Meeting with transit riders at Portland-based startup Elemental Technologies

General Manager Neil McFarlane meets with employees at Elemental Technologies
General Manager Neil McFarlane talks transit with employees of Portland-based startup Elemental Technologies. Nearly half of Elemental’s 95 local employees ride buses and trains.

Neil McFarlane is TriMet’s General Manager.

Recently, I had the opportunity meet with employees from a terrific Portland-based startup called Elemental Technologies. Elemental is a leading supplier of video solutions for multi-screen content delivery.

The company is growing rapidly with offices across the United States and in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore and Brazil. CEO Sam Blackman was recently featured on GeekWire (honored as their “2012 Startup CEO of the Year”). He also spoke about the many benefits of low-car commuting at the Portland Employers Bike Summit in May.

Nearly half of Elemental’s 95 local employees use transit. Many others bike to work. Their downtown office features their video processing technology in an array of video screens in their lobby, where a customized app displays real-time bus and MAX arrivals.

Needless to say, the Elemental crew had lots of questions that I think might be on the minds of other riders. Here’s are some highlights from our discussion.

What is TriMet’s process for assessing the efficiency of bus stop spacing?

Bus stop spacing is a question I hear quite a bit. Honestly, we’ve used a variety of processes over the years and we’re revisiting this topic again. Currently, our policy and planning group is working with the community to develop a policy that can be applied region-wide. How far apart should stops be? What are the accessibility needs of riders in the area around each stop? From there, we will begin to review our system line-by-line.

Any plans for digital signage or advertising on trains or at stops?

At this point, the City of Portland prohibits electronic advertising displays in the public right-of-way so as to not distract auto drivers. We may want to revisit this with them. Recently, we received a proposal from a local news station to have a crawl at the bottom of our screens, similar to what CNN does.

Any consideration of removing MAX stops, particularly in Downtown Portland?

No question, the trip should be faster through Downtown. There really are two issues for us: one, each stop has a constituency that moved their business or office there to be near a MAX stop. For example, the Skidmore station was one that seemed viable for a potential closure, but it is located near the new offices for the University of Oregon and Mercy Corps. The second issue is cost. These stations have a lot of hard-wired safety features that would be really expensive to remove.

Any plans to add Wi-Fi to MAX trains?

We’d love to find a solution where we can add Wi-Fi cost-effectively to our bus and rail fleet, but currently it is cost prohibitive. WES has it because it was required for maintenance on the cars, and we chose to also make it available to WES riders. That’s not the case with the rest of our fleet. One solution we’ve explored is looking for a sponsor to help cover the cost of adding wireless service to our vehicles, but that has not panned out yet.

Is TriMet considering changes to the Line 96-Tualatin/I-5 with the move of the 1,000-person Stream Global Services call center from Beaverton to Wilsonville?

Wilsonville is outside our service district. By law, we cannot provide service outside our area without an agreement with the other jurisdiction to compensate us. That said, TriMet’s WES Commuter Rail service opened in 2009 in partnership with Washington County and Wilsonville to provide service to the transit center in the city. WES, which operates only during morning and evening commute hours, was designed specifically around employment centers. The local SMART bus system provides shuttle service from WES to local employers in the area.

Is TriMet considering moving away from the honor system for paying your fare on buses and trains?

We are working to provide riders with tools to make it easier to purchase their fares. We are currently beta-testing a mobile ticketing app, where riders can buy tickets on their smart phones. Plans call for us to move to an electronic fare system in about four years. Last year, we simplified the fare system, eliminating zones, with that in mind.

Will TriMet ever revisit distance-based fares with newer fare technology?

One of the benefits of our region’s Urban Growth Boundary is that our transit trips are generally shorter compared to other cities. We also have heard from riders that the distance-based fares (zones) were confusing. When we look to implement an electronic fare system it would be far more complicated and costly to create mechanisms for tapping on and off, with a distance-based system. What if someone forgets to tap on? How do you deal with it when they exit the vehicle? Our plan is to keep it simple.

What’s the financial impact of eliminating the Rail Free Zone?

Overall, I think we have seen an increase in fare revenue and a decrease in riders on our rail system. What we know thus far, a lot of riders parked near the Rail Free Zone and walked to a station. In the last six months, I’ve heard a lot of feedback from riders who work downtown and miss the lunchtime option of hopping on a bus or train to run errands at lunch to get to a meeting downtown. Eliminating the free zone was a very difficult decision for our board—it was loved by riders. We came to a point where we needed to decide who we were subsidizing—free rides for people during their lunch hour downtown or service for those who needed it most. Transit equity was more important.

Why do you sometimes have 1-car trains on the system instead of the normal 2-car trains?

This situation should be pretty rare, but when it does happen it likely means the car is in the shop for maintenance. We are going through a major overhaul of our Type 2 cars, which are now 20 years old. This is their midlife update, where all their parts are being replaced.

Can you add your current location option to your bus app?

TriMet doesn’t actually own any smartphone apps per se (but we do have a mobile website that provides a “use your current location” option, at Years ago we made our data available to developer community so they would innovate and create apps of their own. You may be referring to one of these third-party apps, which are featured online in our App Center. Today, there are more than 50 applications available to riders. Also, Google has a great transit option in Google Maps, which also provides the location option.

I love the Poetry in Motion on your system. Are there plans to keep it?

We would love to participate in Poetry in Motion again. We rely on sponsorships to produce the signs and keep the program going. For example, we had a printing sponsor who produced the last set of signs inside buses. We are always on the lookout for potential sponsors for the program.


Congratulations to Sam and his team on their continued success. I look forward to seeing members of the Elemental team on our buses and trains!

Neil McFarlane, TriMet General Manager

As the General Manager of TriMet, I'm responsible for running the agency. I've been here at TriMet since 1991, when I started as project control director for the Westside light rail project. When I'm not at work, I enjoy spending time with my family and riding the bus and MAX. Maybe I'll see you during my commute.

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