has been cheap for over four decades. Like a ten-dollar diamond, nobody attributes much value to a cheap university degree.
“Accessible education” should mean that anyone who deserves to go to university should be able to, regardless of financial circumstance. It doesn’t mean that university should be open to everyone, whether or not they care about getting a degree. Because then, it becomes a farce of itself.
Yesterday’s flash flooding in Montreal caused pipes and sewers to back up, led to water damage in homeowners’ basements, and caused and power outages across the city. Public buildings across downtown were evacuated as they filled with water. The metro’s orange line was down for several hours as several stations flooded. And roadways turned into rivers as our crumbling infrastructure failed to hold up under the water weight.
While the flooding did not cause any catastrophic damages in the traditional sense of the word, it did raise chilling echos of the Flood of ’87, and more recently, flooding in 2005. Each time this happens, it only underscores the urgent state of disrepair of our roads, sewers, water mains and infrastructure. But nobody ever seems to do anything about it.
Many homeowners are also discovering the hard way this morning that flood insurance does not exist in Canada. No insurance company offers it; you cannot buy it even if you want to. Extended clauses for water damage specifically exclude flooding. This is something that desperately needs to be changed, through regulation if necessary.
I was lucky; my apartment’s up on the third floor and escaped any damage. I got a bit drenched walking outside in the rain, and an event I attended at a local pub was a bit hindered by the fact that the pub’s kitchen had flooded so they weren’t serving food, but that’s about the extent of it. A number of my friends were not so lucky, with flooded basements and exploding toilets and drains.
As for the student protesters, I’m thinking they could’ve put their pots and pans to good use: bailing water.
The student tuition protests have dragged on for 14 weeks now and show no sign of ending anytime soon. With the city under siege and anger rising, the media has been flooded with analysis and op-ed pieces of all stripes. But there are some things that nobody’s saying, probably because they’re afraid to rock the boat. That doesn’t make them any less true, though.
How has this winter been lousy? Let us count the ways…
The Habs just wrapped up their worst season in recent history. After finishing dead last in the East and the third worst team in the entire league. This season saw local favourite Mikey Cammalleri shipped off to Calgary in the middle of a game, coach Jacques Martin fired mid-season and replaced — albeit temporarily — by “maudite anglais” backup Randy Cunneyworth, and — finally — some housecleaning in the front office that saw Pierre Gauthier and Bob Gainey get the long-awaited boot. The prospect of drafting high is small consolation to the fans, and it’s clear that we’re in for a long painful rebuilding process. Meanwhile, there might not even be any hockey at the start of next season, as the threat of lockout looms. Might be time to start taking an interest in another sport. The Montreal Impact just went MLS this season… any footy fans out there?
It was an unseasonably (some would claim unreasonably) warm winter, with very little snow and summer-like temperatures that saw crowds of spectators take in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in shorts. For those of us who actually like winter — and, y’know, for businesses who make money from it — it was a lousy year. Sure, the naysayers will be happy, but I’m still bemoaning my waste of a ski season. Enough with this global warming already; I miss winter, dammit!
I’ve been saying it since my student days: Quebec’s tuition freeze needs to go. And it looks like this time, it might well happen, as Jean Charest has sworn he won’t cave. Of course, the student union groups are having none of it, out protesting shit-disturbing as they claim they’ll settle for nothing less than free education. Never mind that the numbers don’t support their cause, or that the whole concept of a student strike is nonsensical when you consider that the only people it hurts are the students.
Public opinion is not on the side of the student groups this time around (unless you consider the ever-opportunistic PQ, always trolling for votes). Even many students have had enough, with at least one case of a successful injunction by a student who just wants to go to class and (gasp!) get the education he’s paying for.
The fact that Quebecers pay by far the lowest tuition in Canada and still will after the hike, or the fact that enrollment is lower here than it is in provinces with higher tuition, or even the generous increases in bursaries, none of those arguments are going to sway anyone. And that’s because the so-called students — who are actually political wannabes with romanticized notions of the 60s who enrol in one class per semester so they can live off the student fee contributions of actual students — don’t want to compromise; they just want their names in the paper, and maybe a chance to smash stuff.
And before you go accusing me of being dismissive of an important issue, we’ve lived this all before. Many times. I’ve written about it before. Many times. The only difference is that this time, something might actually change.
Our roads, bridges, overpasses, underpasses, interchanges, heck, pretty much all of our infrastructure is coming apart at the seams. This weekend’s collapse of part of the Ville-Marie Expressway was only the latest incident in a long list of signs that our road system is literally falling apart.
Cartoonist Yvon Roy has proposed three new designs to Transport Quebec for road signs:
The critical problems with the Ville-Marie were known about as early as 2008. And, as with the Turcot, the Champlain Bridge, the Mercier Bridge, and – tragically, the De La Concorde Overpass that collapsed in 2006, city and provincial officials are long on finger-pointing and blame, and short on solutions.
The best example of a picture saying a thousand words might have come from the Catholic Church, which, last April, posted a billboard urging people to pray before driving across the Champlain Bridge.
Looks like when Josh Freed predicted that we might soon be prisoners on the island of Montreal, he was a little too close to the mark.
Wow, this is a sea change: Terry DiMonte’s coming back to CHOM. Again:
In the end, Terry DiMonte lasted around 3½ years in Calgary. While there, DiMonte – one of Montreal’s most famous radio morning-men – made it clear he missed his beloved Habs and still bled bleu, blanc et rouge and apparently he wasn’t faking that Montreal nostalgia.Wednesday afternoon, CHOM ignited no small amount of chatter on social-media like Twitter and Facebook – and even in the real world – when the Montreal classic-rock station announced that DiMonte is returning to helm the morning shift at the FM rock outlet.
There’s no chance that Ted Bird will be back with him… he clearly burned that bridge with his acrimonious departure last year. But even without the Terry and Ted show, this is fantastic news.
Terry DiMonte is one of the last great voices of radio. He’s intelligent, witty, sensible, and actually funny without being obnoxious. His return only underscores the fact that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, because there has been literally nobody who’s even come close to filling his shoes in the past four years.
I wanted to like you. I really really did.
I’d heard such great things about you in your first two years of operations. How your system was innovative. Green. How it was encouraging more people to cycle, reducing traffic congestion, and promoting healthy habits. How convenient and easy and affordable it was. How nice it was to be able to take a bike whenever you want, without having to worry about getting it home, locking it up, maintaining it, or having it stolen.
I didn’t sign up for the first two years, because I lived walking distance from my office. Now, I’m just far enough to have to take public transit, but I thought that Bixi would be a superb solution for 4 or 5 months of the year. This summer, I decided, was the year I would Bixi.
I had some concerns, to be sure. The ride home from my office includes some relatively steep uphill, and I wasn’t sure how much fun that would be on the clunky, heavy Bixi. I’d heard that it was occasionally hard to find a docking station or a bike. A city built on a hill, like Montreal, is inevitably going to end up with a bunch of bikes at the bottom of the hill — especially when Bixi so conveniently gives you the lazy option of biking down and metroing back up. I was a little nervous about biking in downtown city traffic, after being so out of practice on two wheels. But the network of bicycle paths, well maintained by the city and conveniently linking home to office, encouraged me to give it a try.
A first test
It was early May and after weeks of cold and rainy weather, the sun had finally come out. I left the office on one of those perfect spring days, and I just couldn’t bring myself to face the dark tunnel of the metro when it was so beautiful outside. So, on a whim, I entered my credit card at the Bixi station nearest to my office (in Vieux-Montreal, near Square-Victoria) and paid $5 for a 24-hour membership. I punched in the code, wheeled a bike out of the dock, and off I went.
It was a bit wobbly for the first few minutes, and I found the frame to be a bit big for my height and size, making the handlebars awkwardly far from the seat. Still, I got used to it pretty quickly, figuring out how to use the gear shift and controls and even the built-in bell. Not bad. Just like riding a bike.
The path along the waterfront was great. The uphill along the Berri bike path was a bit of a challenge, and I was huffing and puffing by the time I got to the top of Sherbrooke. Still, that just encouraged me even further; surely, biking that route daily would be a great way to get back into shape. And I couldn’t wait to try it downhill the next morning.
When I got to the Bixi station nearest to my apartment in the Plateau, I was at about 27 minutes out of the free 30 that you get with the one-off membership. (Annual subscribers get 45 minutes for free). Unfortunately, there were no free docks available, but I was able to enter my credit card and obtain credit for an extra 15 minutes. The next station over had free docks, so I headed a couple of blocks away and parked it, no problem. I was high on Bixi at that point, ready to sign up on the spot.
The next morning, however, didn’t go so well.
Before leaving the house, I checked the Bixi website, and saw that all three stations near my apartment were listed as having several bikes available. I set out and walked to the nearest one, entered my credit card to get an unlock code and… nothing. There were bikes there, but the ability to rent one was greyed out on the terminal. I thought it was just me at first, and tried it again, but nothing. Nada. Zip.
So I walked two blocks away to the next station. Once again, there were a half-dozen bikes available, but there didn’t seem to be any way of renting them. Frustrated now, I walked over to a third station, where the exact same thing happened.
I dug out my cell phone and called the customer service number, and was placed on hold for nearly 15 minutes (at 20 cents a minute on my PAYG, I might add). I started walking toward the metro, since I was nearing a half-hour late for work and I couldn’t keep standing around by the bikes like some kind of loser. When I finally got through to an agent, I reported the problem. Apparently there was a system-wide problem where all the stations in Montreal were experiencing technical difficulties that morning, and nobody was able to rent bikes.
The whole system is down, I argued. I can’t use the 24-hour membership that I paid for. Surely I’m entitled to a refund.
We’ll request it, he said. But there’s no telling if you’ll get it or when it will be. And no, I can’t give you any way to follow up on that request.
At this point, the wasted time was far more valuable than the wasted $5. I hung up.
So far, a 50% failure rate wasn’t looking too encouraging, and was making me reconsider the whole endeavour.
Flash forward three weeks. By this point, I’d decided that I would give Bixi another chance. In the last week of May, I signed up for an annual membership online. Come June 1st, I didn’t renew my STM monthly pass, figuring I’d buy individual tickets for those days when I couldn’t Bixi, and rely on biking the rest of the time. I even went out and picked up a snazzy new helmet.
A week later and it was June already and my key still hadn’t arrived in the mail. This was compounded by Canada Post’s strike – not Bixi’s fault, of course, but just an added frustration. Still, the weather was nice, and I’d already used far too many individual STM tickets, so I decided to take out another 24-hour membership while I waited for the key to show up.
This time, the problems started almost immediately. The station nearest to my house had 4 bikes (out of 9 spots), but every single one of them was broken – 3 flat tires and one broken chain. I’d been hearing about an increase in defective bikes, speculated to be caused at least partly by vandalism. Apparently the rumours were true. Anyway, I dutifully went to the next station a couple of blocks down and picked up a bike and was off.
My ride to work that morning – all downhill – took exactly 11 minutes. It was fun, coasting downhill in the summer breeze. I could really get used to this as my primary means of commuting, I thought.
Before I’d left the house, I’d checked the site to see if there would be any docks available near my office. There appeared to be a significant number available at the nearby stations, so I figured I’d find one by the time I got there.
Unfortunately. that was not to be. I went to five different Bixi stations to try to park the bike. Each one of them thought it had available docks, but the docks were broken and didn’t recognize the parked Bixi. To make matters worse, the stations – assuming they had available spots – didn’t allow for a time credit for an extra 15 minutes of time. I tried using the tool on the station to find spots at nearby docks, but none were found other than the broken ones. Another hapless Bixi-er who I met at one of the stations had his iPhone app loaded, and was looking for parking. He said it indicated that there were no available docks anywhere in the neighbourhood, or anyplace close by.
Once again, out came the cell phone and I called the customer service line. Once again, I was put on hold for nearly 15 minutes. This may not seem like a lot, but when you’re being charged by the minute for your phone, by Bixi for your overtime, when you’ve already wasted 20 minutes going station to station, and when you’re late for work on top of everything else, it’s a serious hassle.
When the agent came on the line, I explained the issue and he checked the system. He suggested two nearby stations that he said had docks available, but I’d just come from both of them and knew those docks were broken – which I reported as such. His next suggestion was for me to stay with the bike while he called dispatch to send a technician out. But when he put me on hold to check how long that would take, he said that nobody could come anytime soon. Instead, he wanted me to keep the bike – bring it into my office or whatever – and he said that I would be refunded for the extra usage charge later.
Yeah, right. I explained I’d requeted a refund nearly a month earlier for the last time I tried Bixi and had problems. That had never arrived. Why should I trust him? Besides, I had nowhere to store the Bixi. That’s the whole reason I was using Bixi in the first place, so I wouldn’t have to lock it and store it and be responsible for it.
Three strikes, you’re out
I explained that I’d signed up for an annual subscription but the key still hadn’t arrived. Cancel it, I said, Cancel it and refund me my money, as well as today’s money, since after this experience, it’s obvious that Bixi is just more trouble than it’s worth. There’s no way I will be able to rely on it as any kind of daily means of transportation.
As of right now, that refund is still pending. Not to mention, the hapless bike, which I left at the broken dock, and half expect to be charged for, despite clearly letting the agent on the phone know that I’d already spent nearly an hour with him and if he couldn’t offer any kind of solution for me, then it was no longer my responsibility. If they try to charge me for it, I’ll fight it, of course.
Bixi, you were a great idea in theory. But you have too many problems this year. Ridership is up, sure, but you have far too many broken bikes and broken docks. There are no bikes available in the Plateau in the mornings or downtown in the afternoons, and vice-versa for the docking stations. The redistribution of bikes from one station to the next, which from what I understand was relatively efficient last year, seems nonexistent this year. There don’t seem to be enough employees or resources to cope with the multitude of problems. And Bixi is getting into PR problems regarding its financial viability, the ads on the bikes, and its business model.
In short, it’s a great idea that is being poorly executed. And in the meantime, I have unfortunately gone back to public transit. the STM may have frequent metro breakdowns, bus re-routings, and all kinds of other issues, but it now has a claim to fame, too: More reliable than Bixi.
And how sad is that?