By the time I saw a bus passenger give the driver a large carnation, I knew I was witnessing something unique. This was the third or fourth time I had witnessed an atypical behaviour by a stranger.

Prior, a resident had picked up a friend’s earring that had been blown from its lodging; a tram linesman had exited the privacy of his office to provide help to yours truly, and, a waiter had sat down at our table to offer tips on good local bars. These examples, combined with humorous and enthusiastic instances of audio updates aboard public transport vessels, had me labeling San Francisco as one of the happiest and most helpful cities I had yet visited. It also

had me reflecting on the state of Australia’s soft power of service, and not for the first time being abroad, I wasn’t looking forward to returning home to experience. The last time I felt like this was in Japan.

The public transport industry of Australia is ripe for change and a significant investment in communication design and branded environments. Residents of each city are consistently let down by either issues of supply, reliable service, or poor information design. And that’s even before they step aboard. It’s almost as if we’ve been neglected due to our small population, and successive governments, elected on promises to fix it, have only managed to make it even more complicated.

People are familiar with the state of transport systems, but are seldom aware of the experience of interstate neighbours. (We still need different transport cards to travel within each city) And even amongst residents of a city, a bike rider who commutes everyday, can be oblivious to the overcrowding and delayed sweat carriages labouring to move the workforce in rhyme with the sun.

The link between design and customer satisfaction is critical. But only old fashioned human nature and common courtesy can demonstrate the soft power of a city.

So what is it about the public facing workforce that makes it either tick, or tank? Work conditions, pay, and company culture are all suspects at play. No one would like to drive an unsafe bus while being poorly paid and yelled at. But if we can presume that (hopefully) Australia’s buses, trains and trams are safe, and that workers are reasonably paid, it’s only company culture that has any real say in the experience one receives when they step aboard.

Individual personality ofcourse is a huge factor. But I fear an overarching sedateness has settled into the workforce rendering the concept of service redundant and at times, passive aggressive. Unless you’re purchasing high value goods and services.

A cities personality is often first perceived through its workers (it was for me in San Francisco). A barista, taxi driver, and transport official would be amongst the first to deliver this impression. Hit people the right way here, and their day is forever changed. Hit them wrong, and well, it’s just another day.

It’s no miracle why Japan are the best at their game where its soft power of service is concerned. They designed their transport systems well, they provide enough of them, staff are empowered to help, are proudly visible, and in return they are prominent and respected in the public eye. The whole system works.

Here are 5 changes I’d like to see in the service ethic of Australia’s public transport.

  • More smiles and eye contact

  • Slower, clearer announcement over train speakers

  • Less talking on mobile phones (Sydney Ferries staff take note)

  • New uniforms

  • Subtle music on buses

For readers who have travelled to Australia, how has your experience been? I’d be keen to hear.