My throwdown with a TriMet driver
Monday, June 22, 2009
I guess it started out like any first date for people who met on the Internet.
"You actually showed up," Al Margulies said with a chuckle and a handshake at the Beaverton Transit Center. "In person you look different than your photo. Better."
Actually, it was a first ride. I spent rush hour last Wednesday night on the No. 67 (Jenkins/158th Avenue) with Margulies, a 13-year veteran who runs the blog Rantings of a TriMet Driver.
Things were bound to start out a little bumpy.
Earlier this year, Margulies took umbrage at my coverage of TriMet buses running red lights. And when I blogged about a series of crashes caused by transit operators using their cell phones around the country, he'd had enough.
He posted my photo on his site with the headline "WHO IS JOSEPH ROSE AND WHY DOES HE HATE BUS DRIVERS?"
Now, that's just silly. As I've written before, transit operators have one of the most challenging jobs in any community.
When Margulies invited me on a ride-along, I quickly accepted, hoping to clear things up. I also wanted to see whether TriMet had done its homework with the 67, which the transit agency has marked as one of several low-ridership lines facing serious service cuts.
Margulies apparently was expecting something more akin to an ultimate-fighting match.
He promoted the ride with a blog video. Wearing sunglasses and standing in front of a "Don't Tread On Me" flag, a Public Enemy song thumping in the background, he announced that he was taking the "famous" Joseph Rose out on his bus. Famous?
Margulies brought along his own film crew: Two friends who recorded our chat with video cams. I spent much of the ride through Beaverton's subdivisions and the Portland Community College Rock Creek campus just listening.
The longtime bus driver wanted to vent. At the top of the list: poor traffic engineering in the suburbs. Drivers who yak on their cell phones. And, of course, my treating TriMet drivers "like criminals."
Because of my columns -- and videos that I posted to OregonLive -- of Portland cops being chewed out by transit drivers caught breaking the law -- "vigilantes" started snapping photos of buses rolling through red lights, he said.
I thought: "And the problem with that is . . . ?"
Journalists are watchdogs, I explained. I reminded him that he works for a public agency responsible for the safe passage of thousands of people.
But I also saw a driver who truly believes public transit is a necessary piece of a functioning and fair urban community and cares about his riders.
Slim and tan, Margulies, who calls his weekday 67 shift "the love bus," greets people with smiles and jokes. He gives a homeless woman named Angie a ride every day, even though she sometimes starts shouting matches with him.
At the heart of rush hour, it was a nearly empty bus, never holding more than 20 people. TriMet says the 67 averages only 940 weekday boardings, with 390 on Saturdays and 180 on Sundays.
Considering that, TriMet's decision to save money by scaling back the 67's stops and operating hours as well as eliminating Sunday service altogether seems sensible.
I mentioned that many buses are packed at 6 p.m. Margulies winced. Shouldn't matter, he said. On the 67, "there are people whose whole lives revolved around this transit service."
Of course, every line has riders who rely solely on transit for their livelihoods and transportation. When it looked at service cuts, TriMet says it didn't consider just ridership.
"Transit equity" for minority, low-income and transit-dependent residents was part of the criteria, said spokeswoman Bekki Witt.
Still, Margulies says TriMet is unfairly viewed as a "profit-making endeavor," when the same expectations aren't placed on police or firefighters.
After 90 minutes, I got off. Later, Margulies posted a new video on his blog, reflecting on our ride.
"He assured me he wasn't flaming bus drivers," Margulies said of me. "I tend to believe him. He's a perfectly nice guy."
And it was nice meeting you, too, Al.
Joseph Rose 503-221-8029; firstname.lastname@example.org