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Why TriMet board members don’t ride TriMet

trimet boardCould you imagine a school board with no members who’ve put kids through the system? A parks board with no members who regularly visit a park?

Last week, Oregonian reporter Joe Rose asked a simple question to each TriMet board member: How often do you ride TriMet?

Answer: Only one TriMet board member uses public transit at least once a week – retired government executive Bruce Warner.

It seems ridiculous in a city where 15 percent of employees get to work by transit, and it’s even weirder when you consider that, if I understand Rose correctly, board members ride TriMet free.

But here’s what I think is going on: TriMet’s board doesn’t include regular transit riders because people in power still think of public transit as a charity operation.

Could you imagine a food bank whose board of directors includes no one living hand to mouth? An emergency housing shelter whose directors all own their own homes?

For better or worse, of course you can. Charity operations – operations that seek to end hunger or homelessness – are frequently run by people who don’t rely on charity themselves. Well-to-do community leaders see their service as a way to give back to those less fortunate – and ideally, to end that misfortune. And in most of the United States, that’s how mass transit is perceived: a social service for people too poor to buy a car. Fred Meyer, the grocery baron, donates a building to the food bank; Steve Clark, the automobile advertising baron, donates his time to the bus agency.

But this is a very old-fashioned way to think about bus agencies. TriMet isn’t a charity for the unlucky. Its goal is not to cure carlessness by helping us all get to work until we can afford to buy a car. TriMet’s goal is to create a viable, sustainable alternative to car use – and to create tens of thousands of people who want to live low-car lives indefinitely.

TriMet’s goal – like a great park or a great school – is excellence. Portlanders, more than almost anyone in the country, understand this.

It’s high time we governed our transit agency as if we did.

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