I’m irritated with Tri-Met, our local bus service. Monday, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, they ran the busses on a holiday schedule, roughly the same as the regular Saturday service. The problem with this is that they didn’t adequately plan for all of the commuters who still needed to get to work, at least not on my bus route.
I wrote them an email Monday morning upon noticing that the bus that normally runs every 7 minutes during rush hour was only going to be every half an hour until at least 9 am (which seemed like a very poor choice for a high traffic line to and from downtown), and then a second time after it took me an hour and a half to make the 3 mile commute to work because every bus that passed (half an hour apart) was too full to take more passengers by the time it reached my stop. And I couldn’t call Tri-Met to complain or find out if they were even aware of the problem, because logically enough, the customer service people had the day off. For the holiday. That holiday that many downtown employers weren’t observing.
Here’s the response I received to my first email (nothing yet about the second one):
Thank you for contacting TriMet. A Rider Alert was issued explaining a
modified schedule for the Holiday, and the information was also on our web page. I can file a complaint for you if you feel this was not adequate, and also that you disagree with a special schedule for this Holiday.
I think someone has failed to inform them of the #1 rule of good customer service: When you have an angry customer, start by apologizing. Even if you think they’re being unreasonable. Otherwise, you get an even angrier customer.
Tri-Met needs to think more like a business. Not Wal-Mart, but a good business. The sort that likes to make money by doing what people need and doing it well. If they were thinking like a smart business, they’d realize that screwing over their regular customers (and I’m about as core a Tri-Met customer as you get, since I buy a monthly bus pass and I don’t drive) leads to fewer regular customers, which leads to less money to do the things that keep customers coming. Right now they’re acting more like the post office. 
I have a strong interest in seeing Tri-Met work well, because I think car-oriented landscapes are icky. If you want to avoid those, you have to have strong alternate modes of transport. Like a good bus system.
And this leads me to the general economic issue I’ve been thinking about lately. Money (well, let’s say generalized economic activity) flows like water down a valley. If you want money to pool in different places, you have to change the landscape. But it’s reciprocal, the water is shaping the land in return. So if you want a city that isn’t shaped by cars, there had better be another way to get around.
One of the big ways people try to reshape the landscape is legislatively, restricting what companies and other organizations are and aren’t allowed to do, but I’m not convinced this is the best way to get what you want. People respond to incentives, and I think a system that (metaphorically) gives you cookies instead of bashing you on the nose with a stick is going to be more robust. There’s bad ways to do that too, though, particularly if you’re going to convert major government activities into such a tangled mess of incentives that only people with lots of money or free time can actually sort it out (see the latest tax code). And you can’t only have incentives, there do need to be penalties for doing the complete wrong thing. Some organizations (WAL-MART) will choose to play dirty.
Anyhow, this is probably getting long and redundant, but I think the concept of reshaping a whole landscape is really important. If you want to solve social and economic problems in a robust manner, you have to reshape the whole environment. Anything less won’t hold up long enough to have a real impact.
And Tri-Met, at least pretend that you care about your customers’ complaints. I’m going to start calling Metro councilors if I don’t get a better response.
 Lest you think I’m being unreasonably hard on them, it’s because the only time I’ve gotten a good response from their customer service people was when everyone on the bus complained about the same driver for having a complete freak-out incident on our morning commute. Any concerns about the continually rising fares or bad scheduling tend to get the same indifferent answers. I have the bizarre notion that public agencies ought to actually be responsive to public comments, but last time I tried to find out if there was even an advisory board with meetings I could attend, they just shrugged.