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.