Most people could think of something more enjoyable to do on a hot Sunday than test MAX ticket machines to see if they're working.
Not Bob Richardson.
"Sure, I like walks on the beach and camping and all that stuff," he tells me, as we're enjoying lunch in the blessed air conditioning of the Lloyd Center Quiznos. "But this satisfies my activist bug. When I see something I think is wrong, I have to go out and find proof one way or the other."
Which is why on Sunday, June 29, I agreed to accompany Richardson—web developer by day and a moderator on transportation website Portlandtransport.com by night—on a blitz of the MAX's yellow and blue lines. Our route extended from the Expo Center in North Portland, and from the Gateway Transit Center on NE 82nd, all the way to the Rose Quarter stops next to the Steel Bridge.
Earlier that week, I'd blogged a photograph of nine TriMet fare inspectors preventing anyone without a ticket from boarding at the Lloyd Center MAX stop. This was the same stop where none of the three ticket machines were taking credit or debit cards, two were only taking cash, and one would only accept exact change. The shot was sent in via cell phone by a furious reader named Courtney, who texted: "These guys are making sure everyone misses their ride, trying to prevent us teenagers, uh, I'm sorry, I'm 30, from, er... going on a legitimate trip to the airport. What a riot."
I understood the reader's frustration. Yet the MAX, Richardson thinks, often serves (on blogs and in the wider media) as a kind of Rorschach blot for Portlanders' views about a host of other issues facing the city and country as a whole—from the president's views on global warming, to racial inequality and poverty.
Plus, "the MAX has always represented change," Richardson adds. "And that's always looked on negatively by some."
Richardson feels that going out and finding out what's really happening is the best activism. So, we hopped in Richardson's Prius and did just that. We would have missed the train at North Portland Boulevard/Rosa Parks Way—we crossed the street from one platform to the other, trying to pay for our ticket at a second machine that was only taking bills, as the MAX rode past. We also would have had to jaywalk and run to make a train at the N Lombard stop, in a similar scenario.
Some validators were stamping the wrong time, including the two machines at Killingsworth—which would mean a passenger with pre-paid tickets would have wasted two and still been unable to board legally. And at Albina/Mississippi, one machine was out of service, and the other required exact change, but was not taking coins. So we were forced to overpay with bills in order to get on the train. At Hollywood, two machines wouldn't take a debit card. Three machines died before our very eyes when we tried to buy tickets.
In total, we went to 18 stations, and five presented serious impediments to boarding the MAX legally and on time for the average passenger. It's TriMet's policy that anyone unable to purchase a valid fare should board the train and get off at the next station to try again.
"Not everyone carries all three methods of payment on their person at all times," says Richardson. "And to be sure of boarding I would advise people to do so. But they shouldn't have to, and that's the problem here."