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Commuter says no: the STIB_Fail story
Has your tram been cancelled without prior warning? Is your bus being driven in a somewhat erratic manner? Are you struggling to find a Mobib top-up machine that works? Is the STIB app on your smartphone being particularly unhelpful? Don’t (just) huff and puff: share your experience. And, if you can, take a picture while you’re at it.
The STIB_Fail Twitter account was created in January 2012, with a simple mission statement: to retweet all posts describing real-life – and preferably real-time – frustrations caused by the Brussels public transport company. The trilingual account soon became a hit; so much so in fact, that it now counts politicians and celebrities as well as ‘ordinary’ users among its followers.
There is a lighter side to the STIB_Fail account, too. Earlier this year, it asked its followers to come up with songs named after Brussels metro stations (The Bulletin’s entries: ‘Madou-Ron-Ron’ and ‘Merode To Hell’). After all, this being Brussels, humour is always part of the equation – something that became apparent during our online interview with the elusive founder of STIB_Fail.
So, who is behind the STIB_fail Twitter account?
Who is behind the Twitter account is not very important, but the message is! Plenty of people use STIB Fail as an outlet because there's no other alternative. I am local but, other than that, I wish to remain anonymous as I intend to be the voice of ALL public transport users.
What drove you to create the account? Was it one specific incident or an accumulation of years of frustration?
It was the latter. It was not entirely aimed at STIB as such, but at the entire Brussels public transport system. The lack of respect towards other passengers, the dirty metro stations, the acts of vandalism and, of course, the biggest joke in STIB's history: the security gates! Of course the focus is usually on the lack of service provided by the STIB but I try to keep it as broad as possible. Annoying accordion players for example, or people who step in the metro before you even have the chance to get out of it are fair game too.
Were you expecting to be so popular and to become the de facto voice of STIB’s disenchanted passengers?
No, not at all! All I have/had was a computer, a Twitter account and an internet connection. I started retweeting messages mentioning STIB/MIVB and started adding funny comments. Suddenly the ball started rolling; the fact that I tweet in several languages helps, too. STIB_Fail became really famous when the hashtag #STIBsongs went viral. It was even picked up by several media outlets.
How do you explain the many European studies according to which public transport in Brussels is actually good?
Public transport in Brussels is okayish from a technical point of view I guess; the vehicles are not ancient and at least there's air conditioning sometimes. But from a structural point of view things are not that great. First of all there's a massive lack of public transport in several communes like Uccle, Woluwe or parts of Ixelles. Thanks to our ‘great political’ system, where mayors sometimes have more power than the Brussels region, customers are nowadays the victims of stubborn decision-making and a lack of a sustainable and future-minded vision on mobility. The frequency is also way too low: why is it that in the summer you only have one bus or tram every 20 minutes and a metro every 10 minutes? This is backward thinking! What about tourists, what about the international scope of this city? And forget taking a metro - or even a train, for that matter - after midnight. It's like the city closes at night, while in the Netherlands or Germany for example public transport plays a much bigger role in the lives of citizens, because there's actually a service available! There is also a lack of harmonisation between different public transport organisations. In our – small - region you can use De Lijn, TEC or SNCB as well as STIB. So what happens? You have to buy separate tickets. How stupid! In the end it basically encourages people to take their car because of the inflexibility of the system, and, in the meantime, Brussels is the most congested city of the world.
Some of the users’ tweets which you retweet are unfair, and not STIB’s fault – where do you draw the line?
As I mentioned before we try to touch upon more than just STIB's level of service. People need to know their limits in a public space such as a metro station, and clearly they don't because you'll find many broken billboards, graffiti or urine in the metro stations. But I never retweet people who warn of ticket inspections, for example - that is against the STIB_Fail philosophy.
In the event that one of your (re-)tweets wrongly accuses STIB, do you take it back and hold your hand up?
Oh absolutely! But the funny thing is that, until now, the @STIBMIVB account has never ever replied to any of our tweets. STIB_Fail is about giving people a platform where they can vent their frustrations and share their worries and thoughts. Social media can make or break your reputation, and STIB's poor online communication only reflects its poor attention to customers’ expectations.
Have STIB been in touch?
They locked me up in their HQ, and waterboarded me for hours. No, just kidding! I was invited in for a chat and we exchanged some interesting thoughts. It became clear to me how difficult it is for STIB to work within the given political context in Brussels. I gave some conversation management and also suggested we make a viral video together. Until now I haven’t heard back from them.
Ultimately, what do you hope to achieve?
The ultimate goal is to get STIB to launch a fully-functioning online customer service, by making full use of social media. Our other major duties are to lobby decision makers to change and improve things in Brussels and make public transport users - and all citizens - aware of the totally unacceptable level of service they are getting on a daily basis.