TriMet’s Bullshit New Business Plan, Redux

Introduction

About 8 months ago or so, TriMet released its first-ever five-year business plan, which was meant to represent TriMet executives’ high-level priorities for the agency. It was pretty damn bad, and I wrote about some major highlights.

Well, it’s a new year and with it, TriMet management has published another “new five-year business plan” to outline their vision for 2019 through 2023, at least on the “business” end of things. Just like the last one, this plan is chock-full of corporate double-speak, screwy assumptions about transit, and a really bleak vision for the future of TriMet. Let’s talk a walk through boss-speak and deconstruct what new General Manager Doug Kelsey and his senior leaders are actually talking about:

Assumptions about transit and the Portland region

First, let’s start with the assumptions TriMet makes about transit and the Portland region, which gives us a glimpse into what’s going on inside management’s head.

MAX construction as a property-development tool

One of the criticisms you’ll hear local transit activists lob at TriMet is that the company functions like a property-development agency that happens to operate buses as a side hustle. The reality is, though, that the hyperbole isn’t far off from what you see in this business plan. First, TriMet touts the close relationship between MAX construction and place-making development:

Image is a selection from the text, reading: “MAX helping spur more than $13 billion in development within walking distance of MAX stations”

TriMet’s role in the region includes using capital construction to spur development:

Image is a selection from the text, reading: “Help shape the future of our region: Deliver service and capital projects that help attract residents, businesses, and development to centers, main streets, and corridors that communities have identified as future growth areas”

The role of a transit agency is fairly simple, at least when we’re talking about the core mission: move people, primarily residents, around the region quickly and effectively. That’s it. Sure, that work has to be coordinated with regional development plans, and has to take housing & employment into account, but we have agencies around the Portland region that do just that: Metro, the Portland Development Commission (“Prosper Portland,” or whatever nonsense Orwellian rebrand they’re currently pushing), HomeForward (the local housing authority), not to mention county & city governments. But to TriMet, the Capital Projects Division — which is responsible for some of the planning and most of the actual physical development of new transit projects, especially MAX lines — is a place-making entity in its own right.

That’s a problem in and of itself, and it also leads to another one of the major issues we see at TriMet: the company has a light-rail fetish, and it’s because of the close ties between agency leadership and contractors that rely on that sweet spring of transit development dollars, not to mention the landowners along proposed MAX alignments that experience windfall profits when a new project gets underway. Again, this isn’t just conspiratorial thinking. You see it implied in TriMet leadership’s “strategy map” of their stakeholders:

TriMet governance

Finally, this new business plan repeats something from the previous one:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading: “Agency. TriMet vision, mission, and values continue to guide TriMet. TriMet will maintain and strengthen its culture of safety. We expect no significant change to TriMet governance”

Put another way, “the opaque and unaccountable racket we’re running has a good thing going, and expect to be able to maintain that.” I’m not going to prognosticate here, but I do hope that the incoming members of the TriMet Board are open to changing how the agency is governed.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Challenges

Next, let’s talking about the “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Challenges” section of this plan, because it begins to give you an idea of how management sees transit and the Portland region. Now, I’m not going to talk too much about the strengths, because they’re either true or basically propaganda, e.g.:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Regional thought leader and influencer”

What the hell does it mean for a transit agency to be a “regional thought leader?” Is TriMet’s next step to get some sweet #sponcon going on Instagram?

Weaknesses

Let’s go right into the “weaknesses” they list:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “ Physical separation of administration employees and operations employees hinders communication and teamwork. Incomplete and inconsistent internal understanding of what it means to provide excellent customer service”

This is a fancy way of saying that the relationship between management and the rank-and-file union workforce has deteriorated to an all-time low. And, to be really fair to TriMet, that’s absolutely true! One of the perks of organizing for ATU Local 757, the union that represents Oregon and southern Washington’s transit workers, is that I get to talk to a lot of retired TriMet workers. They talk in depth about what the agency was like under previous General Managers, even speaking highly of Fred Hansen, the last guy to run the agency before Neil McFarlane and Doug Kelsey took over, and pushed everything in a more corporate direction. And while TriMet’s never been perfect, it’s only in the last decade or so that front-line workers have felt so disempowered and ignored by their bosses.

You can see evidence of this later in the plan, when union members report how out of the loop they feel when it comes to communication with their managers:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Quantum employee survey results from communication question (‘There is open and honest communication between employees and manager’) averaged 3.7 (4.4 for nonunion and 3.1 for union)”

Now, let’s talk communication, because there’s a weakness in here that I find fascinating and offensive:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Incomplete employee understanding of leadership decisions”

Not that the weakness here is NOT that front-line workers are entirely excluded from decision-making at TriMet. The problem is instead that the rank-and-file plebians don’t understand well enough what their overlords have deigned to tell them to do. I wonder why union workers feel like they’re not being heard?

What this plan DOESN’T include? Any indication of how TriMet management would fix the problem. One solution the union has talked about for years is encouraging more promotions from below — that is, make sure that your management team includes folks used to be rank-and-file workers. After all, who better to manage a process than someone who’s actually had the experience of working it? But the trend at TriMet has been in the opposite direction: the vast majority of all managers are now outside hires with no experience in Portland, and many with no experience outside of heavy rail (freight and commuter rail). TriMet recognizes this problem, but they subtly shift the onus:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Lack of communication about career advancement opportunities within TriMet”

It’s a COMMUNICATIONS issue, apparently, not the company’s refusal to hire union workers into management. Even with numerous full-time social media staffers, an endless array of highly-paid spokespeople, and the company’s own intranet system, TriNet, they just can’t get the word out well enough. Maybe another Twitter account would do it?

Transportation Network Companies

TriMet’s thinking on TNCs — companies like Uber and Lyft — is absolutely contradictory, and I’d even call it Janus-faced. One opportunity the company identifies:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “ Growth of Transportation Network Companies (TNC) and other mobility options may help solve ‘last mile’ challenges”

A challenge:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Growth of TNCs and other mobility options could be destabilizing”

Now, for one, nobody has ever explained to me how Uber is supposed to help with last-mile connectivity. You get off the train at a transit center, and then hail an Uber for the last little stretch to your home? Short hops in single-occupancy vehicles: part of TriMet’s strategy to fight congestion, or something like that. But in any event, TriMet gets it right on the challenges side of things: TNCs are destabilizing for transit. They increase single-occupancy vehicle congestion. They barely offer workable service to folks with disabilities. And that’s not even to touch the broader criticisms of TNCs in the abstract or the specific ways in which Uber damages cities. The fact that TriMet is counting on TNCs as part of their transportation network is disturbing.

Ridership

Ridership is falling on TriMet, and ridership is by and large moving east, as TriMet acknowledges:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Declines in ridership and shifts in location of demand”

Remember the earlier section about overinvestment in building new MAX lines? These are interlocked issues. Why is there such an eastward movement of TriMet’s ridership? Well, in part because of the gentrification and residential displacement caused by the early-2000s development of the Yellow Line in N/NE Portland, which has had a disproportionately negative impact on Black communities. Yet rather than understand the complicity of capital projects in shifting ridership trends, the company wrings its hands over ridership while continuing the business-as-usual politics of light-rail construction.

Animus against unhoused people

Finally, as someone who’s worked with houseless communities in Portland, I’m especially offended by this dog-whistle:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Impact of some riders on comfort of others”

That’s pretty clearly aimed at our unhoused neighbors. Many of whom are unhoused because of skyrocketing housing costs in Portland. Much of which is driven by gentrification and displacement in formerly-working-class parts of town. Which is driven by transit-oriented development programs as they’ve been designed by TriMet and its partners. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Goals and performance measures

Let’s take a look at a few of the goals TriMet sets out for its performance over the next five years. This is where we start to get a nuts-and-bolts sense of the ways TriMet will go about executing management’s vision.

Security theater and militarization

First topic: security theater!

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “ Security presence on system increased during FY2018”

There’s a lot to unpack in just a few words here. First, the idea of “security presence” should be taken to mean Transit Police Officers (on loan from local law enforcement agencies), the new class of Transit Peace Officers TriMet will employ by contracting with Clean and Safe, and G4S security agents who really don’t have the power or authority to cite or even physically touch passengers. Put another way: expect even more of a militarized presence on bus and MAX moving forward. And note how that’s framed as a universal good being done on behalf of all riders — it’s worth pointing out that Doug Kelsey, the new General Manager, once said in response to a group of people of color who expressed their fear of this kind of militarization: “security is security.”

This comes up a little later, when the company mentions developing rider trainings to “address perceptions.”

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Develop and deliver a new rider training program to address perceptions and reduce barriers”

This is hard to parse on its own. My interpretation, though, is that TriMet is hinting that it will conduct community and rider trainings to try and address the issue of profiling by security agents on transit. But they’re going to do it by pretending that profiling is all in folks’ heads, despite being plain as day to just about anyone who’s been through a fare inspection. My own experience: I’m whiter than Wonder Bread. I used to live in North Portland, and used the Yellow Line MAX to commute. For about three months, there were weekly fare checks at Rose Quarter; multiple Transit Police Officers barely glanced at my ticket, while intensely — and rudely — scrutinizing Black folks on the train.

But I’m sure TriMet would never deny that racial profiling exists, right? Maybe ask Ana del Rocio.

Folks like OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and Bus Riders Unite have demanded a different, older model: Rider Advocates who intervene nonviolently in difficult situations, and who have been trained in deescalation and mental health crisis-recognition techniques. TriMet employed folks like this previously, from 1994 to 2009. The program was successful, won awards left and right, and was almost universally beloved by riders and transit workers alike. But the company has steadfastly refused to consider this as an option. Their commitment to militarized security is a conscious, ideological choice by senior leadership, and that should scare us all shitless.

Another wrinkle: TriMet recently got approval to move to a new system for handling fare evasion citations, giving folks the option of fines or community service. On its own, that’s great! In tandem with the new Transit Peace Officer (TPO) contract, though, it’s a nightmare.

TPOs will be employed directly by Portland Patrol, Inc., a division of the Clean & Safe Program. Clean & Safe is a city-sponsored district downtown created at the behest of local businesses to combat “livability” issues. Notably, when you’re ordered by a court to perform community service in Portland, you’re often order to perform that service for Clean & Safe — effectively forcing you to clean up trash on behalf of local businesses.

So let’s put that all together: TPOs working for Clean & Safe on behalf of downtown businesses will be empowered to hand out citations for fare evasion, which will likely result in members of the public being required to perform community service for the businesses who partner with Clean & Safe. That’s one hell of a racket, and the incentive to create a conscripted labor force in this way is scary to me.

Ridership

As I said before, ridership is falling at TriMet. And while there’s some good high-level talk about improving ridership in this plan, there’s an interesting way that TriMet moves the goalposts: by focusing on BOARDINGS, not NUMBER OF RIDERS:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Stabilized then increased boardings: FY2019”

This is important for a few reasons. First, focusing on the number of boardings is going to overrepresent tourists and overinflate ridership statistics during sporting events (if you’ve seen the crush of MAX riders during Timbers or Blazers games, you know what I mean). That’s going to skew ridership statistics, and make it harder to figure out how the agency is, for example, providing service to residents during their commuting trips.

When it comes to their techniques for improving ridership, four of the six identified are just about marketing:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Develop strategies to increase ridership compared to regional growth, including: Target service enhancements in locations that will address changing demands. Market segmentation for service and customer information/marketing. Personalized marketing programs (e.g., new resident information or tourist-focused automated tours). Increase employer fare program participation. Broaden multicultural marketing strategies. Strengthen promotion of off-peak ridership.”

There’s not much consideration here of the notion that improving service is central to improving ridership, or any analysis of deficiences in current service and schedules. But what we DO have is a commitment to raise fares at least 20 cents over the life of this plan:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “In FY2020, after the previous six years with no fare increase, implement incremental increases in fares as called for in adopted fare policy, approximately $0.10 every two years”

Charge people more to ride transit — that’ll make it more attractive! Oh, and let’s phase out paper tickets while we’re at it:

Image is an excerpt from the text, reading “Phase out paper fares with robust public engagement during FY2019”

Conclusion

Honestly, I could go on and on and on until carpal tunnel sets in. What I want you to take away is this: we deserve better than TriMet’s senior leadership.

TriMet’s management is ideologically committed to militarized transit, to tourists over local residents, to using transit as a means to development ends rather than a way of moving people. This is not a group of well-meaning folks who have lost their way: they’re transit mercenaries, and the best example of why we need change at TriMet. We need a brand-new Board that supports riders and workers. We need decision-making moved to a regional level, rather than letting the Governor and Legislature appoint the leaders of our transit agency. We need a transit system dedicated to moving residents rather than creating windfall profits for landowners.