Emmer: Finding value in grocery stores versus local transit authorities (column)
November 13, 2017
Editor's note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.
Chickens occupy an uncomfortable place in the food chain. Roasted, fried — heck, lots of critters like chicken even with the feathers attached.
Like chickens, citizens rank low on the food chain. Organizations feast on citizens in different ways. Some draw their nutrients gently, as a columbine does from the sun and soil. Other organizations are downright carnivorous. There is an undying temptation for organizations to advance themselves, usually by building ever-bigger organizations.
Instead of questioning whether organizations are serving our best interests, we citizens and consumers too often look at the ground. Naturally, those higher up the food chain like it that way. Here is an easy antidote: All organizations can be ranked on a simple four-point scale; an organization's goal, cost, quality and choices offered.
Take a grocery store. First, its goal is to make money distributing groceries and other household staples, simple and clear.
Second, on costs, we trust prices are reasonable if competition is stiff. That usually keeps profit margins thin.
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Third, quality: Grocery stores are highly attuned to public preferences. They are exquisitely democratic. Or we buy elsewhere. Now that is clout.
Prices usually are clearly marked, excepting sales tax, of course. Risk is minimal because merchandise can easily be returned. Stores are open almost eternally. Service is usually abundant, pleasant and accommodating.
The choice of grocery stores and the merchandise within them is phenomenal. There are little stores, big stores, giant stores, health-food stores, ethnic-food stores, convenience stores — they litter the landscape like cow pies on a cattle drive.
Give it a shot. Rate grocery stores on a one-to-five scale based on goal, cost, quality and choice. One is the least favorable and five is the most.
Scores such as four, four, four and five, respectively, are probably common. This set averages at 4.25. For people in rough agreement, groceries are organizational flowers, not carnivores.
Now let's do the same for our local bus systems: the Summit Stage, Eagle County's ECO Transit and Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
As wholly owned ventures of the citizenry, their websites should prominently present clear, measurable objectives. They prefer not to do so.
Yet, there is no shortage of legitimate, quantifiable goals: congestion relief, safety, efficient transport, poverty reduction, environmental impact, easing parking for cars and being the "designated driver" for party people are all candidates.
Unstated or soggy goals indicate organizational confusion. For instance, a transit authority might strive to be "efficient." To the authority, that might mean something like running buses with 50 passengers each.
First point: If those "efficient" buses extend each passenger's travel time by 30 minutes, then society loses 25 hours per busload that could have been spent raising kids, earning a degree or generating income. In this case, increasing bus efficiency reduces society's efficiency.
Second point: Cost. Together, the three local bus systems lost $6 for every $1 of fares they collected in 2016. We might joke that they will make up for it with volume.
Those high-volume losses are passed onto each Summit County household at $900 per year, $300 in Eagle County and $1,100 in RFTA's colony.
Pooled together, they could pay the annual costs of running 6,500 Toyota Priuses, according to Kelley Blue Book's Five Year Cost of Ownership. Or the money would pay for roughly half that many home solar installations. Every year. Chew on that for a bit.
Third point: Quality. Buses reduce congestion in ski country's most heavily trafficked places and times. They excel when moving people from skier parking to the lifts and in the bustling downtowns of our focal tourist towns. Terrific.
For mountain people, the tragedy of bus systems is that they need crowds. For bus systems, the tragedy of mountain people is that they loathe crowds.
The paradox would dissolve with a little Uber-ization. Public transit could tap into the river of empty car seats that already go where people want to go, when they want to go.
Local transit reborn as an app could be good enough that families voluntarily give up the second car. That would be a public sector victory.
The fourth key point is choice and democracy. Two parts apply here. Are people forced to pay for transit? Well, yes. Are people forced onto buses? No. That's half good. Rank the bus systems yourself. Think about their goal, cost, quality, choice and democracy on a one to five scale. I figure zero, one, one, one, respectively, for a score of 0.75. Compare that to 4.25 for grocery stores. If your evaluation is completely different, then that is wonderful.
From directors to drivers, transit systems are staffed with competent, caring people. Yet transit systems lose barrels of other peoples' money pursuing wistful, vague and unmeasurable goals.
Ski country transit systems have chicken feathers stuck in their teeth. Rearrange the food chain and local households might be installing solar arrays or attending class at Egghead U or paying off the coop with the money we save. Until we chickens are higher on the food chain, our drumsticks are in danger.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst who runs Citizens Due Diligence in his off hours. Reach him at email@example.com.
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