BRT has potential, as long as ticket machines function as expected

BRT is proving successful delivering faster service, but ticket machines slow down the process.

A proposed consulting deal gives the Fresno City Council the perfect opportunity to request an update on the BRT experiment.

Here’s my view: The month-old Bus Rapid Transit system is going to be a winner. It’s already changing customer mindsets. But enthusiasm could turn to cynicism if someone doesn’t find a permanent fix for the balky ticket vending machines.


Now, I admit that my analysis is based solely on personal experience. Hard data may prove me wrong. Still, allow me to tell my story.

I got off work at Fresno State at 1 p.m. Monday. I was on foot. I had to get to City Hall to give a letter to Council Member Paul Caprioglio.

I wanted to walk a bit, but not all the way to Downtown. So, I decided to catch the BRT bus – “Q” as it’s called – on Blackstone Avenue. My destination was BRT’s southbound Ashlan Station, a short distance south of Ashlan Avenue.

I was walking on the west side of Blackstone, approaching Ashlan, when the BRT bus passed me. I thought to myself: Perhaps I can run to the station, buy my ticket in a hurry and catch the bus before it leaves.

Then I thought: Why kill myself? Another BRT bus will be along in 10 minutes.

So, I proceeded at my leisurely pace.

One of the charms of the BRT system is the boarding procedure. You buy your ticket from a self-serve vending machine located at each station, then board the bus through the front or side door. There’s no onboard payment, which slows things down.

But the BRT bus didn’t pull away from the Ashlan Station as quickly as I expected. An older woman wanted to board through the front door, but hesitated. She looked at the open door, turned back to look at the ticket machine, looked again at the open door, then turned toward the machine a second time.

I guessed she couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket, and was asking the driver for help. Sure enough, the driver left the bus, and the two of them converged on the machine.

I thought: That’s nice of the driver, but I’ll bet the passengers waiting onboard are wondering about the “Rapid” part of Bus Rapid Transit. Still, I thought, the driver will quickly get a ticket for the confused woman and everyone will be on their way.

I was wrong. Fresno Area Express officials like to say buying a “Q” ticket is as easy as 1-2-3 – push three buttons, insert your money, grab your ticket that drops into a little cubbyhole, board the bus. But the driver on this afternoon clearly was pushing more than three buttons. Something was wrong.

All this took so much time that I had reached the rear of the BRT bus when it finally took off toward Manchester Center.

I looked on the station’s overhead information screen – only five minutes until the next BRT bus. The screen is another wonderful feature of the system.

It was time to buy my ticket.

I pushed the first button – I wanted the 60-cent senior citizen ticket.

The third button asked if I wanted to use the ticket now or later. If you say now, you’ve got 90 minutes to use it. If you say later, the ticket is good until you activate it at a later date. I wanted to ride now.

The machine told me to insert 60 cents. I did so. The machine said my balance was zero.

I waited for the machine to print my ticket and drop it into the cubbyhole. No ticket. I waited some more. No ticket. The station screen said my bus was two minutes away. I waited some more. No ticket.

This wasn’t my first time at using the BRT ticket machine. I thought I was going through the same steps that had worked successfully before. But still no ticket.

What to do? I didn’t want to board with no ticket. FAX at some point – if it isn’t doing so already – will conduct random inspections among BRT riders. If you don’t have a valid ticket, you could be subject to a stiff fine.

At this point, an elderly couple approached me.

“Do you know how to use this machine?” the woman asked. “Show us.”

Things were really getting crazy. I could show them how to push the buttons, but I couldn’t guarantee that they’d get a ticket for their money. I couldn’t get my own ticket, for gosh sakes.

“We just got off another bus,” the woman said. “They said it’s free.”

Free? I knew “Q” was free for a few days when the service began in mid-February. Did FAX throw in another “free” day in mid-March, which might explain why the machine wouldn’t give me a ticket?

It was time for me to fish or cut bait. I hit the machine’s “cancel” button. The machine finally dropped a piece of paper into the cubbyhole – a 60-cent credit to use on another BRT machine. I grabbed the credit ticket and began walking to the BRT station at Manchester Center.

I stopped after a few steps. I wasn’t ready to give up on that machine. I returned and inserted my 60-cent credit ticket. Eureka! The machine instantly dropped a valid boarding ticket into the cubbyhole.

Just as it did so, the bus arrived. I hopped aboard. As the bus pulled away, I saw the elderly couple trying to make sense of the vending machine.

A man sitting in front of me had seen some of the chaos at the Ashlan Station.

“Give me a year and I’ll get the hang of those machines,” I said.

He laughed.

“I hear they’re jacked up everywhere today.”

I returned the courtesy chuckle, but figured he was exaggerating.

I reconsidered his statement later that day.

It was about 4 p.m. when I finished my business at City Hall. I thought about heading to Abby Street and catching a northbound BRT bus that would take me home. Then I changed my mind. With “Q” coming every 10 minutes, and the journey along Abby/Blackstone moving so swiftly, I decided to stay Downtown and get a haircut. I go to Ofelia’s in Chinatown. The place was packed on Monday, so I decided to take a rain check. The key point, though, is that the convenience of BRT had already sunk into my consciousness. Downtown Fresno in the late afternoon had more value to me as a consumer because I knew “Q” gave me viable options for getting to my North Fresno house in a timely manner.

That’s precisely the kind of behavioral change that City Hall wants BRT to generate in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Fresnans. Spread such change over BRT’s nearly 16-mile route and Fresno is transformed.

From Chinatown, I circled back to the BRT station on Van Ness in front of Courthouse Park. All I had to do was buy my 60-cent ticket and wait a few minutes. What could go wrong?

I pushed the ticket machine’s buttons – 1, 2, 3. The machine told me to insert my 60 cents. But I couldn’t do it. The coin slot was blocked. There’s a small bar across the slot that retracts when the machine is ready to take your coins. This bar hadn’t retracted.

I hit “cancel” and tried again. No luck.

A man was waiting at the station. I asked him for help. He took a look at the machine.

“Stand back,” he said.

Then he smashed the palm of his right hand against the machine. Twice.

“Now try it.”

Again, no luck.

The man returned to the station bench. I decided not ask him how he had bought his ticket from the same machine.

I was at the station for the BRT bus heading to northbound Blackstone. A short distance away is the station for the BRT bus heading to Ventura/Kings Canyon. I was about to run to that station’s ticket machine when I bumped into Rick Steitz.

Rick is a former FAX driver who retired in September 2017. He also was head of the union representing FAX drivers for many years. Rick, as much as anyone in Fresno, knows his way around anything dealing with FAX.

“Rick,” I said, “I’m having trouble with the ticket machine.”

“Let me take a look.”

Bottom line: Rick couldn’t get the machine to take my money.

It turns out that Rick is back on the job, serving temporary duty as an expert troubleshooter during the BRT rollout. He said he would contact the main office to let them know about the misbehaving machine. We chatted briefly as we walked to the ticket machine at the other Van Ness station (the one for the Ventura/Kings Canyon-bound BRT bus).

“I think this system is going to work,” Rick said. “I have lots of people telling me it really helps them get to work or wherever they’re going.”

“I agree with you, Rick. But the machines – we’ve got to do something.”

I got on the northbound “Q”, valid ticket in hand (I had followed the same steps in buying the ticket at the Ventura/Kings Canyon station that had failed me at the Ashlan Station machine). I saw a man get on the northbound bus after me. He had a ticket in his right hand. I stopped him as he walked to the back of the bus.

“Did you buy that ticket at the machine out there?” I said, pointing to the machine that hadn’t worked for me and Rick.

He leaned toward my right ear. He whispered, “I’ve been using this ticket for four days. All you’ve got to do is show it to them.”

I know – there are bugs in any new system, especially one as complex as “Q.” And, as I’ve already said, I’m a big BRT fan. None of the stumbles so far strike me as serious.

But City Hall can’t let small blips grow into something that harms the BRT brand.

That’s because the stakes are much higher than simply the worthy goal of moving people swiftly and safely to their chosen destinations. BRT is pivotal to City Hall’s grand vision for the revitalization of Central Fresno.

For example, the City Council on Thursday will consider awarding a $168,000 consulting contract to Community Design + Architecture to help develop something called the Southern Blackstone Avenue Smart Mobility Plan. Southern Blackstone is defined as Dakota Avenue to the Highway 180 overpass just a bit shy of Belmont Avenue.

Here is a piece from a city document describing the Plan’s challenge: “BRT was approved for the (Blackstone) corridor in 2014 and was funded by a Federal Transit Administration grant – service will commence in the first quarter of 2018. This will be the highest quality transit service available in Fresno in a generation, and it will link the entire corridor to Downtown’s 35,000 jobs, numerous services and amenities, and the future High Speed Rail station. The Fresno General Plan proposed thousands of new housing units for the corridor; to enable this, much of the land along the street has been rezoned for walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented development. The entitlement process has been streamlined and fees have been reduced, resulting in proposals for several development projects.

“Despite these positive steps, Blackstone is still a fundamentally inhospitable place for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. For it to thrive, this must be remedied. The Southern Blackstone Avenue Smart Mobility Plan will explore ways to transform Blackstone into a safe, comfortable, and convenient environment that serves all users, particularly pedestrians, and to develop a stakeholder constituency that is committed to this transformation.”

Make no mistake – I had an excellent trip home on “Q.” Rick gave the driver a thumb’s up as we left the station. Downtown’s streets were full of 5 o’clock traffic, but the driver never got stuck in a jam. The ticket machines along the way apparently worked fine; a steady stream of riders boarded without incident.

I’m guessing the BRT system is a learning experience for the drivers, as well. Yes, that driver at the Ashlan Station left the bus to help the elderly woman. But I sense the drivers are told to keep “Q” moving as fast as possible. On my southbound trip early in the afternoon, the bus pulled smartly into the Manchester Center Station. A man stuck his head into the open front door. “How long will you be here? Five minutes?” he asked the driver. The driver replied, “Just as long as it takes to take on the passengers.” On my northbound trip, the driver at one of the stations had closed the bus doors just as a man stepped in front of the ticket machine. The driver didn’t hesitate – Varoom! Off we went.

No big deal. Another “Q” bus would be along in 10 minutes.

All this is a grand start to Smart Mobility in Fresno.

Well, all but the ticket machines.

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