Monday, January 30, 2012

Shreveport, Public Transportation, and You

I have a confession to make.  I don’t always practice what I preach.

“Gasp!  Get the pitchforks!  Rabble rabble rabble!”

 Wait a minute; let me explain.  I’m not a closet car owner pretending to be a cyclist for the cool points.  (Remember, bikes are not cool).  No, I’m talking about public transportation.  I am a huge supporter of public transportation—I think that extensive rail and bus systems are a quintessential part of bringing American cities into the 21st century, and would like to see every metro in the country with a population over 100,000 have a good transit system.  In support of this goal, I’ll discuss the many positive features of public transportation with anyone who will listen and defend it at length against its detractors.  However, I have a dirty little secret:  I hate riding the bus.

It’s true.  Riding a bus subjects you to all the negative aspects of driving (traffic, motion sickness) with the addition of smelly strangers, gropers, pickpockets, and, usually, the inconvenience of not being able to get off right where you need to get off.  Subway trains have the same downsides, just switch traffic for subterranean claustrophobia.  The only individual advantage that public transit has over the personal automobile is the cost savings—riding the bus is definitely cheaper than driving.  Of course, there’s also the larger societal benefit of reduced pollution and better air quality, but it’s hard to think green while you’re crammed next to fifty total strangers and standing in a puddle of what is at best spilled Mountain Dew and, at worst…  No, at that time all you can think is “at least I know for sure it’s not vomit.”

You may be wondering why I feel the need to come clean.  I could easily continue to hide the truth.  But I was almost busted last weekend, and I think it’s best to get the story out on my own terms (which is also why I’m going to preemptively release my own sex tape once I become a celebrity).  My brush with near revelation went down like this:

Some friends and I were having a couple beers Saturday night and talking.  Somehow the conversation came to public transportation.  I paid my usual lip service to public transportation, expecting nothing of it.  However, someone went on to ask me, “so what do you think of Shreveport’s bus system?”  Uh-oh.  Deer:  meet headlights.  I was busted.  Luckily, my quick-witted brother saved the day with an amazing joke and I was never forced to admit I hadn’t ridden a Sportran bus.

Additionally, since I have always defended public transportation against its detractors, and by virtue of paragraph four, I’ve now become a detractor.  That means I now need to defend public transportation against my own criticism.  If only I’d kept my mouth shut, then I wouldn’t have to do all this work…

The picture of a bus ride that I painted above is an example of the worst possible public transportation experience.  Rarely is it this bad.  Alternatively, it can just as easily be this good:

You’re leaving work.  As usual, you worked about 2 hours late and are the last to leave the office because you’re a great employee and everyone else sucks.  You’re tired.  You hate the thought of having to drive home.  But then you remember:  you don’t have to drive home, because you took the bus today.  After a brisk walk to the stop, you get to sit on the bench and have a quiet moment to yourself and get some fresh air for the first time today.  Then the bus arrives, right on time, and—the plus side of working until well past rush hour—it is largely empty.  After finding your seat, you use your iPhone to order takeout from that great Chinese place near home, then pull out that great newspaper article from yesterday’s paper that you still haven’t gotten to read.  The next twenty minutes are spent relaxing, reading, and generally zoning out.  Then it’s your stop.  The walk home takes you right past the aforementioned Chinese place, where you pick up your waiting order and walk the remaining two blocks home accompanied by the spicy aroma of your chicken chow mein.

Okay, so that might be a bit too idyllic, but no more so than the first scenario was too pessimistic.  The truth is that most public transportation trips fall somewhere in between, with only a small percentage coming close to either end of the continuum.

It’s been my experience that one’s attitude towards public transportation is largely influenced by upbringing.  For example, my earliest experience with public transportation came at the age of fifteen, when, seeking a little more independence and hoping to save my mom some gas, I asked her if I could ride the bus somewhere instead of her having to drive me.  She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never, under any circumstances, to ride the bus in Shreveport.  For a long time after that, even on my first few train trips in Chicago, I was a little scared of riding public transportation.  In another example, while living in Chicago, some friends and I were planning on going to a party.  One member of the group was a young woman from the far-out suburbs who had spent very little time in the city.  When I suggested taking a bus to get to the party, she responded, “tahahaha, the bus?  I haven’t ridden a bus since third grade.”  At the time, I thought she was just being an elitist snob.  However, looking back on it now, I believe that really she was just scared to ride the bus, and was covering for this by acting like a bitch.  (Or she was just a bitch).  Anyway, we took a cab.

By contrast, when I met people from Chicago (the city itself, not suburbs), they all had been riding the trains for as long as they could remember and consequently had very positive associations with it.  Sure, they could all tell you about a bad or scary experience, but for them the buses and trains meant trips to the beach, visits to Grandma’s house, and afternoons in the park.

Kids in Chicago learn the public transit system early.  There are very few school buses; and, for the kids that attend private schools or out of district charter/magnet schools, there are none at all—it’s city buses and trains.  They are infinitely tougher and more mature than myself or any other kids I grew up around.   At eleven years old I was afraid to even walk down the street without a parent; the idea of getting on a city bus or train and taking it ten miles to school would have made me catatonic.  But every morning on my commute there were school children everywhere, mixed in with the business suits, the homeless, the gangsters and the hipsters.  It was normal.  Remember, this is in Chicago, a city of three million people, where one child could disappear so easily; yet, when I was a full fifteen years old I wasn’t allowed to ride the bus in little old Shreveport, Louisiana for fear of my safety.

This is another symptom of something I’ve written about before:  the prevailing attitude in this area.  The attitude that the city is a dangerous wasteland where nothing good happens.  Somewhere it’s best to stay away from, and if you have to venture into it in order to go from one gated community to another you’d better do so safe inside an automobile.  That’s the attitude that needs to change in order for Shreveport to realize its potential.  But what’s the best way to change it?  Should we treat it like a common cold, and treat the symptoms, hoping that over time the root cause just goes away?  Or do we treat it like an infection, delivering an antibiotic shot that directly targets the problem at its source?

That’s a complex question that I don’t know the answer to.  Until I do know the answer, I’m going to keep playing whack-a-mole with the symptoms.  Every time one pops up, I’ll do my best to smack it down.  It won’t always be easy to do, but in this case it will be; I just need to ride the damn bus and write about it.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to ride every bus route in the city and summarize the trip here.  It shouldn’t take long, there aren’t very many.  I’m looking forward to the experience.  I’m looking forward to seeing parts of Shreveport that I’ve never seen before, from a perspective that I’ve never had.  I’m looking forward to giving my legs a break from the bike.  But more than anything, I’m looking forward to possibly changing some minds and getting some people onto our city’s buses.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Urban Excursion

There are certain times when Chicago is a great place to be.
Cubs Opening Day:

Blackhawk Victory Parade Day:

And of course, No Pants Day on the CTA:

However, the best time to be a Chicagoan is in the dead of winter:

There’s no good explanation for why this is; my belief is that Chicagoans feel a strong sense of togetherness in this time, that they unite to battle the common enemy of Winter.  The people band together, the bars get even more full and the pigeons go wherever it is they go during cold weather.  Yes, I’ve been missing Chicago.

In hopes of feeling a little reconnected with city life, I took off for an afternoon cruise through downtown Shreveport.  Also, in true hipster fashion, I made sure to take lots of Flikr pictures of the experience, even though just that morning I’d made the following joke on Facebook:  “Oh, you put an angsty black and white picture on Flikr, you’re such a talented photographer.”  But it's okay though, I was taking the pictures ironically.

First, anytime one is taking pictures of Shreveport, there is the obligatory shot looking down Texas Avenue:

Last week (who am I kidding, at the rate I post, this had to be like three weeks ago), in my State of the Hipster Union post, I talked about the redevelopment of downtown, and for the most part I’m optimistic about it.  After all, there are some nice loft apartments, a great movie theater, a farmer’s market and a cool art space.  There’s also a decent nightlife scene that expands beyond the casinos and into a few really cool bars (see also:  The Noble Savage, which earned 4 out of 5 PBR cans on the hipster index).  However, this downtown is larger than it appears, and in spite of the development near the riverfront and along Texas Street, there is much to be done:

The symbolism of the last picture really struck me.  Walking around this area, it really does seem like the city has just…expired.  Vacant buildings are everywhere.  This particular building on Louisiana Avenue once housed the Jefferson Hotel, which was, in its heyday, a thriving hotel serving the many railroad passengers going through Shreveport (that’s actually even more symbolism, if you look at the current state of the passenger rail industry in this country).

While it’s easy to read about the new bars and housing downtown and get excited, it’s hard to ignore these vacant blocks.  I’m not suggesting that there aren’t vacant buildings in every city, but it’s hard to say an area is on the upswing with all these dilapidated places.  After all, if the area were really on an upswing, well-to-do members of the gay community would have already bought all this up and it would be the hottest new neighborhood in Louisiana.

Finally, any new development will have to fight the prevailing attitude of the general populace:  that downtown, particularly the western edge, is a rough neighborhood unfit for civilized individuals.  Usually, I’d say this belief is false and that people only need to get out and walk around the area to be dissuaded of the notion.  However, as I walked around photographing, I experienced an uncomfortable feeling that I haven’t felt in an urban environment in quite some time.  Before you suggest this is  typical for a white kid from the suburbs, I’ll remind you that I once volunteered at a middle school in a neighborhood where the post office once stopped delivering mail because of danger to their carriers.  I’m no stranger to urban environments and rough neighborhoods, and, yet, I felt a bit uneasy.

To be fair, there are current plans for this area.  Mayor Glover, the Shreveport Regional Arts Council, and others have released a plan for the area, to be called Shreveport Common:

As of now, though, the project seems to be in the planning and funding stages.  I plan to keep an eye on any new developments and will write about them here promptly when I feel like it.  Despite several recent blows, I remain optimistic about the future of Downtown Shreveport.  After all, the city itself is telling me to smile:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

All Those Damn Hyphens

Since starting this blog, I have deliberately tried to keep things non political and not discuss anything more serious than bike laws.  But someone said something to me a couple days ago that has been sticking under my skin, and I’ve got to say something about it before it drives me crazy and causes an aneurysm.  Also, it does pertain to the blog, so I’m not going too far off topic.

The overriding theme of this blog is my experiment to see if Shreveport could become like other great cities and develop the hallmarks of a 21st century urban environment:  dog parks, mass transit, an arts scene, etc.  There have been numerous positive signs:  a dog park has been ok’d, the local film industry is still strong, the local farmer’s market is a great success, and there are bike lanes in Shreveport.

However, here comes the but; I’d forgotten one important part of the equation—the attitude of the local populace.  This conversation actually happened on Friday, between a woman I’d never met before and me:

Me:  “Yeah, I just moved back from Chicago.”
Her:  “Oh man, I don’t know how you could stand it.”
Me:  “Why, the cold weather?”
Her:  “No, there’s just no Americans up north.”

At this point, she must have seen the confusion in my face, because she elaborated.

Her:  “You know, all those Arabs and Indians and Pakistanis.”

I am very rarely left speechless, but that last line did what all my high school teachers never could—it shut me right up.  I honestly had nothing to say.  Since I couldn’t reply properly to her at the time (it was at work, she was a customer, I had to be nice), I’m going to make my response now.  Also, someone should really show that woman this website.

Exactly when did a hyphen make somebody less American?  When did American mean white?  Is an Indian-American less American than an American of Anglican descent?  What about African-Americans?  Have those of African descent been a part of the country long enough to be considered American?  Exactly how many generations must an immigrant be here to be considered an American?  Finally, I’m an Irish-American, does that mean I’m not an American?

Those are the things I wished I could have said to her at the time.  I’m not going to elaborate on any of those points; I give my readers enough credit to believe that you all realize how dumb her statement was.

But here’s the thing:  people like this are exactly the people that resist change and progression.  She’s the person that looks out at Shreveport-Bossier and thinks, “I like this just the way it is, we don’t need sensible road systems that account for pedestrians.  We don’t need dog parks; we’ve got yards.  We don’t need farmers markets; we have Wal-Mart.  We don’t need small businesses; we’ve got Target.  Bikes don’t belong on roads, my SUV does.”

I’d like to believe that this woman does not represent the majority opinion.  I’d like to believe that everyone around here would be as offended by her comments as I was.  But right now, I don’t think so, and that has me pretty discouraged about the future of Shreveport.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming of self-deprecating hipster jokes and bike rants.