Feature Image

In January of this year I reached out to the Nashville Metro Transit Authority (MTA) about signing up our company with the “EasyRide” program. There is not much information on the website, only a brochure that says to check the website for more information. But I had heard of it from other folks, including a Metro Councilman who happened to be a former board member for the MTA.

I began asking for more information than I could find on the website. I started at the Customer Service counter in Music City Central, the transit hub for all of the bus lines. The representative behind the counter looked a bit puzzled, and asked if I worked for Vanderbilt or the State of Tennessee. When I told him that I did not, he said “I think that’s only for Vanderbilt and State employees.”

I eventually ended up speaking to Patricia Harris-Morehead, Director of Communications & Marketing, who also runs the Twitter account. She did let me know the CSR was incorrect, and that the program was definitely available for all employers. She directed my inquiry to Eric Beyer, the Director of Community & Legislative Relations, to set up a presentation.

A month or so passed without hearing from Eric.

The waiting game

So my boss went through the same communication channels again. For several weeks, he traded emails with the customer service desk before finally get a response as to how to begin the program.

We finally got a meeting with Eric in April. He’s a great guy, but you can see how it is hard to get on his calendar between his responsibilities with the legislature and his community outreach. He assured us that things would move a lot faster now.

Getting started

He gave a short presentation to my boss and I explaining the benefits of the program and to answer questions. He was very helpful in that regard in terms of how the program operates. I do feel like what he had to say could very easily make its way to the website.

He e-mailed over the documents that would be needed to begin. Some of it was basic, but the one thing that stood out was the credit application. We had to provide several credit references. This was particularly strange, because could easily guarantee the funds necessary with a credit card or a check. It seems like overkill for a company of our size with low to medium adoption of transit to need to complete a credit application for what would have amounted to a few hundred dollars a month at the most.

We also went back and forth on providing assets for the card, as they would have each employee’s name printed on them and may require ID in order to use them.

Using the cards

The cards finally arrived near the end of July. All told, seven months had elapsed from the time we were interested in the program to getting started with it. Some of this was delays caused by the back and forth nature of collecting information and waiting for the credit reference letters to be turned in.

The first thing to know is that you get a discount over the published fare rate when using EasyRide. So when I step on to a bus, I use the card by placing on the NFC reader. That tells the operator that my fare is paid, and it records the transaction in the fare box to sync up later.

From there, each time I or somebody else in the company rides the bus, a nightly report is generated and our account is charged accordingly. These cards work with the RTA train as well as any of the bus lines in the city. Employers pay the bill monthly.

Having used it for about three weeks now, I can say it is definitely more convenient that buying a new 20-ride local cards every few weeks and the fare box has not had any trouble reading my card. There is also a tax benefit to my employer for the expense.

Fixing the program

As it sits right now, few if any small or medium businesses would bother to jump through that many hoops. They are not even useful hoops for either party.

  1. Put all the program details online. We received a printed copy of the “presentation” that Eric had to give. There is not a practical barrier to having all of this information online.
  2. Train the CSRs on the program. Nothing will prevent adoption like being given incorrect information.
  3. Remove the need for a company presentation. Make that a by-request service instead of a requirement. Again, everything we received could have been on a website.
  4. Offer to secure the line of credit with a credit card or deposit. Getting stiffed on fare money is a valid concern, but a deposit or credit card would make this a non-issue and remove one more hurdle and delay.
  5. Streamline the application process. Applying online may be a stretch, but there should be a single form for collecting the necessary information that can be e-mailed or faxed.

Growing the program

Any employer near the downtown station should absolutely offer EasyRide as any employee benefit, if for no other reason than to cut down the cost of monthly parking. MTA should set a goal of doubling the downtown businesses on the program each calendar year.

For others, it may be a nice perk of which certain employees could take advantage. There is no cost to add new employees (the only fee is a $10 replacement charge), so giving it to all employees is easy. This should also have a goal attached to it, such as signing up several hundred riders a year.

In either case, putting the program information on the website (or its own microsite) would reduce the friction of getting started because many of the questions could be answered up front. Online signup may be a stretch goal, but at least having the necessary forms available for review would make it easier.

You could incentivize companies to sign up others on the program with a credit towards their own transit bill each month. For example, if my employer referred another that signed up, we could receive a $50 off for the next month.

Wrapping up

I believe the only barrier to more folks using EasyRide is the operational inefficiencies of signing up for the program. Signing up companies is the easiest way to grow ridership, and thereby improve transit in the region.