Three More Reasons Not to Ride Transit

1. They’re Listening to Everything You Say

Portland’s TriMet has acquired new buses that automatically record rider conversations. It wasn’t something the agency particularly wanted; it just “came standard with the new buses,” says a spokesperson.

Under Oregon law, unless you obtain a warrant, you can’t record a conversation without the permission of all parties. Not to worry; TriMet’s buses are posted with signs warning “Security cameras with audio on board.” Apparently, TriMet considers that anyone who boards automatically consents to be recorded.

2. You’ll Make Their Lawyers Rich

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority revealed that it has paid 84 victims of the 2009 crash that killed nine people and injured dozens more a total of $1.6 million–an average of $19,000 each. At the same time, it paid its attorneys $7.5 million in fees to deal with lawsuits stemming from the crash that resulted from its own inadequate maintenance.

So if you plan to ride transit tomorrow, particularly if it is a train that is suffering from deferred maintenance, you can sleep easy tonight knowing that, if your train crashes, the families of your transit agency’s attorneys will be well cared for as a result of any injury you receive that is due to the agency’s negligence.

3. Your Transit Agency is Nearly Broke

After making severe service cuts last year, TriMet says its fiscal health is so poor that it will have to cut transit service by another 70 percent by 2025. TriMet’s general manager blames the unions for the problem, saying that their health care plans are bankrupting the agency. According to TriMet’s 2012 financial statement, 100 percent of the agency’s health care obligations and about a third of its pension obligations are unfunded (pp. 29, 43). (The union has a web site responding to TriMet’s arguments.)

The Antiplanner doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for unionized bus drivers who earn more than $100,000 a year. On the other hand, it takes two parties to agree to a contract. TriMet agreed to this pension and health care plan in 1994 knowing that it wouldn’t be funded (the board chair at the time resigned in protest over the contract).

Even knowing that it would have a hard time funding its contractual obligations, TriMet decided to spend $964 million on a light-rail line to Hillsboro. Then it spent $120 million on a light-rail line to the Portland Airport, $166 million on a commuter-rail line that so few people ride that it would be less expensive to give each daily round-trip rider a new Toyota Prius every other year, $350 million on a light-rail line to the Washington border (where it hopes Vancouver will come up with a billion or so more to cross the state line), and $575 million on a light-rail line to Clackamas.

Now it is spending $1.5 billion on a light-rail line that few people are expected to ride and that Portland-area voters rejected in 1998. After adjusting for inflation to today’s dollars, this amounts to more than $4 billion on rail lines that TriMet will have to maintain at a much higher cost than if it had simply run bus-rapid transit over these routes.

TriMet says this is irrelevant because the money it spends building rail lines comes from an entirely different account than the money used to pay for its pension and health care obligations. That’s not very persuasive. An agency that can’t plan ahead to meet its contractual obligations can’t be counted on to plan ahead to fund its future maintenance obligations either.

And it’s probably not a good idea to talk about these things when you are on board the train or bus. Remember, they are listening to everything you say.

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15 thoughts on “Three More Reasons Not to Ride Transit

  1. FrancisKing

    “Portland’s TriMet has acquired new buses that automatically record rider conversations. It wasn’t something the agency particularly wanted; it just “came standard with the new buses,” says a spokesperson.”

    Nothing that a screwdriver or wire-cutters couldn’t fix.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    After making severe service cuts last year, TriMet says its fiscal health is so poor that it will have to cut transit service by another 70 percent by 2025.

    Wonder if Portland Metro has updated its long-range travel demand forecasts to include these transit service cut-backs?

    And it’s probably not a good idea to talk about these things when you are on board the train or bus. Remember, they are listening to everything you say.

    I thought it was only the buses that had onboard recording systems?

    Maybe this is just another way for TriMet to increase its rail system boardings?

  3. msetty

    On the one hand I would agree with a “libertarian” solution: place bus and rail operations completely out to bid, like what happened at North County Transit District in San Diego County.

    On the other hand, a “welfare state” solution: Medicare for everyone. Medicare costs are ballooning, too, but mainly because the number of old people is jumping. I also add Medicare could save many tens of billions annually if REPUBLICAN Congresses hadn’t specifically prohibited Medicare from negotiating cost savings deals with the drug companies. And If bus drivers, or anyone else, get add-ons from their employers, negotiate such from a clean slate with Medicare as the “base” health care arrangement.

  4. gecko55

    So, a guy who chooses to live in a b.m.f.k nowhere, where public transport doesn’t exist, suggests that those of us who live in places where the public transport is safe, convenient, comfortable, affordable, etc., should stop riding it, because, you know, Portland’s system has some issues. Ha ha. I don’t know if Portland’s transit system is really as screwed up as portrayed (I suspect not), but I do know that the public transport system where I live is not: 1) listening to everything I say; 2) needlessly enriching bottom-feeding lawyers; and 3) nearly broke.

    I think I’ll keep using it.

  5. English Major

    The Portland city planners justify the destructive density of inner SE PDX on the grounds that those residents should get out of their cars and take the bus. Now, the bus service is being cut up to 75%.

    What smart, smart growth. Watch the city planners not take Tri-Met woes into account twhen they push density on more neighborhoods.

  6. jdgalt

    With the kind of lowlife I see every day on transit, I want them recording. Because sooner or later there’s going to be a fight, and I need to be able to prove I didn’t start it.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    msetty wrote:

    On the one hand I would agree with a “libertarian” solution: place bus and rail operations completely out to bid, like what happened at North County Transit District in San Diego County.

    I strongly agree.

    Competitive tendering of transit service is a winner for the taxpayers and for transit patrons.

    On the other hand, a “welfare state” solution: Medicare for everyone. Medicare costs are ballooning, too, but mainly because the number of old people is jumping. I also add Medicare could save many tens of billions annually if REPUBLICAN Congresses hadn’t specifically prohibited Medicare from negotiating cost savings deals with the drug companies. And If bus drivers, or anyone else, get add-ons from their employers, negotiate such from a clean slate with Medicare as the “base” health care arrangement.

    No disagreement at all.

  8. msetty

    RE: The UCTC Access magazine article by Cervero and Guerra is a bit simplistic, but useful nonetheless with their proposed cost-effectiveness threshold of $0.58 per daily passenger mile. This is similar to the Pushkarev-Zupan-Cumella approach of advocating a maximum investment per passenger mile, where anything above the threshold was not considered cost effective. Given the current interest rate paid on US government bonds of about 3.5%, Cervero et al’s threshold suggests a cut-off investment of roughly $3,500 per daily passenger mile. I think it’s more like $5,000-$6,000 per daily passenger mile, but then the cost-benefit calculations made by Pushkarev-Zupan-Cumella haven’t been updated in 30 years.

    I have three main quibbles with Cervero et al. They ignore two big factors that influence ridership on new rail ines (and BRT routes, for that matter). While it is clear that the number of jobs directly served by a transit line, rail or BRT, has a huge influence on potential ridership, residential density and total number of residents is far less determinate of potential ridership.

    How complete a transit network is has far more impact; for example, a transit line that connects conveniently with a comprehensive network of frequent service lines (whether rail or bus) will attract many more riders than a line that is not coordinated. This is because frequent services whatever the mode will simply attract many more riders than an uncoordinated network of duplicating routes. This point is illustrated when Sacramento LRT ridership more than doubled when proper connecting bus service was provided circa 1990 and duplicative, mostly infrequent, and costly peak period services into downtown Sacramento was mostly eliminated.

    Some will complain about “forced transfers,” but more frequent service is more valuable than “one seat” rides on infrequent services–if you don’t believe me, you need to read Jarrett Walker’s book. Besides, given the low density of the Sacramento region, they really can’t afford to operate duplicative services to meet some overhyped need for an excessive number of “one seat ride” services that can only attract barely adequate ridership during the peak periods).

    In a nutshell, my point is that while Cervero et al’s arguments are a starting point, density is NOT the only factor determining rail (or BRT) potential, and in many cases, just one of many relevant factors and network design decisions which become dominant as an area’s density goes down.

  9. msetty

    The Roaring Fork Transit Authority serving Aspen, Colorado and its tributary communities also throws a big monkey wrench into Cervero et al’s theories about the importance of residential densities along transit routes. See http://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/02/14/meet-the-rural-region-that-opted-for-velocibuses-over-highway-expansion/. Transit works in Aspen et al for two reasons: the concentration of jobs (~16,000 Pitkin County total) in Aspen and Snowmass Village along one narrow corridor where all regional travel occurs, e.g., the length of Colorado 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. This all the more remarkable since Aspen only has about 9,000 jobs according to the US Census, with another 7,000 or so in other parts of Pitkin County.

  10. prk166

    Tri-met does not HAVE to maintain the lines it has built. It can choose to mothball some or all of them. They would be available for use in the future if needed.

    To determine how needed these lines are, they should do a real life experiment similar to the one the Twin Cities did with freeway ramp metering. Just turn it all off, they called it a meter holiday in the Twin Cities, for a period of time and see what happens.

    http://nexus.umn.edu/papers/RampMetersOnTrial.pdf

    Ramp meters in the Twin Cities have been the subject of a recent test of their e?ectiveness, involving turning them o?
    for eight weeks. This paper analyzes the results with and without ramp metering for several representative freeways during
    the afternoon peak period. Seven performance measures: mobility, equity, productivity, consumers’ surplus, accessibility,
    travel time variation and travel demand responses are compared. It is found that ramp meters are particularly helpful for
    long trips relative to short trips. Ramp metering, while generally bene?cial to freeway segments, may not improve trip travel times (including ramp delays). The reduction in travel time variation comprises another bene?t from ramp meters.
    Non-work trips and work trips respond di?erently to ramp meters. The results are mixed, suggesting a more re?ned ramp
    control algorithm, which explicitly considers ramp delay, is in order

  11. Dan

    @Mike Setty, the reason why Roaring Fork transit needs to exist is because the help can’t live close to Aspen-Snowmass. They must live far away to be able to afford to live somewhere their service wage can afford. The urban forester for Aspen lives ~1.5 hours away in Eagle, as that’s all he can afford. Similar to the planners in Island Co in WA state have to take the ferry to work every day, as they can’t live on the islands.

    DS

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