There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A waste of a free ride

The bus stopped, and the doors opened. A woman grasped the handrail with her right hand and with her left planted her cane on the step. Pulling on the railing and leaning on her cane, she made her way slowly onto the bus. Her progress had a fragile tentativeness that made her appear much older than she looked.

She stopped beside the fare box and leaned on her cane. In her right hand she held a crumpled dollar bill. She tried to insert the bill into the green sign taped over the fare box.

"Thank you, Sacramento," said the sign. "Today's ride is on us." "Us" was Washington Mutual.

The woman made another attempt to slot the money into the slotless sign.

Today, Washington Mutual celebrated what a wonderful bank it is with a free for all on Sacramento Regional Transit.

Giving up on the fare box, the woman tried to hand the dollar to the driver.

"Rides are free today," the driver tried to explain.

The woman is a regular rider. She attends the Winterstein Adult Center. The center offers free classes for people who want to learn English.

After a moment of obvious puzzlement caused by this change of routine, the woman accepted that no one wanted her dollar. She pivoted on her cane and shuffled carefully to the nearest seat.

On my regular bus, which runs from American River College to Sacramento State and on to the 65th Street light rail station, two-thirds of the riders -- maybe more -- have monthly passes. WaMu's free rides had no meaning for them. Most didn't even notice the sign.

Since hearing of this free-ride offer yesterday afternoon, I have been trying oh so hard not to look into the mouth of this gift horse. I don't want to be rude or sound ungrateful, but RT passed up a golden opportunity to invite commuters to try its service for a day.

"Check us out," RT could have told the community. "There is an alternative to solo commuting on crowded freeways."

Instead, RT gave less than 24 hours' notice. The Business Journal web site and several other sites that routinely publish unedited press releases announced the free rides, but the other news organizations paid no attention, at least none that I could find. Nothing appeared in The Bee to alert people who don't regularly ride the bus.

It is simply not feasible that WaMu's offer to give transit riders a free ride at its expense was a surprise to RT. Every light rail ticket machine, every fare box, every light rail car and every bus had notices about WaMu's "Thank you, Sacramento" offer, signs that only existing riders were likely to see.

Why did RT give away this opportunity?


The Derek said...

I didnt know about this until about 8 hours before my ride to school, after reading your blog post. I mean they advertised the heck out of thier 25th anniversary free rides, but did nothing with today's free rides. And not to my surprise, there was no difference in ridership today than any other day (at least from what i could tell). It baffles me that NEITHER RT, or WaMu made much effort to get the word out.

John said...

I have to assume that there was some monetary reason why they didn't want to invite the general public to take advantage of the opportunity. I have to assume that because the alternative explanation would be that they didn't think it was important. That would be a very sad reality if true.

iozzi said...

I didn't hear about it till today. I walk through St Rose station every day. A sign there would have helped.

Anonymous said...

I'm very late providing this explanation, but the Marketing Company WaMu hired wanted the promotion to be a surprise. They wanted riders to be pleasantly surprised when they got on the bus, and they chose to keep the issue a secret until the afternoon before the free rides day (I work at RT).

John said...

Dear anonymous RT commenter:

Did WaMu pay RT a flat fee to cover everyone that day, or did WaMu get a bill after the fact for the day's estimated ridership?

Or, in other words, was their a financial incentive to keep the free rides a surprise?

Anonymous said...

I believe WaMu paid RT the average revenue collected on a weekday. The paid in advance.

Now that I think about it, it would have been better for all parties involved had it been advertised in advance. However, from the time RT was contacted it was meant to be a surprise.

John said...


Thanks for the insight into what happened. If WaMu is picking up the tab, it is only right that they get to decide how to play the game. But it was certainly a missed opportunity from the standpoint of inviting more people to give transit a try.