The Transit Authority

Bi-State is losing riders and money. Mike McGrath, who has driven a bus for more than a year, thinks he knows what's wrong.

McGrath harps on customer service, calling the bus stop the "point of purchase." He refers to Bi-State's "secret service" -- riders don't know much about routes and sometimes can't even find where to stand to catch a bus. Schedules often aren't available on buses, and even bus stops with signs are seldom marked with the routes that stop there.

"If you pull out of Providence Place subdivision on Meramec Bottom, if you saw a bus-stop sign you might give it a thought sometime when you put $1.74 a gallon in your tank -- 'I think I'll try that bus,'" says McGrath. "But if you don't even see a sign there, you don't even think there's an option."

One of the reasons McGrath announces cross streets and connecting bus lines is that it helps riders who don't read so well and alerts others of their options. After he told people on his Lindell run that the Kingshighway bus goes all the way to the Hampton loop, one elderly lady thanked him, saying that now she knew she could shop at the Schnucks at Hampton and Gravois.

For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.
For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.
For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.
Jennifer Silverberg
For the last 18 months, Mike McGrath has been a double agent of sorts, working as a bus driver and as a management intern at Bi-State's administrative offices. The experience has given him a street-level view of the troubled agency.

Service at the street level is what wins and keeps customers, according to McGrath, and the lack of that service is what is draining Bi-State of its ridership and its revenues. Riders aren't treated like customers. In his journal, McGrath cites at least six special events during which no signs were posted for riders to tell them there would be deviations of service, often leaving them stranded, waiting for a bus that wouldn't come.

The confusion over the rerouting of buses for the St. Patrick's Day road race and parade downtown highlighted not only poor planning by middle management but also the racial divide that exists at Bi-State. One African-American rider who had been unaware of the changes boarded McGrath's bus and said, "This company bends over backwards for those Irish white folks and lets us go to hell." Of course, in his journal, the academic in McGrath used the incident to cite a reference to Parish Boundaries, John T. McGreevy's book on the historic tensions between the Irish and black communities, dating back to the 1840s with the Irish Potato Famine migration.

In explaining the loss of ridership, Irwin cites race. It would be hard to argue, in a town so racially troubled, that race isn't a factor in why more people don't ride the bus. "Part of the image of Bi-State, quite frankly, has to do with race," says Irwin. "There is racism, it's true."

McGrath agrees that race is a factor, but he believes class trumps race -- and rundown equipment drags down morale.

"I argue in the journal that if we had not lost a million riders who had already committed to the system, you might be able to fashion a stronger argument that it's race," says McGrath. "But those million people who were riding the system and stopped riding it didn't do it because Bi-State was heavily minority; they did it because it was a low-class, degraded situation. They felt degraded and were treated in a degraded manner. That's my argument. So I use the mantra of class not only in a socioeconomic paradigm but also class in a more a colloquial paradigm, like, 'Show some class, will you?'

"Most of the operators are minorities serving a largely minority group. They want to have a sense of pride. Conversely, if they can't show a sense of pride, they get defensive," says McGrath, "because we're in such an adversarial relationship, apologizing for being late, apologizing for a bus that's not air-conditioned or heated, for something that looks so ratty. Bi-State is such a target, there is a tension point within the culture that works against the kinds of rewards that you would normally get from seeing the same customers every day, that you know you're responsible for their work trip, getting them there on time."

The siege mentality of many operators extends to their personal safety. An ongoing topic in McGrath's journal is the use by riders of expired transfers, a practice that costs Bi-State big bucks. Years ago, transfers were color-coded, and it was easy to spot a fraud. But now it depends on what's printed on the transfers and how they are punched, so drivers must check more closely. Many bus operators don't bother because they want to avoid confrontations.

McGrath recalls that a bus driver he likes and admires once told him he had stopped challenging riders using bad transfers. "He told me, 'I did it one time and I got a knife drawn on me. I'll never do it again. If it's expired, I don't care.' That's his response. I understand that," says McGrath. "He has a wife, he has a family; this is his livelihood."

Another sore subject with bus operators is the perceived preference by Bi-State for MetroLink. McGrath notes in one of his journal entries an incident on the Chippewa bus during which a rider referred to MetroLink as meant mainly for whites. In another entry, a dispatcher asked a bus operator over the radio to wait for passengers from a MetroLink train. In response, the bus driver asked whether the train would have done the same for the bus. The implication was clear: MetroLink is the darling of Bi-State; the buses are stepchildren.

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