What ought to be of concern to TriMet’s riders and supporters was Friday’s front page article by Joseph Rose, who covers the transportation beat for the paper. The title says it all: Will TriMet bond measure get the support of those who actually ride TriMet? In the article, Rose (who is quite knowledgeable on the subject) interviews several regular TriMet riders who have expressed ambivalence or opposition to 26-119–despite the fact that a cursory analysis suggests that it would be beneficial to transit riders, particularly bus passengers.
Apologies in advance. This article is probably too long by far; and reflects lots of thoughts over the past week or so.
Last week, the Oregonian recommended a no vote on Measure 26-119, which would provide TriMet with $125 million to “improve transit services and access for elderly riders and people with disabilities”. PT covered the recommendation here. But given the libertarian bent the paper has taken in the past year or so, that they would oppose 26-119 isn’t terribly surprising.
What ought to be of far greater concern to TriMet’s riders and supporters was Friday’s front page article by Joseph Rose, who covers the transportation beat for the paper. The title says it all: Will TriMet bond measure get the support of those who actually ride TriMet? In the article, Rose (who is quite knowledgeable on the subject) interviews several regular TriMet riders who have expressed ambivalence or opposition to 26-119–despite the fact that a cursory analysis suggests that it would be beneficial to transit riders, particularly bus passengers. The measure’s title refers to the elderly and disabled, but a key part of the measure’s purpose is to permit the agency to retire more and more of its aging fleet of high-floor busses. All bus patrons, not just the disabled, benefit from the more modern rolling stock–everybody wins when (un)loading wheelchairs and walkers doesn’t require use of a mechanical lift to get up/down stairs. (And any new bus purchases would assuredly come with air conditioning–many of TriMet’s older vehicles lack this basic amenity).
So what is going on here? Why is an apparently significant group of TriMet patrons so apparently unenthusiastic about supporting the agency on which they depend?
A lot of it appears to have to do with trust. Many TriMet riders have seen their service degrade over the years, despite billions of dollars being spent on new investments. And there seems to be a fear that this will continue.
The bus/rail divide
Much has been written about the so-called “bus/rail divide”–a viewpoint which holds that busses and trains are in competition with each other for resources; rather than complementary parts of an integrated system. This writer thinks such a viewpoint is fundamentally wrongheaded. I care about transit, not about busses or trains, as do many others. When interviewed by Rose, TriMet GM Neil McFarlane noted that “this isn’t about one mode competing with another. It’s a system and we’re trying to optimize the efficiency of the system for the future”. But this article isn’t about what I think, or about what Neil thinks–it’s about what an apparently large (and vocal) number of transit users think.
In the public debate over the initiative, the bus/rail question is rearing its head. One cluster of opinions seems to be that the sort of things to be funded out of this measure are things that TriMet should have been funding in the ordinary course of business–and that funding for major new capital projects (such as rail projects) are what ought to be sent to the voters for approval or rejection. (I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that argument, though there’s something to be said for leveraging federal grants…) There’s also an expressed fear in some quarters that this measure itself is really about rail–that TriMet would make these purchases anyway using other sources (and that passage of the bond measure would free up funds for further MAX expansion), or that the wording of the ballot text is so loose that TriMet might simply renege on its promise to spend the proceeds on new busses and bus stops, and spend it on rail instead. Neil McFarlane indicated that the first theory at least is false in an interview with Rose; wherein he was clear that the bulk of the proposed bus stop improvements and new purchases would not happen were 26-119 to fail.
Listening to customers
There’s a well-known saying in the restaurant business: The Customer Is Always Right.
The saying doesn’t mean that customers necessarily know more than the kitchen staff about cooking–in most cases, they don’t. It means, instead, that in service industries–and transit is a service–one must pay attention to one’s customers, and address their issues. Simply aiming for the “sweet spot” of the market–a strategy which often works when peddling consumer goods–is inadequate when proving services, where winning repeat business is a must. Transit differs from restaurants in that switching to a competitor is harder and more expensive–but the same is true in the other direction. And many customers are telling the agency loud and clear, that like Michael Keaton trying to change a diaper in the movie–you’re doing it wrong.
And for many of the agency’s inner city patrons, “wrong” refers to the relentless expansion of rail transit. MAX. WES. Even the Portland Streetcar (many patrons, I suspect, don’t know or care about the difference between TriMet and Portland Streetcar, Inc). The merits to rail over local bus service are many (higher passenger volumes, greater operational efficiency, attractiveness to certain bus-phobic demographics, electric traction, better reliability†), but none of these things matter if the trains don’t run where you live. And they matter even less for passengers who see their service being cut, while ribbon-cuttings are taking place in other parts of town.
(†Many of the listed rail advantages are also shared by Bus Rapid Transit, which is not discussed in this post.)
But is new MAX service the “cause” of the recent service cuts? Or is it, as TriMet insists, the economy? It is apparent that new service openings are separate “events” from recent service cuts–reductions to bus service in Beaverton weren’t part of the financing plan for the Green Line, for instance. It stands to reason that had the economy not hit the skids during the latter part of the aughts, most of the service cuts would not have happened (or might be less severe–given that rising benefit costs are also a big part of the story). TriMet vows to restore services if and when the economy recovers–but that may be a big “if”; a significant number of commentators think that the present economic malaise may be a long-term condition.
For many riders, though, it simply doesn’t matter. Most riders don’t follow transit politics; they just use the service. And when they see fares going up, service hours being cut, and look! A new MAX line to Clackamas, and there’s Earl in a Hawaiian shirt!–it’s easy to assume that the two events are related; that their bus no longer runs on Sundays because of the Green Line. And many longstanding passengers, it seems, subscribe to a “seniority” model of service planning: only add service when it is certain that existing services won’t be impacted (even if there is a downturn); and the most recent services added should be the first ones to be reduced. Even prior to the Green Line’s completion, there were quite a few calls among riders to delay its opening and divert the operational funds to lessen service cuts elsewhere.
Some of TriMet’s other recent decisions, while technically defensible, likewise, have terrible optics–the decision to make Fareless Square rail-only was, in retrospect, incredibly tone-deaf and ham-handed. There’s a good reason it was done–free fare zones don’t mix well with pay-as-you-board fare collection. It’s too easy to cheat, and bus drivers have enough to worry about without remembering who in the back of their bus paid what. But it’s easy to come to the conclusion that TriMet views busses as second-class.
But the bus/rail divide is about more than the simple question of “how good is my service?”. There’s also the fundamental question of the direction of the agency, and what values it has. Over at the other blog, I’ve beaten an entire stable of dead horses on the subject of transit values; and a fundamental principle that undergirds much of this debate: Arguments about mode choice are really arguments about values. And for many inner-city transit users, who more and more are seeing train tracks extending out into the suburbs (and through the toniest parts of downtown), there is this primal fear that the agency no longer cares about them–that TriMet’s values are changing.
Getting back to the restaurant analogy: We all probably have a story about a favorite restaurant that “went upscale”–that transformed from a local neighborhood hangout that provided great food at low prices, to one that markets itself to an upper-class clientele (and is noticeably more expensive). For me, that restaurant is probably Pho Van, which once (and still does) served some of the best Vietnamese noodle soup in town out of a small storefront on 82nd. Back in the day, it was a popular hangout for my friends and I. When you went inside, many of the patrons were Vietnamese, and the furnishings wouldn’t look out of place in a fast-food joint. Then it moved to a newer, larger location down the street. And then it opened a new restaurant in the Pearl, and added “Bistro” to the name. (Today the Pearl District location is called “Silk”). Then it opened other restaurants throughout the metro area–and it seemed the pho became more and more of an afterthought–instead there was a greater focus on the entrees and on the wine cellar. Often times nowadays, the only people heard speaking Vietnamese are the staff. Pho Van is still a fine restaurant, and I still eat there (there’s one out here in Beaverton), but it’s… changed. It’s values are different. It’s not the same place I loved to hang out in while in college. It now markets itself to a wealthier clientele, many of whom wouldn’t be caught dead in the original hole-in-the-wall location out on 82nd.
And for many people, that sort of change is terrifying.
Such it is with many riders’ view of TriMet. Many voices are echoing the same point–that TriMet’s values are changing. That it cares more about suburban commuters (and trying to draw them out of their cars), and the “bohemian bourgeois” who inhabit places like the Pearl, than it does about the people who already use the system, who depend on it, and have done so for years. That it focuses too much on “being green”, that it forgets that the most important part of being green for a transit agency is getting people to use it in the first place. That the agency is more interested in placemaking than in providing transportation–and that rather than providing service to where people live, it is now trying to get people to live where it can efficiently provide service. That it’s captive to developer interests and politicians looking to pad their resumes. These views may well be unfounded or unfair, but they exist nonetheless–and they represent a fundamental challenge to the agency.
Under new management
If there is one bit of good news for TriMet in all of this, it’s that the recent departure of Fred Hansen gives the agency an opportunity to reconnect with the ridership from which it has alienated itself. Neil McFarlane, so far, has IMHO done a reasonable job in the 3 1/2 months he’s been on the job; his management style strikes me as quite a bit more open-minded than that of Hansen.
But–this is the last restaurant analogy, I promise–simply hanging a sign which says “under new management” isn’t good enough. We’ve all seen such signs hanging on the doors of local greasy spoons, trying to lure former customers back with the promise that “we’ve changed!” (It’s especially amusing to see these signs on chain restaurants). But people don’t choose restaurants due to the boss; they choose due to the quality of the food and the service. And if the food is still lousy and the service still slow, new management won’t help.
Apologies, again, for the long rambling article. At this time, the floor is open for discussion on how TriMet can improve customer relations, and whether it needs to or not. If you think it’s hopeless, say so–and if you think that this whole debate is a tempest in a teapot, say so as well. If you think that MLR ought to be scrapped (quite a few readers here hold that opinion), say that; and if you think that certain patrons of the service are simply whining about changes to their line, say that (but do it politely). But I’m also hoping for some creative ideas, ones that haven’t been hashed out in the media and blogopshere already. One other thing: I’d rather not bog this discussion down with more detailed debate on TriMet’s finances–while it’s an important issue, the existing thread on 26-119 is a good place for that.