Monday, March 4, 2019

How I Want to FIX Portland Transit

Thanks to Don Welch of Ontario for providing this magic image! 

Deke's Note: I made a mistake and read one review of JUST DRIVE - Life in the Bus Lane, in which I was criticized for bitching too much. Sorry, but I do tend to be repetitive for a good reason. People don't learn unless the truth is blasted at them often and loud. I've also been told I'm too afraid of my own management to really let them have both barrels. Bullshit. I try to see many angles but tend to side with my brothers and sisters, who are often unfairly-maligned and maltreated. Don't think I'm "tough enough" to take on the bullies who run roughshod over us? Think again, matey. Here I go again. #DekeForGM is for real. If anything, you can bank on THAT.

Everyone has an opinion. Today, anybody can post their thoughts on any topic they choose. Today, I offer my own take on what ails our once-enviable transit system.

First and foremost, our management is woefully out-of-touch with reality. There is no excuse for the vast disconnect between those entrusted with the reins of transit. In my opinion, there is but one reason for their existence: to oversee a safe system for all. It has no reason to exist if not for those who make the wheels roll. In the past decade, it has become too big for its britches, and like a child who has misbehaved, needs to be disciplined. Rather than functioning as a finely-tuned logistical support system, it treats its frontline workers with seeming disgust and an overweight hand. It would rather slap us than help us up, and shockingly fails to support us whenever our local media finds something we did "wrong." Even worse, when tragedy strikes, it does virtually nothing to defend us. Simply stating "the incident is under investigation" is insulting to a workforce which diligently focuses on delivering passengers safely every hour of each day. When some malcontent whines to the media with some concocted story about how poorly an operator treated them, we're automatically suspect rather than defended. The whiner is glorified, we are vilified. After management's "investigation" is completed and an operator is exonerated, not a finger is lifted to alert media of the initial character assassination being proven false. It devastates an operator when our own management fails to support us. We were once respected and celebrated. Now, we're disrespected and considered guilty before any hope of a "fair" trial.
Deke in his environment: the elements.

Their big charade thrown on "Transit Operator Appreciation Day" still rings hollow to many of us who are subject to humiliation and insult with increasingly alarming frequency. We're used to the public screaming insults at us since it's a daily occurrence. Management assaulting us is not something we should have to endure. They might as well slap us in the face themselves and get the usual tap on the wrist from our justice system. Maybe they should be rewarded with a fat $ettlement when we ask them to keep their shit-smeared shoes off our rarely-cleaned seats. Oh wait... they already are. Have you seen the salaries of upper management lately? Usually 2-3 times more than we make. Overpaid, under-qualified and arrogant, they are. Yet the public has no idea because it is, as usual, uninformed by a disinterested and lazy local media.

There are some good people in management, but they tend to work closer to the front lines and have actually done our jobs. Many managers have never done the job they're supposedly "experts" on. They throw ridiculous edicts at us such as "You should have de-escalated the situation, but you didn't. You're suspended." It's so easy to tell someone how to do sor omething you've never done; it's much easier to commiserate with another if you've driven in-service several thousand miles in a city bus. We hear it from a public every day, which is "empowered" simply because people ride for years and think they have the slightest inkling of what they could never understand.

A transit operator will be insulted at least once, if not several times, each shift we drive by people who have never been educated on how transit works, let alone what our responsibilities are. We should be the ultimate authority on any vehicle we operate, but any authority we once had has been watered down like some shady nightclub's bottom-shelf whisky. This is a direct result of shoddy, lazy and irresponsible management. When someone breaks our local (or federal) transit code and we ask them politely to obey, their response can be either violently- or passively-aggressive: an assault or a false complaint to "Customer Service." These end up in our personnel file whether true or false, and are rarely deleted unless we put up a fierce fight which could result in termination for being insubordinate. Does this sound so far-fetched as to make you think it's just not so? It is unreal, but it's most often the case.

Local transit management should have been fired years ago, but it has been allowed to run roughshod over its own employees and the communities it serves. It has too much unchecked power for far too long. It promised its employees decades ago to fund a pension and provide medical insurance for a career that results in health issues in lieu of regular pay increases, but when it was caught red-handed having not done so, nobody was disciplined. Somebody should be in jail as a result, but an internet search for this fails to bring up the true story. It was swept under the carpet, and instead of an in-depth investigation, articles portrayed our employer as an innovator in "pension reform" because it suddenly decided it could no longer afford what was promised. Instead, it switched to a 401k system, which as we all know is a roll of the dice. If the stock market tanks, our retirement is gone baby, gone. Sure, pension investments can go wrong too, so financially it makes sense to shift the responsibility and risk to the worker. Instead of admitting its failure, management shifted the blame to a "greedy" workforce, a classic bait-and-switch tactic in which it convinced the media we expected and had "Cadillac benefits." It was sly, and it worked. People who have given their entire adult lives to a career that breaks body, mind and soul into crumbs that blow away with the slightest breeze were sold out and then blamed for it. Sure, they pay pensions to retirees whose union benefits afforded them this benefit. Yet with each new contract, new hires see the "Cadillacs" being traded in for 40-year-old Pintos.

I could continue on management's failures, but let's also look at the politically-appointed Board of Puppets which "oversees" them. Having been to a few "bored" meetings, my first impression was that each of them would rather be somewhere else. They tend to side with those whom they are supposed to govern. When an operator, union official or citizen speaks, they just nod as if they're trying very hard not to fall asleep. The whole board should be scrapped and replaced with democratically-elected servants who are fully-accountable to the public they serve. There currently is no accountability, no true representation for a government within itself with power to tax and prosecute. It's purely un-American, but status quo in Portland, Oregon.

Enough about management. It stirs up my blood pressure to continue on when nobody but US knows the truth. My suggestion is to fire the entire top-heavy upper management down to street-level and replace it with people who have rolled wheels or rails. There are plenty of us who have excelled in the private sector and could do a much better job. Sound a bit drastic? Sometimes solutions have to be, in order to save something so valuable to a city that largely depends upon it. The cold hard truth is bitter, but the aftertaste can be sweet and lasting.

Solutions: Replace the majority of upper management, thin the herd by about 60%. Support a bill allowing for board members to be elected by the public to serve no more than two four-year terms. Create a true "family" atmosphere in which employees are truly valued, not just given lip service. Move upper management to a location in which it is closer to Operations and encourage open-door policies. Work closely with ATU 757 members to bring Portland transit back to an upper-echelon status worldwide. Re-vamp how the agency deals with the public via education, a new Customer Service model, eliminate destructive employee policies and support the mental and physical well-being of all who work here. Focus once again on overall safety of frontline workers rather than on-time performance. Work closely with law enforcement to provide a safer work environment, including personal vehicle safety in Employee parking areas. Allow Maintenance to promote from within, remove ALL non-union contracts so that Fare Inspectors and others are under the ATU umbrella. Encourage and reward those who put forth new ideas which promote a positive work environment. Basically: start over.

Dangerous crossings, traffic light sequences, schedule inconsistencies and many other things need to be fixed before we "improve" the system by adding more expensive new light rail projects. We should have learned by now how dangerous our downtown transit mall is, but nothing has been done in a decade to fix the most obvious problems. I would suspend all new projects pending further review and concentrate on improving facilities and conditions for all frontline workers

Since the cops are not required to enforce traffic laws there, strongly encourage the city to eliminate non-transit vehicles from 5th and 6th Avenues downtown. Re-align the transitways so rail and bus lines don't intermix as often. Fine pedestrians for jaywalking. Upgrade Portland's antique traffic light algorithms and give transit vehicles signal priority to allow for more efficiency from stop to stop. Insist the city clean up the homeless population from cluttering up doorways... give them somewhere safe, clean and warm to sleep in exchange for working to keep our city clean, making it more attractive to tourists and industry to come here. Stop rewarding bad behavior and enforce transit code, especially downtown. Make it somewhere visitors aren't afraid to tread upon, rather than accepting the current status quo. Do something and innovative for the mentally-ill and downtrodden and give them hope rather than constantly showing disdain. Over 40 bus and rail lines share this transit mall. Instead of ignoring safety concerns, address them and take positive steps to improve what could be once again a downtown of innovation instead of a reactionary mess.

Solutions: See above.

Is undereducated and too damned entitled where transit is concerned. We're here for a reason: to give you a ride. It's not free, nor should any service so valuable to the local economy be. I agree there should be low fare options for those who truly need it, but nothing good should be free. Passengers need to be prepared to board. They need to obey the rules, going so far as to actually read SIGNS ON THE BUS or TRAIN which outline the basic rules of transit. Management needs to educate you about the possible consequences of non-compliance, as well as taking an active role in your education. The public needs to respect transit employees, not tell us how to do what we already know.

We're diligent about transporting you safely. All we ask is that you respect US and the ride. When we ask you to do something, eliminate argument or debate. We've heard it all before, but what it all boils down to is YOUR safety and that of your fellow riders. No, we're not "on some power trip." We take our jobs seriously, and are extremely focused on the road ahead, around AND behind us. Your input is often unnecessary and in some cases, outright dangerous. If you can't abide by the rules of a $2.50 ride, take a taxi or drive yourself. Can't afford either? Then why are you questioning my operation of a vehicle which I've been professionally-trained to operate? Can you drive it? No. Sit down, shut up and behave yourself. It's that simple. No, we're not being rude when we respond in a manner that you didn't expect; we're simply more focused on keeping 40,000 lbs. from hurting anybody. Extremely-focused.

You're sitting there staring at your phone, not tuned in to whatever mindset three million other possible passengers might possess. We don't have the ability to know the schedules of any number of other routes you need to connect with; we don't drive those. Use your phones or ask another passenger instead of berating us for "not knowing your jobs." We know ours, you should know your role as well.

Oh, and to say "thank you" on your way out the door isn't expected, but it is polite. You're welcome. You arrived at your destination safely. Not on time? Sorry, but that 10-minute freight train derailed my schedule and shortened my dinner break. You're riding for a few dollars and anyone with a third-grade education should be able to understand that transit is unpredictable at best, usually at no fault of the operator. When you berate us for your missing a connection, it's not the end of the world. Another bus or train will serve you shortly. When it's snowing or icy or hot outside, you're waiting just like we do when the operator is late to our relief point due to no fault of their own. Life is hard, but transit is easy... and inexpensive. Buck up, buttercup.

Have your fare ready before we roll up to your stop. Pay promptly, be courteous and polite, sit down and mind your business. Don't drink your booze on the vehicle, spit on the floor, spread garbage far and wide even though a trash can is easily within reach. Ignore when someone accidentally bumps into you as they walk past rather than incite an argument. Don't fart, piss your pants, cuss with abandon or insult your fellow passengers. Just...ride. It's easy, and we expect this from you just like you expect us to get you there safely. Still don't get it? Try walking. It'll make my ride that much more peaceful.

Solutions: See above, but also work with the city to provide better facilities for the riding public including better shelters and install restroom facilities. Have them cleaned by employing the homeless.

Hello? It's me, Bus Operator Guy! Yeah, the guy you love to berate at any opportunity. Or, to ignore completely unless something tragic happens. Then you're quick to blame me in your headlines, when I'm conspicuously-absent in the media every day I'm on time and safe. I'm saving lives and avoiding aggressive motorists while you wonder where you'll find your next sensational "story" that's sure to shine in your editor's eye. When someone doesn't watch where they're going, wearing headphones and staring at their cell phone while walking directly into a transit vehicle's path, getting hit and horribly-injured due to their own foolishness, your headline shouldn't read "Bus Kills Pedestrian." It automatically places the blame on an operator who has already saved double-figure lives that day and cannot predict every moment of human stupidity. Try something like "Clueless Pedestrian Walks into Moving Bus." It's likely the more fair statement of what happened. It's also more instructive, if not brutally honest.

Try riding transit and getting to know those of us who make it work. Watch what we do and ask why. Don't always focus on the negative. We're human, therefore fallible. Our actions more often save lives than endanger them. We're your neighbors, fellow church-going taxpaying voting and civic-minded citizens of the same metropolis you live in. Often portrayed as stubborn and unforgiving, we are usually extremely-focused and caring individuals. Each day, there are about a thousand-plus frontline workers working together to move the workforce to and from the jobs which fuel our economy. Human to the core, we deserve more respect and care than we're afforded.

Solutions: Work with the media to improve public knowledge of the transit system and how everyone can make it better. Promote positive media of those who take Portland to work. Change transit's media message to be supportive of frontline workers rather than negative or accusatory. Develop timely videos which are instructive and promote a more cooperative relationship between the public we serve and those who make transit possible. 

Good grief, you drive as if you're the only person in the world who matters. No, a monstrously-large dually-truck doesn't give you the right to drive like an idiot. Perhaps you are, but even idiots have been known to possess a conscience on occasion. You have a high center of gravity. Know what that means? Over-correct and you're head-over-ass and in deep water without much hope of escaping unscathed.

Oh it's a Mercedes or an Audi or Range Rover shined to a $20 luster in which you assault your fellow citizens? My apologies. I should get out of my bus when you cut me off and bow to your greatness, begging forgiveness for just doing my job. Yes, it's a road-hogging and maddeningly-slow machine I drive, but it weighs 20 tons. You made enough money to buy that extravagant status symbol, you should also possess enough intelligence to realize what havoc 40,000 lbs. can wreak upon 3,500. No, I can't stop on a dime. Yes, when my YIELD light is blinking along with my left turn signal, you ARE required by law to allow me to merge back into traffic. It's my job: I roll, then brake and pull to the side of the road to discharge or board passengers, and then I roll back into the right lane until someone requests I stop or more people await my ride. It's B-A-S-I-C, Einstein.

That yellow traffic signal ahead does NOT mean it's time for you to PUNCH IT so you don't have to stop for 30 seconds of your precious entitled existence. Pedestrians could leave the sidewalk to the supposed safety of a green walk signal and get creamed by your impatience. Oh, and you had a few cocktails after work and are in a hurry to harass the officials at your daughter's basketball game? Guess what? Now you won't see any more of those games because Sally GasPumper just made a bloody mess of your shiny, expensive bumper. She is on her way to the morgue where her devastated next-of-kin will have to try and identify what was a loving and caring person. SLOW DOWN, people. Follow the laws you agreed to obey when you were issued that license to drive. Otherwise, your life and whoever is unfortunate to attempt sharing the road with you will be forever altered to the negative.

No, I didn't cut you off and then give you the finger. I pulled out a bit to test the waters. You hesitated, as if you might actually have some patience since the light ahead is red anyway, and I rolled out with a friendly thank you wave because I mistook you for a decent person giving a transit operator an opening in the constant flow of traffic. You lied when you called Customer Service to complain, but there were no other witnesses so you get to slide. Because of my supposed error in believing you were yielding to me, I get hauled into some manager's office to defend myself. As if I can remember every single instance this happens. As if I flip people off with abandon even though my very sustenance depends on my remaining the ultimate professional. As if I would jeopardize my paycheck in some imagined scenario where I pulled out in front of you without determining the safety of such a maneuver first. I hope you feel better now, you insipid twit. Oh, and here's that imaginary finger you lied about: picture it, because it is now reality, asshole.

That sign with eight sides up there says STOP, in case you forgot. Not slow down or not, rolling through it as if it were a simple annoyance. If you do decide to obey the law, the vehicle to your RIGHT has the right-of-way. That bus operator who thought you were doing the right thing and started to roll, stopped to save your butt when your phone-obsessed mind dismissed him and turned directly in front of his incredibly-large vehicle. You're welcome for not ruining your day.

Yes, you're behind a bus. It's a short-lived bummer. It will pull over again shortly, giving you room to proceed around it. When it's pulling out, that's not an invitation to zip around it, cut back into the same lane just inches from its moving front bumper and slam on your brakes in time to turn into the 7-11 parking lot. Oh, there's a pedestrian walking in the sidewalk who you couldn't see because you were speeding around a 40-foot vision barrier, so you stop rather than spoil your wax job. When the operator predicted what you would do by watching your behavior in his small glimpse of life in a rearview mirror, he saved your life by stopping his 20-ton beast before it slammed into your 20-year-old Honda, you 19-year-old know it all. Enjoy that energy drink, and the very air you breathe. You're welcome.

Solutions: Encourage the legislature to make driving licenses a privilege once again, by installing new rules which make ALL drivers subject to periodic education and testing of their knowledge and driving abilities. Insist law enforcement ride transit and report violators of traffic code in sting operations involving transit vehicles. Subject frequent violators to an intensive training regimen which encourages safe driving of all who share the roads. Promote bond issues which would pay for safer pedestrian crossings and sidewalks. Reward those who drive safely and responsibly.

Yes, we're fallible, but would you rather our vehicles be operated via computer? No. It's better for all to have a trained human roll wheels for you. When we break Standard Operating Procedures trying to be the "nice operator," we're setting often dangerous precedents passengers expect us to follow. "That other driver lets me off here," a common complaint I hear when someone asks me for a courtesy stop where nobody in their right mind would agree is safe. Grow a set and hold your ground, if not for a passenger's safety but also for those of us who believe in doing what we're trained to do. Sure, people will call you names and try to pressure you into doing what they want, but you're ultimately the one responsible if something goes tragically wrong.

We all feel pressured when shit happens. Running late, we might skimp on safety to salvage a break at the end of the line. What I've found is you're likely to arrive at the same time no matter what rules you break. It's better to avoid tragedy and simply drive safely no matter what the clock says. Gotta pee so bad your bladder is screaming? Restroom delay that sucker. Take care of yourself FIRST. Let Dispatch help get you back on schedule. Unless you're fond of writing numerous reports, just roll the same safe way no matter the circumstances. Your career will be much smoother.

On the whole, I commend my fellow brothers and sisters. I see you do MANY more righteous things than bad. Your misdeeds are forgiven in light of the disasters you constantly prevent through your professionalism and dedication. I will wave at you no matter what, unless I'm too focused on whatever task I'm performing to notice you roll past. Why do I wave? Simply because I respect you, I know what you're going through, and because you deserve it. We are constantly sniped at, and my wave is my way of saying "Hello, YOU ROCK!" Nobody else seems to do it, so I feel it absolutely necessary to salute you.

Solutions: Promote operator wellness and safety over schedule. A well-treated employee is apt to perform at top efficiency if they feel supported and valued. Make one day a month ALL YEAR "Transit Worker Appreciation Day" rather than one day a year. Perhaps then we won't view it as a dog-and-pony show. Encourage the public to treat us with respect, and reward passengers twice a year or so with a "FREE RIDE DAY." Positive reinforcement goes a long way when dealing with the human race.

I could write another book based simply on many of the points I touched upon here. But I won't. Why? It's not worth my time, because most people don't care about what a transit operator thinks. We've become a selfish society, rigidly opposed to changing behaviors. Sure, they share lovely memes on social media and try to impress upon others how upstanding and wonderful they are, but when in their own vehicle all bets are thrown to the litter-strewn streets. They're oblivious to the danger they pose to themselves or others, and blame someone else for personal faults. So yeah, while few will read these words and some who do won't give a damn, it's all I have. This keyboard is my self-therapy. Writing is my outlet. It makes me feel better about what we do, and that's just enough to get me back into the seat. Until then, please be safe. Your family wants you to come home safe, and so do we.

To those of you who do appreciate us and work hard to do your part on transit, THANK YOU! If only the rest would follow your example, that would help the entire system work better. When you give us a kind word, a smile, share a joke and thank us for our efforts, it really makes us feel appreciated.

One result of a pampered public.
#DekeForGM knows how it is "out there." Repeat this hashtag whenever you note what's wrong and want things to change for the better. It should be obvious the frontline workers should be supported from within. Get your heads out of the rectal-cranial inversion, Management. We need you to be with us rather than agin us. Y'hear? Of course not. You have become another aggressive motorist, but your middle finger is a disheartening constant. Sleep tight while we're doing the real work of transit. Thanks, and you're welcome.


  1. They dont care! Its all about lowering wages! The problem is within American corporate culture. Resistance is futile!

  2. Deke- It's been nine years since I pulled into a Center Garage parking lot at 5 am to prepare for a morning run. I was always a mini-run dilettante, but maybe that kept my stress level in the healthy zone. Also, I knew the next step for me was true old-guy retirement after Trimet. So, I know I'm atypical.

    I have read you since you began the blog. I enjoy your sense of self-awareness and that you still enjoy the small pleasures of the job. I hope that this particular entry is more of a pent-up dump of emotion, because if you go out every day and feel all this frustration this intensely your health will suffer.

    TriMet seems to have an eternal personality. The union is mostly toothless since it gave up the right to strike many years ago for some benefits that have probably been long eroded away by Great Recession management actions. Management has always been arbitrary in its day-to-day actions; the result of coping with a quite large, somewhat faceless group of uniformed workers. Being arbitrary is seen as being strong-willed in the face of "unwilling" underlings. The empathy that former operators might bring to station management might actually be seen as a negative by top management. The cynics are right that TriMet is as much a real estate development agency with its light rail projects as it is a transit agency. As long as that constituency and the public works spending crowd is being served, then flat ridership numbers will not worry key folks unduly. If some far-removed genius in Mountain View can develop some disruptive transit model that makes block-long light rail cars and their infrastructure irrelevant to cities, then TriMet is in trouble. Until then, the system seems to be just fine - for some folks.

    1. Nedwell, so glad to see your comment! Thank you for your support and words of wisdom over the years. I value your input!

      Like I said in the post, this blog is a steam kettle for me. Writing posts which outline the problems we face is one thing, but hopefully you've noticed I've progressed to the point of offering solutions. I'm an eternal optimist, believing positive change is possible. Somebody needs to do so, because all we hear is the negative.

      Yeah, the system is "fine," as some say. But it could be better and I'll do whatever I can via this blog to promote improvement. Until then, my main focus is to continue providing safe transportation for my fellow citizens. With a smile and some good ol' fashioned compassion.

      Thanks again, Nedwell. Hope all is well with you and yours.

  3. Another great post, Deke. As a show of support for you and your writing, in addition to this comment, I just ordered a copy of your book. I'm looking forward to reading it. Thanks for being here, and doing what you do.

    1. Hey brother, I believe we met each other! Thank you for your kind words of support and encouragement. Peace and blessings be with you, and keep all six on the road!