Thursday, March 9, 2017

The story behind #WillMyBusArrive

This might explain why it doesn't show up on time (K.Kesgard)
With the new site going, I indicated that there would be posts that didn't involve soccer or sports in general. I have had a few people ask me what is the deal with tweeting about whether my motor coach arrives on time or not. It seems awfully passive aggressive to direct anger like this on social media, but then again, anybody that has been on the Internet over the last few months knows it can be a very volatile place. One person talking about whether something follows a schedule or not might seem like nothing, but honestly, I wonder if the world of customer service isn't nearly what it once was. The whole concept started simply with one guy and a smartphone that was entertaining himself by sharing thoughts about the coach being on time, late or a no show, but when people started commenting about it, I knew I might be onto a fun topic especially with my history in transit.

I grew up in the land of blue astroturf, potatoes, and gems; my stepfather drove a special minibus for the local urban stages authority, so we got free transit passes. That was how I got about town if my parents weren't able to take me to activities - catching the local line. At that time, the routes were limited and changed depending upon the day, but then again, most residents believed cars rule and other vehicles drooled. It was even odd to be catching to get to school instead of taking a yellow monstrosity like others, but it did allow some flexibility during the sports seasons to get home. When I moved to the world of lilacs, bulldogs and Jesuits for college, I didn't own a car, so getting about town involved either bumming a ride, walking, biking or the coach. Being a broke college student, my money was strictly reserved for food and alcohol, so I spent little time getting to know the transit infrastructure.

It would be great if all vehicles could get along. (K.Kesgard)
All that changed after graduation when I was trying to find a job and ended up visiting Portland. My girlfriend during my senior year of school broke up with me after graduation, but her mother made me a promise that I could come visit the Rose City and stay with her to try and find my first job. While I was pleasantly surprised at the offer at the time, I was even more shocked when I called her in August and she was excited to have me visit and stay at her apartment even after the breakup. Upon my arrival, I was given plenty of advice about things to do upon moving to Portland - buy an umbrella, find a good coffee house, get a good jacket, and learn the layout. I was given a all zone pass for my use with a schedule booklet, and she said take the stage everywhere - it's the best way to learn about the city.

For the 2 weeks I was here, I interviewed at 7 different companies located in downtown, but I spent the afternoons riding various routes about town. With the color coded, animal inspired division for the varying paths, it was so easy to know which coach took you where. I was fascinated at the concept of making the core of the downtown a transit hub, especially since I would be living here without a car. I was able to see the kitsch of early NW Portland, the grit of inner SE, the sprawl of the westside, the history of North Portland and all parts in between. Granted, the rides took forever at points and it seemed like some of the paths turned all over themselves, but I never felt so connected to a place before - and I became a poster child of the transit program. I grabbed every schedule I could find, purchased the full matrix of options and took the coach everywhere.

This town has the oddest traffic ever. (K.Kesgard)
Living out in West Portland and Beaverton, I lived near major lines and scheduled my life about where I could get via the motor coach - to the golf course, the bars, the restaurants, the grocery store. With reliable transport, it worked like a charm despite the lack of spontaneity if I wanted to go outside the grid. One of my high school friends moved to town months after I became a resident and he allowed me to use his truck from time to time, but for the most part, I got to where I needed by transit or foot. Over the years, the plan worked with a few minor issues relating to the weather - or the occasional Saturday work shift downtown on the same day the Rose Festival parade was on. Even years later when I moved to NW Portland in a studio apartment, I still traveled by large vehicle wherever possible. Because the neighborhood had most services within walking distance, I didn't venture too far from this zone and it worked - until the fateful day when my office decided to move to East County.

I figured I could survive this because it was a reverse commute of heading from downtown east, and once I figured out the plan, it was relatively painless. The authority had been expanding their options to add more train lines, so at first, it was as simple as one train to a shuttle during work hours. When a line extended its reach out on Sandy Boulevard past my office, it gave me slightly better options in case my shifts ran late, but otherwise, my perfect carless existence was struggling at points if I needed to get to work. I could try to bum rides but most of the time, it was quitting before the last shuttle ran. My life got easier when I could work from home via remote access, but I was hoping that things would get better when I moved out to East County after moving in with my girlfriend (now wife) in 2005. Instead of relying on multiple lines, it was one loop that I could walk to easily to get to the center. Imagine my surprise when that hasn't been the case. Over the years, the route has been altered, added to, subtracted, and tinkered with. The drivers regularly rotate and when it became a full route, the performance went out the window. There are plenty of afternoons where I am standing around and wondering if anything will show up and if the schedule is just a suggestion or not.   

Me in my natural state after work. (K.Kesgard)
I have worked in customer service long enough to know it's a tough gig. It's difficult to manage to customer expectations at points, but being honest and communicative usually helps. The more I tried to talk with people about my line, however, the more I got the usual boiler plate responses of "We are looking into it. Sorry for the inconvenience." I know these lines well, because they usually mean little to nothing and it's a placebo to make the comments go away-We aren't interested in changing or feel we can't, so just deal with it. I got tired of saying anything, so I just stopped caring. It was at this time that I started to tweet and found more people talking about the same things. I'm not going to go down the rabbit holes of waste and problems in large agencies, but I can safely say this - I pay a lot each month for a pass and I only expect that my line show up around the schedule. I understand issues happen, but when there is an outage or accident, I have no idea the motorcade isn't coming. There is no notification system whatsoever, so I can't make any alternate plans to get home. I receive 11 billion emails if a train is broken, but nothing if a route is off track. I know they can track vehicles, but I can't understand why they can't notify us of an issue.

I know the people are trying, and my hashtag isn't meant to antagonize or upset any of them. It's simply my fun way of trying to deal with waiting - something that nobody likes doing ever. I wished there were more productive things to do in queue, but I'm not pulling out a laptop and trying to work in a waiting shelter - although I certainly see it all the time. It's just that in trying to do more, I feel our local agency is doing less with the current and the standard that once was in place isn't there. I rarely heard complaints about missing or broken coaches, but it's now a common refrain. I'm not expecting anything I am typing here to change the world, I'm trying my best to have some humor about a situation many deal with daily - and while it might not be a first world problem, I know it could always be a lot worse. I just wish that wasn't the case, but it starts with communication and a plan. Or maybe one guy and a smartphone.


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