In the winter of 1997, a pair of front page articles in The News Journal portrayed a state-run paratransit system under fire from its ridership. `They've taken me places before, and I'd have to wait for more than an hour for them to come back and pick me up,' explained one user (Montgomery, 1997, p. A1). In another article by Montgomery, (1997), others complained about being unable to access the telephone-based scheduling system, the alleged unfairness of the so-called `did-not-go' (DNG) policy, and the apparent lack of concrete rules for both riders and administrators. The message was clear: The system which many seniors and people with disabilities depend on for their basic mobility, one faced with both rising demands and costs, was perceived by many to be unreliable, lacking clear direction on key issues of service, and in dire need of reform.
While the potential effect of such press accounts is undeniable, it must be recognized that the anecdotal information on which they are based is of limited value where issues of policy are concerned. What is required instead is a systematic investigation into consumer satisfaction with paratransit service; one that objectively examines and documents the situation. Such an investigation will provide the basis on which informed public policies can be developed.
The research reported here examined consumer satisfaction of a demand-responsive, call-in-advance, door-to-door paratransit service available in the state of Delaware. The public transit system, operated as DART First State, is a state owned and operated system that includes both fixed-route and paratransit. The State has three counties and a total population of approximately 725,000. At the time of the study, (1997), 110 paratransit vehicles provided slightly more than 336,000 trips per year. The number of trips are twice the number provided in 1991, and are about half of those expected by 2002. The average cost per trip was over $26.00 with a fare box of $2 per trip in two of the three counties in the state. The consumers in the third county only pay $1.00 per trip.
Questions addressed in the study included the following: What constitutes consumer satisfaction of a public service of this nature? What are measures of consumer satisfaction for this population? Are these measures appropriate, given that most consumers almost always want higher levels of service when, in fact, transit providers need meet only the minimum standards prescribed by law? When such extremes exist, is it fundamentally appropriate to use consumer input in the planning and delivery of publicly funded services? If so, how should the information be used in shaping coherent public policies that seek to mollify these two extremes?
Consumer Satisfaction Studies
Jonathan Barsky (1995) asserts that `you can measure how satisfied customers are with your product, service, company, and personnel by considering how well their expectations are being met and what is important to them.' Healthy profit margins, past experience, and even a manager's `gut feeling' are not adequate measures of service quality. `Quality, in the final analysis, is defined by customers' (Murphy & Taylor, 1995). Routine assessments of consumer satisfaction can also alert personnel to potential problems before they become real problems.
There are some researchers, however, whose belief in the utility of consumer satisfaction measures is less absolute. Robert Pasikoff (1997) warns that any organization depending on assessed levels of customer satisfaction to `position a new product line, correct a marketing misstep, or get a jump on the competition ... is asking too much of an instrument that looks through the rear-view mirror rather than the windshield.' To ensure survival, an organization should concentrate less on meeting expectations (satisfaction) and more on exceeding them, which Pasikoff associates with the truest measure of success: customer loyalty. …