Fresno’s FAX service is in the midst of a major restructuring designed to broaden the appeal of public transportation.
The effort will succeed or fail on “rider experience.” The challenge is defining “rider experience” in a way that makes improvements possible.
That’s my takeaway from Transportation Director Jim Schaad’s presentation to the City Council last month. His topic: FAX’s recently completed Fixed-Route System Restructure Study and the impacts of potential operational changes on Civil Rights law.
Schaad began by noting that his department did considerable community outreach in the course of its research. Schaad said the department hosted eight public workshops and several stakeholder meetings. About 2,500 FAX customers responded to rider surveys.
Schaad gave a shout-out to Assistant Director Gregory Barfield and his staff.
“They have put a lot of time into this analysis,” Schaad said.
Schaad said some changes to the FAX system have already been made, while others are waiting in the wings.
“Our main goals are really just to give our customers what they want,” Schaad said. “And it shouldn’t be a secret that our ridership has declined over the years, (such) as many agencies have (experienced). We are trying to get our riders back.”
The key to that goal is better efficiency, Schaad said.
“The more efficiently we can run, the more service we can provide,” he said.
The age-old question at FAX is frequency (or productivity) vs. coverage. Fresno covers 112 square miles. Transportation money doesn’t grow on trees. Does FAX concentrate on more frequent bus service along the most popular routes or spread its limited resources over the widest area?
FAX has answered that question, at least for now.
“We’re focusing on productivity versus coverage,” Schaad said. “I know we’ve had that discussion in the past – focusing higher frequencies on our core routes. We wanted to maintain cost neutrality. That was our target…but we did not maintain cost neutrality. However, we feel we can ensure financial stability of the system with the changes we’re proposing.”
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at the center of any major changes to FAX operations. Title VI says: “No person in the United States of America shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from, participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
FAX stays afloat thanks to federal help. Schaad said the Federal Transit Administration wants to know if any proposed changes in FAX operations would produce a “disparate impact” on minority populations or a “disproportionate burden” on low-income populations.
Schaad said FAX would return to the Council Chamber at a later date to further discuss this issue.
By my quick review of the restructuring report, FAX’s proposed changes would not trigger either of those judgments.
Schaad said surveys show that riders want more late-night service and more frequency of service on major routes. He said FAX fares ($1.25 for regular fare, 60 cents for seniors, for example) are not a major concern for riders. Schaad said a recent experiment of reducing the standard fare by 25 cents did not have a big impact on ridership.
As to FAX changes already made, Schaad pointed to the FAX 15 service on Shaw and Cedar avenues – “we gained ridership” – and the launching of Bus Rapid Transit along Blackstone Avenue and Ventura Avenue/Kings Canyon Road.
Future proposed changes include revamped service to the West of 99 neighborhoods and extension of 15-minute frequencies on Route 38. Route 38 includes most of Cedar. The 15-minute frequencies currently stop at Jensen Avenue. Schaad said the goal is to extend the 15-minute frequencies to Courthouse Park.
More changes are planned. The final draft of the restructuring report can be found on the City of Fresno/Department of Transportation website.
Schaad said the proposed changes to FAX would cost about $1 million a year.
“We feel we can shoulder that,” he said.
Council President Esmeralda Soria asked about Wi-Fi service. Schaad said the near-term plan is to provide Wi-Fi for BRT (stations and buses). He said it probably would be too expensive to provide Wi-Fi on all FAX buses and bus stops.
Schaad said there will be one more public meeting on the restructuring report: July 25, probably at Fresno City College.
I mentioned “rider experience” at the top of this post. I now ride BRT fairly regularly I no longer can walk all the way to City Hall and back home in a single afternoon.
I’ve discovered that BRT drivers are the best.
I had occasion last week to catch BRT in front of Courthouse Park on two separate days.
The first time, I was accosted by a young man while both of us were waiting for the bus. I couldn’t get away from him; he followed me wherever I went in the waiting area. At one point, it appeared he wanted to grab the book from my hands. Finally, the bus came and put an end to his bullying.
The second time, I found myself unable to work the ticket machine. I wanted to use a dollar bill, but couldn’t get the machine to take it. A young woman saw my futile attempts. She patiently showed me how to push the buttons – 1, 2, 3 – that enabled the machine to take my dollar. The young woman looked to be in her late teens. She was very nice. I got my ticket. We shook hands and parted ways.
After the first incident, I wondered if FAX was for me.
The second incident renewed my faith in people.
Let’s hope my second “rider experience” is the norm throughout FAX.