What Do I Think About The TriMet Performance?

A number of days ago I posted a poll (which if you’d like, I’m still taking feedback and collecting it together). In it I asked a few questions about Trimet, how it is doing as an agency, and a few other simple questions. I’m going to produce a shiny report in the near future with the results, but for now, as previously promised here are my answers.


Transit Sleuth

Do I think that things could be better in transit for the city of Portland?


Do I think TriMet is doing a good job as a whole with the revenue they take in and from taxes?

Compared to other transit agencies around the United States, they’re doing one of the best jobs in the United States. Compared to the Canadian cities or even to the United States of the past? I think Trimet is making the exact same mistakes that are forced upon every major US city today. Transit agencies are setup to beg for funding while roadways are setup for automatic subsidies. There’s an obvious and outright discrimination to any mode or thought that a United States Citizen would do anything besides drive. This is reflected in the regulatory and nightmarish transit policies and monopolistic practices that transit agencies are setup with throughout the United States, which also pushes their costs up to often absurd levels. Throw in a heavy dose of monopoly Union control over the agencies, a lack of any clear¬†competitiveness¬†except to beg for money, and transit in the United States is ripe for inefficiencies on a grand scale. Overall though, I find that it could safely be said, that under Government monopoly operations transit is about 20-40% more expensive than private operations. To summarize, do I think we could get more for our tax dollars? No. Do I think we could get more as consumers of a service? History would say yes and I side with history.

Who do I think is responsible for the problems (if you think they have issues) at TriMet?

Let me create a list:

  • The Federal Government and many of the absurd standards and regulations they’ve set on transit. The vast subsidies that control the transportation industry in the United States (which also in many ways has almost destroyed the transit aspect of it) and give little freedom to cities, businesses or individuals to truly setup and operate transit agencies in general.

  • The State has poor management over most of the roadways it controls in Portland. Namely 82nd and Powell are a mess and there is little Portland – even though these are obviously Portland roadways now – have almost zero control over what to do with or how to remedy these massive traffic problems. Trimet, or anyone in the city for that matter, can’t run BRT, light rail, or for that matter many more buses than already run on the street. For this, ODOT shares a large part of responsibility in our transit mess. If they build the monstrous CRC then ODOT will¬†absolutely¬†be responsible for creating one of the largest nightmares in Portland’s history.

  • Portland Leadership (Mayor, etc) is not even attempting to make Trimet run lean. Not that the leadership should, it isn’t technically their¬†responsibility.¬†It is however in their best interest to make Trimet and leaner, cleaner transit machine to improve the livability of citizens in the city. Overall, I blame the leadership at this level only a small bit.

  • PDC, the Portland Development Commission and let’s include the Metro Committee or whatever they’re called¬†has a huge say in how things are developed, what will be developed and how it will be developed in Portland. This inherently bleeds over to Trimet in a large way. I however, happen to agree with the PDC in most cases and actually support it’s existence. I support it for one reason, I’ve seen the opposite of it in other cities and it causes absolute havoc. It is why Portland can act and act quickly, with a clear mission, toward improving livability and other things throughout the city. Many cities in America cannot do this and it shows in ¬†the fact they’ve allowed their downtown cores to be decimated, their suburbs to sprawl for hundreds of square miles, their tax bases to¬†disappear¬†and the cities to almost falter except for the existence of some tall buildings. It is indeed sad. So do I blame the PDC? Yes, but I generally blame them for much of the positive focus and clarity around Trimet’s actions and work with the city to build roads, stops and other amenities that benefit cyclists, pedestrians and dramatically increase safety for both of these peoples. Almost¬†inadvertently¬†auto safety has increased through a byproduct of a lot of these designs.

  • Trimet, we now get to the people that are responsible for the agency itself. At least, responsible for a 90% of everything about the agency. The other part is of course the Union. The union provides Trimet the workforce that drives the buses, MAXs and because they forced¬†the¬†city to use the ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) labor, the streetcar. The WES is however serviced by the freight railroad that actually owns the track and trackway, the Portland & Western Railroad. Trimet is also largely responsible for many of the issues, and I’ll even admit that they could stand to replace many of the buses that have been neglected over the years. Some of those buses really shouldn’t be on the road anymore, it’s time to recycle them. I also think it is a problem, however it is somewhat small, that Trimet actually manages capital projects, which seems smart and not. The reason it is smart, there is no closer entity to the problems the capital projects will solve than Trimet and why it is not smart, is because Trimet’s main onus of operandi is to run transit services. The operational needs of services provisions should one up the project management of these projects. Fortunately, this is again a small overall problem. In the end, it’s a boost to the overall local economy for the duration of any capital projects, whether roadway, rail or otherwise.

  • ATU Trimet Union is another huge candidate in the overal scheme of things. They have poor leadership (DUIs and other absurd dishonorable actions on their member’s part are more frequent than one would like to admit, I personally have even received, albeit forgave, a death threat from ATU Members). Do I support unions? These days not particularly. Have I supported and are there situations I might support Unions? Yes. Do I support the ATU right now? Not really, they’ve screwed up far more than Trimet has, overreached their bounds, and battled to get the drivers so much that it makes the labor cost for basic transit service fairly unreasonable – but NOT something the drivers shouldn’t deserve and expect – the Union has just gone about it in a horribly¬†inefficient¬†way and setup Trimet so that the only real option is to start fighting them over costs. This is bad for EVERYBODY involved. The Union, its members, the customers of Trimet and the citizens of Portland.

Do you know about, what they’re for, and how the PDC (Portland Development Commission), City of Portland Mayor, Commissioners, City Council, etc work?

Yes. See above. I often get involved when I can and when I find the issue is truly important.

What would be the #1 thing that TriMet – or any entity – in Portland should do to help improve transit in the city?

This list is huge. The biggest win for the United States and especially Trimet could receive is a dramatic and immediate reduction in road subsidies from the Federal Government and a removal of the arbitrary regulations around road building and Interstates. Setting up where money is allocated to cities based on density, number of people and prospective service while reducing the subsidies and zoning encouragement for large sprawl and allow local cities and states dictate how they will build out their infrastructure, systems and related networks. The only large scale infrastructure the Feds have ever accomplished was the Interstate System, which displaced hundreds of thousands of minorities through¬†eminent¬†domain destroying vibrant downtown cores of once majestic cities and then in turn lumping the costs of almost the entire system on the states even though capital outlay was primarily funded through central planning and implemented in an authoritarian way (yes, those of you that are confused, the Interstate System is indeed an example of how Communism and Socialism can work, if that’s what you consider a success).

Simply put, getting the Feds out of our pockets and out of the decision making in Portland would be the greatest boon for cycling, transit and general livability this city could imagine.

The second best thing, which is probably more reasonable, is to expect a more balanced approach to city building. Even though Beaverton, Hillsboro and Gresham don’t pay in remotely close to the amount that Portland proper pays into the transit budget, they should however be built up further around core city center concepts. For the next 5 years, I’d say the metropolitan area should allocate 80% of all funds for transit, livability improvements, bikeways and related funding to the outer city centers (those stated) and the micro-town centers throughout the metropolitan area. I also agree, that bus line amenities and capital outlay and improvements should continue and be a larger part of the city budget. Trimet should focus more on operations around Light Rail and Buses, connecting and getting the frequencies more closely spaced to make the system easier and easier to use. I do NOT think we should lose focus on building out a core backbone in the system with light rail, if anything we should INCREASE spending to get core backbone with LRT and also BRT, but not wimpy piece meal BRT. If we’re going to do BRT half way, I say skip it and sink the capital for light rail now. BRT that isn’t dedicate ROW is a joke. Seattle is proving that for us right now, as I type this, at how poorly and catastrophically bad it can go for a city. Fortunately they’ve spent almost nothing for it (except they’ve had to further cut core services to make sure they could meet their Federal match for it).

Overall, do I think Trimet is doing a bad job? Considering their regulatory, legal and budgetary restrictions, no. Do I think their doing the best job or even close to the best job they could? no.

So there you have it. My two cents, the Transit Sleuth

Yes transit could improve in Portland. Trimet, PDC, the ATU, Portland Leadership, and especially the Federal Government all play a part in the issues that exist with getting better service. Do I blame any single entity entirely, no.

Do I think things will improve over the next 3-5 years? No, primarily because I don’t think the economy will dramatically improve for 3-5 years. However, until the Feds straighten their nonsense out, this 3-5 years could drag on much longer. But time will tell and there is no point on dwelling.

In the end, I hope for improvement. But in the meantime I’ll keep on contributing, being involved and living as best as I can.

Happy riding, cycling and walking! Cheers

A Trip to Washington Square With The Good People

Today I needed to make a trip out to pick up Lego supplies. Thus my story starts with this simple requirement I made. However simple the trip, there are so many little nuances to life, to the trip, to the day. So many things that make life most excellent and happy or dire and depressing. If you want to hear about a dire and depressing story, stop reading now, because this was one of those nice trips with all sorts of positive aspects of humanity showing through.

The trip started at 6:32pm. I headed down to board any of the buses that would get me to Washington Square Mall, where the only Lego Store in the Portland Metropolitan area is located. I checked PDXBus¬†(probably the best transit app available for Trimet or any agency for that matter, hats off to the coder(s) that put it together and made it FREE)¬†on my iPhone and it looked like 23 minutes until the next departure. That seemed absurd, so I figured I’d just walk down to the bus mall and be prepared.

How It Works – PDX Bus on iOS (the shortened version without technical mumbo jumbo)

The reason the PDXBus showed me 23 minutes is because it does a calculation to determine if it needs to use the scheduled time or a GPS location estimate from where the bus was last identified. Since the bus lines that I was looking for #56 & #54 both start downtown then it gets a little flaky. The buses stop, usually with a wait time of 5-15 minutes. During that time of day they may or may not identify as active, and thus show a GPS location, or inactive in which case the scheduled time would be shown. Since the bus has stopped moving, if the GPS shows up while it is waiting, such as if the driver turns the bus on and a reading goes through, the bus might get a really odd estimate. This is why the bus reading showed 23 minutes when I pulled up PDXBus.

Since I know how the system works and where the beginning of the bus line is, I knew that I should likely go by the scheduled time. As long as the previous bus made it downtown – which is 99% likely, then it would most likely be leaving at the schedule time (approximately 89% change). So with two changes that were really good, that the bus would leave at the particular scheduled time, being prepared was the best option.

It was, in the end the correct hedge too, because the bus showed up on time. I boarded the #54 toward Washington Square. The poor things I believe must have been 15-20 years old. The heater was working like a champ though, pumping out far more heat than necessary. But of course, I have a skewed position on temperature since I’ve got a good tolerance for cold and I’m in decent shape. Two things that put me at odds with the general populace, which is not in good shape and does not have a respective tolerance for cold.

Thus I sat and dealt with the heat. But I’ll admit, it was kind of nice to be in a heated bus versus standing outside, because even though I have a tolerance for the cold, I’m not really inclined to stand outside when it is indeed almost freezing.

The bus winded through the Beaverton and Hillsdale area hills. In and out and in and out. The trees encroached the view of the sky. It being a clear night the trees cut into the skyline like knives. Jutting amidst the clear blackened blue of the sky where the slight glow of lights. Since this is the Portland area, the lights used aren’t the same fluorescents that most cities use, which also gave me a grand view of the stars in the sky above. Simply, the trip was beautiful.

People Are Awesome

Amid all the horrible stories of murders, war and whatever other sicknesses we guans heft upon ourselves we often forget that we humans are actually good beings. We’re often kind to each other and thoughtful. We try and work toward doing well. If one just stops bitching for a short time they can often see this happening around them. Well, I make a point to see this as often as possible.

The first interaction that caught my eye was on the bus ride out. Several people sorted themselves out to help others actually get a seat on the bus, so that two people with leg injuries could get situated on the bus while everyone could still have a seat. When the injured went to get off the bus, several passengers jumped up to help.

Wedging Into Seats

These people did not need to do this, there was no law or regulation, there was no omniscient being manipulating their actions, there was simply a desire to help out each other, each of us and our fellow citizens and even – what might have been – non-citizens. Whatever the case it didn’t matter, because we were together in this trip and people were helping each other out.

Mall Cops

The second thing that came up was a simple conversation in the mall. A young girl was talking to two mall cops. She was a little confused about the layout of the mall. These were two older cops that were obviously on the mall payroll, so they weren’t armed, nor did they have any obligation to speak to anyone in the mall, nor did they have any monetary or other reason to do so. Again, simple friendliness among people.

This girl chatted with them getting the directions and figured out where she was trying to go. The officers then carried on patrolling while she headed off to her shopping.

Lost Things

There are many bus drivers out there that are awesome. They, at their core, are just great human beings. Forget the Union, forget all the drivers that may taint this image, these are the good drivers. They’re the drivers who greet you on boarding and actually look at you. They’re the drivers who report the weather when you’re exiting the West Hills Zoo Tunnel. They’re the drivers who go that extra bit, to make the commute or errands or whatever the trip may be, an enjoyable one.

On my way home from the mall, I boarded the last city bound #45. This is kind of a ridiculous route with really low ridership, but somehow Trimet has managed to find a way to keep it (hats off to them for that, because during the day I know it is actually a fairly frequented commuter route). The driver smiled and greeted me, albeit me being completely unfamiliar to her and unknown on this route. I am by no means a regular on the #45 (I think I might have boarded it downtown once before about 5 years ago and rode out on it once before for a Halloween party).

I sat down, the driver started to pull away, but someone waved to her to ask a question outside the bus. She stopped (mind you, she was on time still, so a short 10-30 second delay wouldn’t hurt at all) to see what the question was. Someone was asking if the other #45 had arrived to Tigard. A fellow passenger said, “yes, it had come by” while another said, “wait, that was probably the #76 to Tigard” and I chimed in with a defacto “it was indeed a #76 that went by, the outbound #45 to Tigard is about 4 minutes away according to the GPS coordinates”. She confirmed it with the inquiring person and off we went. We made it up, around and through two lights and the other outbound #45 could be seen coming down the street.

The driver of the outbound #45 flashed a signal or lights of some sort for the inbound #45 I was on to stop. The driver did and the other driver quickly got out of their bus, walked across the street and handed the driver of the inbound #45 something (if this is against Union policy or Trimet policy, just pretend this didn’t happen until you update your moral codes). I could hear the conversation, “you have a rider, should board in 2-3 stops that left this on the morning bus, they ride everyday and I didn’t want them to be cold”. She smiled at the other driver and said, “I’ll be sure to hand them over once they board and if not I’ll bring them in to lost and found with a note”. Off we went.

A few more stops down the road, about 10 minutes travelled, sure enough he regular rider boarded. The driver handed this rider this set of gloves, which they immediately responded with, “oh my god thank you, this will help so much, my hands were freezing and my arthritis would have killed me. I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I’d put them!” The regular rider then sat down and enjoyed their ride into the city.

The moral of this whole story is, whenever you think humanity is just full of spit and vinegar, hatred and disgust or whatever number of despicable things just stop. Stop and think. Stop and relax. Stop and take a breath. Watch those people around you, watch regularly, breath and realize how many interactions and small good deeds are done everyday.

The vast majority of people; transit rider or bus driver, MAX driver or trash collector, lawyer (ok maybe I’m stretching it) or police officer they’re all trying and they’re all generally good people. Give them a chance and don’t get so down on humanity.

Cheers and happy new year!