dys·func·tion·al | \ (ˌ)dis-ˈfəŋ(k)-shə-nᵊl \
A: "Not functioning properly; marked by impaired or abnormal functioning."
Oxford English Dictionary:
1: "Not operating normally or properly."
"Not behaving or working normally."
2: "Not working normally."
"...used to describe relationships or behavior which are different from what is considered to be normal."
2: "Having a malfunctioning part or element."
The City of Hillsdale's Dial-A-Ride public bus service is wonderful... when it's open. Which is becoming less and less the case these days. I've taken the bus all over the city for various reasons for about 16 years now, and the experience has consistently degraded due to (and I'm being blunt in the name of honesty here) bad management. There are multiple problems, and I'll be addressing all of them here today. Believe you me, this piece has been a long time coming, but my experience just moments before I sat down to write this -- which I'll relay to you shortly -- was the final straw. I've had it. It's time for the city to make a choice.
Dial-A-Ride is, primarily, a paratransit service, established to help the disabled and infirm travel around the city as everyone else does, without the need to find a private driver who may or may not be available to take them places, or who may not have a vehicle with the capacity for wheelchairs or walkers. Public transit is its secondary purpose, but given that its primary purpose receives only a bare minimum of use -- certainly not enough to financially sustain its existence -- it makes sense to focus more on the public transit side. That is the pathway to success.
But neither of those sides is getting the focus. School runs are the primary concern because of the semi-lucrative income that they bring. The ridership is reliable, it brings in much-needed revenue, and it places the cost of bus ownership and maintenance on the city rather than the schools themselves, which is no more than the city would already be spending anyway. Mind you, this is on top of the buses that the city's public schools already own, and Dial-A-Ride also services the city's private schools, which don't have their own buses.
Which is great for the schools, but terrible for Dial-A-Ride and those of us who WOULD otherwise depend on it, because parents have apparently requested that adults not ride the public bus system while their kids are being transported on said public bus system, and Dial-A-Ride has complied with that request.
I've often relied on the bus to get to the schools where I announce sporting events, and I try to get there about two hours before the game starts in order to set up equipment, get my game materials prepared, give myself enough time to fix any problems that may arise, and be comfortably ready to go before the warm-up starts. For a typical 5:30 start at Hillsdale Academy, that means I'm in the gym by 3:30.
Several years ago, under previous management, they asked me to call and schedule before 3:30 PM, as they shut down at 4, and school runs take up that final half-hour. Since that was the time I had set for myself anyway, I had no problem with that, but it did bring up the subject of the school runs. If someone has a 3:30 doctor's appointment, how are they going to get home?
A couple years back, that time changed to 3:15, because not only did we have to schedule around school runs, but the method by which drivers were being directed had changed, and it was now going to take longer to find a way to schedule rides. Again, not TOO big a deal for me, but this was the point at which I knew it was only going to get worse.
Recently, I was told 2:45 was now the time. That's with the standard three available buses, three available drivers, and the service still ostensibly "running" until 4 PM. I'm not particularly happy about it, but what was I going to do, say "no, you're going to take my call up until 3:30 again, and you'll like it?" They do reserve the right to ban riders for abusive behavior.
So now we get to today. Today, I knew that my regular ride home from work at the TV studio was not going to be available, so I had planned on walking across the street to the grocery store, picking up a snack, then calling Dial-A-Ride to get a ride home. Not that the walk is long, but if you follow me on Facebook, you know that there's a hill I have to conquer to get from there to here, and its incline constantly increases as you approach the top. It's a pain in the ass, even if you're not a cardiac patient like myself. Hillsdale High has used it to train their cross-country runners for years. I could be fit as a fiddle and still get winded walking up that hill without grocery bags in my hands. It's reasonably worth the $3 to take the bus instead.
I left the studio at 2:30 and did a tiny amount of shopping before getting to the customer service desk right around 2:40 to check out. When the store employee called Dial-A-Ride, she was told that they were already closed for the day because one driver was out sick.
One driver. One driver being out sick shut the entire service down for the rest of the day -- save, I assume, for the precious school runs, which due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are now down to only elementary school students from kindergarten through the fifth grade.
This is, quite frankly, bullshit. This is a sign that the people running the show don't know what they're doing, and are incapable of competently managing the service. I don't know if that's simply the fault of Dial-A-Ride manager Susan Kehn, or if she's getting direction on this from City Hall, but either way, it's ridiculous and counterproductive, and it needs to be fixed.
That fix starts with the privacy of the school runs. In the scary and dangerous big cities across this fine country (a couple of which I grew up and went to school in, one of which rather proudly so), school kids ride buses with the general public every day. For some reason, these people seem to think that Hillsdale is less safe. Now, excuse me for daring to interject logic into the discussion, but I thought that was part of the whole "small town" appeal that Hillsdale aspired to: we're supposedly safer than the big city. We're not, and I've addressed that before, but these people are the Pollyannas to which I've been pointing that out for many years now. Their hypocrisy is stupid and worthy of all the mockery it's given. If the big city kids can ride with adults in the same vehicle, Hillsdale kids can handle it just fine. No more school-only bus rides on Dial-A-Ride. That has to stop immediately.
The other problem to note in my experience today -- and others recently -- is the mismanagement of routing. And it's not just the length of time needed for scheduling a ride, it's the wait time. It used to be about 20 minutes from call to pickup on an average day. If the bus didn't show up within 20 minutes, and you had to get somewhere immediately, you could call again and they would work to fit you in as soon as possible. That is no longer the case, and it's because of the routing problem.
If you can't figure out how to make a bus get from Point A to Point B in a timely fashion within a city of merely 5.7 square land miles, you don't belong routing buses. That's just all there is to it. If that hurts anyone's feelings, I'm sorry it hurts you, but that's the simple truth.
Here's the baseline job description. You have to know the street map of Hillsdale like the back of your hand (and really, it's not that hard, it's mostly a cardinal direction grid). You have to be wholly capable of either guessing where an address is, or quickly looking it up. You have to be able to make a list of pick-ups and destinations and figure out the shortest way to make a group of them work within 30 minutes from the first to the last. And you have to be able to do all of those things simultaneously. If you can't, it's not the job for you.
If the city can't find someone who is capable of doing all of that (and let's face it, former manager Judy Buzo was more capable than most at that job), maybe it's time to split up the responsibilities and hire two people. Employee A takes calls and hands them off to Employee B. Employee B does the work to put each caller on the most suitable bus, then hands it off to Employee A. Employee A then radios the bus and has the driver add those stops. Efficiency is the key here, and if Dial-A-Ride ever hopes to make revenue that's worth a damn, it's going to have to solve the routing problem and return to prime efficiency.
The lack of available drivers is also a problem, and this is one that I know for a fact that City Hall has a role in. Yes, there is a shortage of qualified drivers because A: there's not much reason for people living in Hillsdale to have a chauffeur license, and B: those who do are already employed elsewhere, and Dial-A-Ride doesn't pay as well.
Now, I'm not suggesting that the city raise the pay rates; that's already governed by contract negotiations with the union... though I'm sure they wouldn't turn down a good offer if the city made one. But the city already employs people with CDLs, and it wouldn't take much money to pay for training and testing for these CDL holders to get their chauffeur license. The employees who take that offer would then be on a list of possible substitutes for the regular Dial-A-Ride driving staff. Even if nothing else at the bus service changes, this alone would prevent today's ridiculous situation from happening again -- unless every single driver and potential substitute somehow fell ill, which is highly unlikely.
And, for the record, even without substitutes, being down one driver is no excuse for closing early. Lack of subs is not a loophole here.
Finally, lack of funding is the biggest issue. Again, I'm not suggesting the city simply dump money on the problem, but there are myriad proactive ways that they could be making more money, and they have thus far refused to do so. For example:
- Sit down with the City of Jonesville and finally work out a joint services agreement.
It is absolutely stupid that both cities have gone this long without sharing Dial-A-Ride. You cannot take the bus to Walmart unless it's the appointed day and hour to do so, because it's in Jonesville. You cannot take the bus to the medical offices that are in Jonesville. You cannot take the bus to do shopping in downtown Jonesville, where the storefronts are more open and active than Hillsdale's, despite being the smaller city. Jonesville gets the business, Hillsdale gets the Dial-A-Ride income. The increase in gas and maintenance is negligible. It's a win-win.
- Expand service hours to 8 PM.
How the hell is anyone supposed to do anything around town if they're working from 9 to 5 and the buses stop running at 4? And you wonder why more of the general public doesn't ride? Yes, this means hiring more drivers. This means staggering shifts. This means better routing. This means a lot of necessary changes, some of which will cost money. But as we say in the private sector, it takes money to make money. If Dial-A-Ride ever hopes to be "a thing," as the kids say, it's going to have to bite the bullet and do this. Start by running only one bus beyond 4 PM to build up the ridership, then grow from there. This isn't rocket science, it's simple business sense.
- Add Park & Ride commuter service across the county.
This one's the moonshot, and frankly, I don't have all that much faith in it, but I'd like to see how much demand there is. It would require more buses and more drivers, and it would be long into the future before the city should even consider spending money on it, let alone be able to afford it. But how nice would it be to take the morning bus into town from, say, Reading, get all your errands done in town, then take the bus back to Reading again in the evening? The City of Hillsdale, proper, is not geographically large enough to justify fixed bus routes... but Hillsdale County is. It's something to consider down the road. When there's money available to do it well and do it wisely. That's not now. But it's something to work toward.
I know for a fact that I'm not alone in my frustrations, and I know that my ideas have merit. These are not problems I've invented to cause controversy (or for any other reason), and I didn't just pull my proposed solutions out of thin air. The dysfunctional state that Dial-A-Ride is currently in is unacceptable. I call back to the title of this article: Hillsdale either has a public bus service, or it doesn't. It's time for this city to make the decision once and for all. Either fix the problems or just shut it all down. And shutting it all down isn't an option.