New Yorkers love to complain about the subway. It was her job to listen
By Ana Ley
Few things trigger New Yorkers as much as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the bureaucracy that runs one of the city’s biggest fixations — the subway. So when the authority hired Sarah Meyer to deal with passenger complaints as its first “chief customer officer,” she braced for fury.
At the time she was hired five years ago, the usual frustrations — train delays, filthy conditions, crowded stations — had become unbearable, with a barrage of system failures snarling service. Meyer’s appointment provided that rising anger with a target: a petite, redheaded mom from Manhattan who was more adept with PowerPoint presentations than with irate passengers.
Exhausted from what she described as “the negativity,” Meyer, 39, resigned this summer to spend more time with her two young daughters, having helped improve the way the transit authority interacts and communicates with the public. The authority plans to hire a permanent replacement, but for now, her temporary fill-in, Shanifah Rieara, inherits the challenge of luring people back to a system whose ridership has been greatly diminished by the coronavirus pandemic and may never recover.
And, of course, whoever holds the job must know how to handle this infamously blunt city.
Meyer was harassed endlessly in her role with the transit authority. In one instance at a community meeting in Union Square, she said a pair of local residents likened her to Adolf Hitler in response to the authority’s moving of a bus stop by 200 feet — about the length of a block. During another public meeting, hecklers pelted her with rubber bands and subway tokens. On Twitter, a stream of anonymous strangers called her inept and told her to quit.
“It wasn’t easy,” Meyer said of her time with the authority. “But I had my team, and I had my husband, and I had my family. And I had my mom, who was on speed dial.”
Meyer’s job was to act as a bridge between riders and authority leaders, helping each side communicate with the other. She held many community meetings to devise new ways to reach people. It was a position she regarded as a chance to make a difference in the city she grew up in and loved. Previously, Meyer worked as a consultant for public relations giant Edelman; she took a pay cut to join the authority.
The executive post sprung from New York’s 2017 transit crisis, during which constant subway delays left riders feeling unable to rely on the train network. Service grew so dismal that Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency and committed more than $800 million to improvements.
Andy Byford, then the city’s newly appointed subway boss, created Meyer’s job at a time when few transit systems had one like it. He said he took inspiration from similar roles in transit systems in Toronto and Sydney, and that he believed a turnaround in New York depended on convincing the public that someone was listening to them. When Byford, who also focused on basics like signal upgrades and train maintenance, arrived in New York, only 58% of trains ran on time. Today, the rate is nearly 80%.
Under Meyer, the authority shed much of the jargon it had used to communicate with the public — “both directions,” for example, was no longer abbreviated as “B/D” in subway announcements. Conductors were instructed to be more specific about why a train was delayed and for how long. Meyer used simpler language in posters and brochures.
Previously, writers for the authority “were writing for too high of a grade level, so people didn’t understand,” Meyer said.
The authority’s employees made a greater effort to be clear and responsive on social media, and in promotional materials, such as those advertising OMNY, the tap-and-go fare system that will soon replace the yellow-and-blue MetroCard.
Those tasks might seem simple, but Meyer said the transit authority was often as unyielding as its customers.
“That’s where the real fight begins,” Meyer said of internal meetings where officials and lawyers would decide whether to sign off on her suggestions. She said the authority’s resistance to change was inspired by bureaucratic wariness: “It’s a fear of litigation. It’s a fear of being wrong. It’s a fear of doing things differently.”
The cautious approach could be stifling.
“When you’re in communications at the MTA, on your best day, nobody knows you’re there,” said Jon Weinstein, a former spokesperson for the authority who worked closely with Meyer. “That can grind you down.”
Often when she got her way, the authority would score some victories. In August 2018, a pair of goats were seen trotting on the N line’s tracks near a group of slaughterhouses in Brooklyn. Although many commuters were inconvenienced, the disruption was a chance for Meyer’s team to delight the public with updates and photographs on social media while assuring people that they were on top of the situation. Jon Stewart, the comedian, and his wife, Tracey, picked up the goats in Brooklyn and helped transport them to a shelter in Watkins Glen, New York.
“Two very baaaaad boys,” the transit system’s Twitter account posted next to an image of the trespassing animals.
Thousands of amused Twitter users liked and shared the announcements. It was a public relations hit.
Along the way, Meyer made fans, including Russell Jacobs, a teacher at a nonprofit after-school program who sent her a private message on Twitter when he bought a bundle of 19 MetroCards for his students and none worked. The billing system had flagged the purchase as fraudulent, leaving his students stranded. Meyer fixed it on the spot.
“I can only imagine the kinds of things she had to deal with,” said Jacobs, 32, who lives in Queens. “I could complain all day about the MTA, but I had nothing but pleasant interactions with Sarah.”
The hardest years for Meyer came after Byford left abruptly in early 2020. He had clashed with Cuomo one final time, and soon after, the pandemic gripped New York. Dozens of transit workers died. For the first time in its history, the subway was shut down overnight.
That disorienting time inspired some of the authority’s most effective public outreach. Officials placed signs on the ground that showed passengers exactly how far they should stand from one another. Posters showed them how to properly cover their faces. Digital signs discouraged the public from riding the subway unless they had to. One of Meyer’s proudest achievements was helping oversee pop-up vaccine clinics that inoculated 20,000 people.
“None of us foresaw what was going to happen,” said Byford, who swapped advice with Meyer during the worst of the pandemic. After leaving New York, Byford took a job as London’s transport commissioner. “Sarah and I were living parallel lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic.”
The work took a toll, and it made her realize there was only so much good she could do in a city with seemingly unsolvable problems — homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, crime — that so often found their way underground.
“The times she would get discouraged never had to do with criticism but had to do with the distress one sees in the subways,” said Meyer’s mother, Jean Miller.
An outreach effort at Queensboro Plaza station tested her resolve this summer when she and other authority staff members tried to talk fare beaters into paying or applying for government aid if they could not afford the $2.75 fee to ride. Meyer was holding the station’s gate closed so people could not skip payment, and a man shoved her aside while police officers stood by. “I know where you work,” she remembers him saying after he referred to her with a crude epithet.
“I came to this role with this privileged view that I could fix everything,” said Meyer, who has been doing part-time consulting in communications since her departure from the authority. “I left this role acknowledging that I couldn’t fix everything, and that was a giant mind shift for me.”