Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Buses AND Beer

One more for the road

The other night an empty bar stool was a precious commodity at a favorite neighborhood tavern. This is a friendly little joint owned by some people who escaped to Portland several years ago from Cleveland. It's said that taverns are one business that does well in a recession. If that's true, we're in one hell of a recession, because this tavern was hopping, and it wasn't a weekend.

Shortly after I finally claimed a stool at the bar, I saw a TriMet bus rumble down the street in front of the tavern. The man to my right saluted it with his beer mug and said, “Say farewell to the old Number 41.”

Actually, I didn't say anything, but he went on to explain that this particular bus line is headed for extinction due to TriMet's budget shortfall. The transit agency has to cut expenses by 5% and is doing that by totally axing some lines and reducing service on others, even as ridership has increased on many lines. Overall, riders only pay for 20% of TriMet's operating costs. Most of the remainder comes from payroll taxes and when unemployment increases, payrolls plummet. Of course, the general consensus of the sages gathered around their beers was that TriMet is totally incompetent.

That may be true, but it's possibly no more incompetent than any other large bureaucracy. And like most bureaucracies, TriMet's larger problem is that it's unimaginative.

Or maybe its managers don't get out to bars very often, because sitting there in that pub, I came up with a solution to TriMet's budget crisis in less time than it takes to quaff three beers. And this is it:

Buses with beer.

People don’t like riding the bus and only do it as a last resort. Oh, there’s usually one person on every bus who is having a thoroughly good time. That person sits right across from the bus driver and talks incessantly. Many of the rest of the passengers either do not own a functioning automobile or are not allowed to drive one. And at certain hours, commuters crowd the buses--unperky commuters who do not have the perk of their own parking space at work.

Buses are not only slow and inconvenient, but boring. There needs to be something to do other than twitch to the sounds of your I-Pod or stare blankly at the pages of a Steven King novel. Though often crowded, buses are not social places--except for the gaggle of women who sit in the back discussing the relative merits of their lovers’ prison sentences. Because buses are seen only as conveyances, they are nothing more than horizontal elevators.

Now envision what they could be. First, take out all the bench seats and put in those swivel chairs like you find in RVs. And between them put in little cocktail tables. Put a mini bar at one end, like the ones on Amtrak club cars. Serve coffee and scones in the morning, beer and wine for the commute home. The after work drink is a common ritual among may high-stress occupations--think about how much safer it will be if these commuters did their drinking on the bus home rather than before they get into their cars.

There could be market segmentation as well. Instead of mass transit, it will be class transit. On buses going to Lake Oswego, Dunthorpe or East Moreland, one might be able to order an aged malt scotch. Those running up Mississippi or down Belmont might serve absinthe and PBR. The rigs headed to the working class areas of the east side could have sawdust on the floor and a pool table in the back. You could have sports bar buses, piano bar buses, maybe even leather bar buses.

Obviously, a lot of people wouldn’t want to board a perambulatory pub, or wouldn’t be old enough. But the possibilities are endless. There could be rolling boutiques, motorized music stores, double decker discos bringing back the bump and hustle. A lot of people like to work out either before or after work, so line up sets of rowing machines and stair steppers on a bus and tie them into the drive drain, reducing fuel costs

All these buses, of course, would have Wifi.

The best thing about this idea is that rather than increasing fares every year, TriMet could actually reduce fares. Maybe even make the whole system fareless so long as one purchased a beverage upon boarding.

Jeez, Tri-Met could actually make money. Wouldn't that be a novel idea?

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