Rising gas prices are driving more people (sorry, couldn't resist that) to take the bus. I'm all for that, but TriMet needs to respond to the increased traffic with more than just increased fares. How about for the first time ever they do what most businesses do when faced with increased costs: increase sales, not prices?
The current increase in ridership may turn out to be temporary even if gas prices continue to rise. Whether or not the current spike is a momentary blip or becomes long-term practice depends on how TriMet responds. The first and most important thing they need to do is not worry about their costs but getting enough damn buses on to the streets during rush hour.
I ride the #19 Woodstock to work each morning. There are four buses on that route that serve the majority of people who need to be downtown by 8am. The first two come past my stop near 49th at 7:12 (one loops down to 32nd and Rex, picking up high school kids and office workers), another at 7:25 (that's my bus), and another about 15 minutes later. These buses have varying levels of ridership, depending on the weather and people's personal circumstances I can't know, but there is almost always room for everyone to sit until the last few stops before Powell and then over the Ross Island Bridge, where I exit.
But more and more, the bus is starting to overfill. One morning last week, on the 7:12 that swings over to SE 32nd and Rex, the bus was jam-packed by the time we got to Powell: there was simply no more room on the bus. And yet, at Powell, we had to cram more in. This is becoming common, and I doubt very much my line is an exception. If more people are switching from cars to bus, and TriMet is running the same schedules, then more than likely the new riders are being shoehorned into buses TriMet has already planned to be full under the old ridership.
TriMet has always been run by people who would destroy any private business they would be given. They seem to have no idea how the retail world works, and while I adamantly oppose privatizing TriMet, I would like them to become a lot less stupid as guardians of this public resource.
Over the years — and I've been riding TriMet since 1981 — TriMet has responded to increased costs and insufficient ridership levels in two ways: raise fares and decrease service. Can you imagine a store tackling the same problems in the same way? Who is going to go to a store that increases its prices while offering fewer choices?
And if that were the only offense TriMet commits against the public it is meant to serve. Alas, it gets worse.
$2.05 is just wrong
At the last price increase, I thought TriMet was kidding. The all-zone ticket increased to $2.05 — yes, that's two dollar bills and A Nickel. TriMet expected riders needing to go from, say, downtown to Gateway or Clackamas Town Center, to pony up both two bucks and a stinkin' nickel. I couldn't understand how they could make such a ridiculous decision. But then I remembered this event from years ago:
My then-wife and I, with a six-month-old child, were barely getting around in an ancient and dying Volvo. We needed a reliable car, and we needed it now. So we drove out to the Volkswagen dealership in Beaverton, the poor old V-car barely surviving the last trip of its honorable life. We picked out the last of the previous year's Golfs, a good car (even if it was silver, a car color I hate), and we came to an agreement on the payments. And then: "I'll run this by my manager."
When our sales flunky returned to finalize the deal, he told us, sadly, that his manager had "requested" that we increase our payments another $1 per month. $60 over the course of a five-year loan. In real-life terms, that money that meant virtually nothing. It probably went straight into their pockets, just a little extra folding cash. We, having no power in the transaction — our car was dead, we were 15 miles from home, we had a little baby in a second-hand carseat, and could not even simply walk away — just took the deal. "Took it," as in "up the butt."
Later, still angry about that treatment, I realized why they had demanded the extra $1 per month: Because they could. They did not care about the extra payment; they just got off on jerking around low-end, semi-desperate people like us. And while I don't think anyone at TriMet sits around wondering how to humiliate riders, what is clear is that something like that extra nickel means absolutely nothing to them. They look at their charts and numbers, and they decide, "We need to raise the fare to $2.05."
But they don't have to find that extra nickel. It's not just that little bits of change tend to be more scarce than people assume, especially in this day of debit cards. It's what that extra nickel means: TriMet getting every penny, or nickel, they think they need means more than inconvenience or the symbolism of charging that bit extra. And the simple fact is, they have a choice. The TriMet vision include both of these points:
Maintain strong fiscal controls.
Respond to customer needs.
Which takes precedence? Grab the extra nickel to be fiscally responsible, or keep the fare at a convenient and non-stupid level to meet the need of customers to not be forced to scramble like some gutter rat for a frikkin' nickel?
And if you're wondering what the hell I'm going on about, you clearly are not one of the people impacted by that extra nickel. Maybe you rarely take the bus, or have plenty of spare change, or don't have to grab the kids, your stuff for work, everyone's lunch and, if it doesn't slip your mind as you try not to be late for work as you try to get everyone's life in order for the day, find that extra nickel. It's exactly these little things that drive people over the edge in life, that makes living feel so rough and ugly that making the necessary effort just becomes pointless.
But wait, we've got even more stupid
I buy a monthly two-zone pass. Fortunately I can get it at my local Safeway, if I have enough money at the end of the month (I get paid on the 3rd, so having $65 is not always easy on the first of the month). Now and then, however, I have to take MAX out to Sunset or Gateway. That's zone 3 and requires an upgrade. But guess what? The only place to get an upgrade is on a bus. You cannot buy one from a ticket machine. You cannot get one at a frikkin' MAX station. You have to remember to ask before you get off the bus, or you have to run up to a bus at a stop and ask for one (and hope you get a driver who isn't pissed off that you are doing that, not something you can assume). And you have to have thirty cents to make that purchase.
I don't mind buying the upgrade, but I damn sure mind that TriMet can't do something as simple as adding a tiny bit of programming to allow me to buy an upgrade from a ticket machine. This underscores the central problem with TriMet customer service is that it has very little to do with customer service.
The TriMet Method: Inverse retail
Let's say you own a store. You offer excellent products, products no one else can match for quality. But for some reason, you are not selling enough to stay in business. Despite the quality of your product, people seem to be content to buy the crap that Target and Walmart sell. So what do you do to respond? I'll tell you what you don't do: You don't raise prices. You don't reduce selection. You don't make shopping more difficult. Everyone of those steps will ensure your failure — unless you have a trust fund or sugar daddy to underwrite your losses.
But guess what? That's exactly how TriMet operates. No matter what retail challenge they face — insufficient ridership, increased costs — the TriMet response is always the same: Increase fares and reduce service. I've been riding TriMet since 1981 (when it was Tri-Met) and I've been in awe in their inability to grasp the basics of Retail 101. I'm sure there are a lot of different skill sets represented on the TriMet Board, but apparently those skills do not include the successful running of a business. The only reason TriMet hasn't gone belly-up is because they have both a monopoly and a sugar daddy: federal money.
Here we go again
So now TriMet is facing another crisis. Oil prices are going up, and the oil companies are raising prices in order to hold on to their ungodly profits. The Bush Administration, of course, has no desire to do anything but let those profits soar; after all, all the players come from and will return to oil corporations or their close friends. Dubya may go down in history as the second-worst president ever (I still vote for Nixon, without whom Dubya is not possible), but he'll also go down with billions of dollars to his post-presidential name. So what can TriMet do when it does not have the money to pay for the increases in costs due to oil prices? How do they keep the buses running?
It's not like they are alone in this. Everyone is paying more for gas. Rich, middle-class and struggling, all are paying the higher costs (which are still some of the lowest gas prices in the world). The difference, of course, is the percentage of income that gas represents. For many people, increased gas prices are taking a tangible bite from their monthly income. In fact, more and more people are deciding that driving their car is no longer something they can afford. So they are riding TriMet. And TriMet is welcoming them in their usual way: Poor service and higher prices.
Those of us who commute via the bus see this happening. Buses that once were just full as they hit downtown are starting to be crammed long before they reach the bridges. Yet we see nothing about TriMet improving service by adding more rush-hour buses. We do see that our fares are going to increase. For that extra money, we get the extra bonus of further reductions in service as more people get crammed on to the same number of buses.
And before you accuse me of selfish whining, let me point out what riding the bus entails. I live 8 blocks south of Woodstock, so I leave home 15 minutes before my bus is due. I then wait 5-to-10 minutes — or more — for a bus that is invariably late (and it hasn't even gotten to the busy part of the route). Oh, and did I mention that my 8-block walk is through whatever weather the gods choose to throw at me: blazing heat, pouring rain, freezing wind up the gorge, or mid-winter darkness. I'm lucky enough that there is a building with an overhang at my stop; I at least don't have to stand and get soaked as I do at other stops. I get to stand and breathe in exhaust fumes, enjoy the roar of cars and trucks harmonizing with my iPod. I either am squished by another rider who needs to lose at least sixty pounds or stand with my bags the entire twenty-five minute ride (most of that time being jerked back and forth by lead-footed drivers). Sometimes it's suffocating; sometimes I get to enjoy the fragrance of unbathed human flesh. (And on most rides, I get to listen in to cell phone calls, too; that's a special treat.) And when I finally am able to squeeze my way off the bus, I have to cross traffic (with no crosswalk or light) zooming off the Ross Island Bridge like it's the last turn at Indy. I hope that for the 8-block walk to work, I am able to dodge the drivers who don't give a damn about niceties like stop signs and crosswalks. So far, my luck has held out.
And then I get to do it all over again after nine hours at work.
Fare increases are regressive and violate TriMet's mission
Let's face it. The vast majority of people who ride TriMet are at the lower ends of our local economy. People with money drive. The number of people who can afford to drive and choose to ride TriMet is fairly high in Portland but still not the majority. The bus is for the lower classes, the students and minimum wage earners, the administrative assistants and retail workers and job hunters. How do I know this? Well, along with 27 years of TriMet riding, I know how politics works. And people with money are people with clout, and they would not take this shit. The simple fact that TriMet can keep raising fares and decreasing service is pretty conclusive evidence that those they "serve" have very little power to do much more than whine to one another.
So how about TriMet trying something radical to deal with this latest crisis? Instead of extorting the money they say they need — I have no choice: I pay whatever fare they demand or I lose my job — how about TriMet work at increasing income? That's what a real business has to do. At one point, despite having a product universally hailed as unique and superior, Apple was on the verge of failure. Their computers cost too much, and people were buying Wintel machines, despite their being horrible to work on. So Apple did the smart things: They made products that no one else could match, and they began pushing their prices downward. My first Mac, in 1987, cost $3,500 — with a student discount. My current Mac, a Mini, was $700, and that included an extra gig of ram. As a result, Apple's market share continues to climb and its stock is the envy of most businesses.
What stops TriMet from following Apple's lead? Why has it proven impossible for TriMet to improve their product and keep the costs low? Just as Microsoft was able to grow complacent and incompetent by having a captive market, TriMet has always been able to get past its immediate problems by raising fares and cutting service. That's exactly what we are facing yet again — even though we have reached a point where ridership is about to soar.
TriMet needs to grab this opportunity. They need to ensure that commuters are not being forced to ride in the same manner that sardines are marketed. Nothing will drive the new ridership away quicker than horrible riding conditions. Force people to walk through the rain or heat for the privilege of being crushed against strangers, and at the same time demand that they pay more for the pleasure — that's the TriMet formula for screwing this pooch.
There are alternatives. Grow the damn business. Add another bus to each commute route during rush hour. Tell drivers of buses running late to stop picking up new passengers; another bus is only five minutes behind and will be worth that wait. Freeze fares. Train drivers to go easy on the brakes (they ain't driving damn bumper cars). Figure out which routes consistently run late and over-full, and then fix them.
Or they could do something truly innovative. Hire an assistant manager from a successful store to explain how a real business works. Why do people go to Nordies and other stores? Why do Freddies and Target have strong customer loyalty? I've worked in retail in the past, and I had regular customers. Why? Because I not only met their needs, I gave them value. Part of that value was showing them that I valued them, making them them feel special. Making them feel appreciated. I was not their only choice, but I was the one they chose. Sadly, TriMet is my only choice for commuting. If they raise my $65 fare to $74, I won't have much of a choice. They can gouge the extra 14% from me and the other chumps who literally depend on the bus and light rail, but they'll lose this opportunity to convert even more car commuters to mass transit.
Every crisis is an opportunity, and the world knows no shortage of crises. Apple used its near-failure in the 90s to bring back Steve Jobs, and they are now the #1 tech company in the world. They viewed crisis as opportunity and that turned into success. TriMet has the same opportunity. They can find ways to turn this current situation into the means of expanding mass transit without it being exclusively through the pocketbooks of riders. Especially those who can least afford it.
Otherwise they turn what is an opportunity to prove the value of mass transit into an opportunity for mass transit's opponents to possibly destroy it.