Monday, December 10, 2007

Convenient, Affordable, and Eco-Friendly?

When I lived in Manhattan I took great pleasure in riding public transportation. I particularly liked express subway trains, which could whip me 50 blocks uptown from the Port Authority bus depot to my then-girlfriend's apartment in less than ten minutes, or from the apartment to my job in Bronx in 15.

So one thing I've felt increasingly guilty about, lately, is that I'd never tried the Smallish City public transport system (consisting of buses), even after six years of living here. This isn't unusual-- many friends who also have lived right in the city for multiple years can't remember ever being on a city bus either.

The city transit system boasts the motto "Convenient, Affordable, and Eco-Friendly!" Periodically this tug at my sensibilities has nudged me to check if there was some way the bus system could be useful to me, but it never quite seemed helpful. But with my recent move to the new office, I thought perhaps the time had come. I live in one of the two major in-town residential neighborhoods. My office is in the major business area. There is a city bus that stops right at my driveway, and I had seen a bus with the same number going right by my office.

I logged on to the city's transport website and tried for some while to make sense of the map and timetable for the #8 bus. It isn't easy. The map is an arcane mess, the route zigged, zagged and looped with one-way arrows pointing hither and thither, the timetable seemed to imply different routes coming and going, and to top it off there is also a mysterious, alternate "#8A" route (dotted line) for which no information at all was provided.

I called the transport department, hoping for some clarification, but no one seemed quite sure. Ultimately I figured the only way to discover where the bus actually goes was to get on it. So yesterday morning, running early for work and sore from skiing, I decided to do just that.

I'm sorry to report that the experiment was not encouraging. The good news: the bus indeed picked me up in front of my house and dropped me in front of my office, for $1.25. The bad news: everything else. Convenient? Dubious. The true route turned out to be even more serpentine than the map, to which it bore little relation. After ten minutes of riding, we had driven ten blocks but were still only two blocks away from the Turbopalace. Passenger stops tended to be agonizingly long, due to the need to deploy various ramps or pneumatic lowering mechanisms for persons with walkers or other disabilities-- even then, these people had difficulty getting on and off. Then at one point a boarding passenger shoved a handful of coins into the till, causing it to jam-- the driver pulled over, parked the bus, and got out a tool kit to work on the mechanism. In the end, it took 22 minutes to travel the 0.9 miles to downtown-- about 2.5mph.

Affordable? Also questionable. Through a subsidized city program, I could probably park my car in a downtown garage for less than the $2.50 it would cost me to ride the bus to work and back. Eco-friendly? Again, I am skeptical. Even at 8am on a Monday morning, there were only five people on the huge bus. The route was so circuitous, and the bus probably so grossly oversized, that I'm sure it would've used less fossil fuel if each of us had simply driven our own small cars straight from home to work. Also, as we lumbered along we frequently blocked car traffic behind us, slowing down the general efficiency and gas milage of everyone on the road. (I should also note that, although the buses apparently use clean-burning natural gas for propulsion, their engines make an incredible racket on the street-- whereas I remember the electric buses of Major Metropolitan Area, powered by overhead cables, are virtually silent.)

By coincidence, the local alternative newspaper ran a short article this week about the bus system. The author reported that "a ride on the Metro can be confusing, smelly, and long, but occasionally you luck out and find a clean seat next to a fragrance-free passenger." He further noted that "Metro’s current ridership appears to consist of schoolchildren, the disabled, and people who can’t or don’t want to afford cars, with a smattering of people whose presence looks court-mandated." This is right on, and unfortunate.

Here are my suggestions for improvement:
1) Run speciality vans, properly outfitted, to transport people with significant disabilities door-to-door as needed (this should be a free service, in a civilized country.)
2) Streamline the routes of the in-town buses such that average, car-owning people might actually choose to take the bus instead of drive.
3) Publish accurate maps that a person without a PdD in cartography can make sense of.
4) Buy smaller buses.
5) Why can't we have electric buses?
6) Build a subway system.

Until then, I feel lucky that I can stick to walking. If I break a leg skiing, I will have to revisit the bus.


Anonymous girltuesday said...

would like to know how loor's experience relates, given his similarly conducted experiment from other end of peninsula.

(also, you like how i have now taken to posting comments to occupy my time? t minus 2 hours, 8 minutes. but not counting . . . .)

12/11/07, 9:54 AM  
Blogger Ladyk73 said...

I live in between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Um...there are cows near by. Anyways, I am fortunate to discover that I do indeed live near a bus stop to get me to either city. However, it would be 'multi-zoned" trip that would cost like $3 or more. And it would take me 2 hours to get to downtown buffalo, 1 hour to niagara falls. Nice to know they are there. But I like my honda civic, thanks much.

12/11/07, 7:03 PM  
Blogger C Neal said...

Dr. Turbo, I'm beginning to suspect that we might live on the same block. I'm thinking we should have a bloggers' happy hour one of these evenings at the Local Hipster Lounge Number 188, or maybe at the new Yuppie Monkey Pizza Palace.

Anyhow, as much as I love buses and transit, I admit that I haven't ridden the Metro in nearly a year, and I've never tried bus 8. It shouldn't be this way, but walking is clearly faster, more convenient, and also more eco-friendly.

That said, Portland is supposed to start a transit study next month to find ways to improve the system, and I'm going to bring this blog post and its suggestions as exhibit A.

Also, you might try walking a block away to Congress Street, which has two more regular and direct bus routes to Monument Sq. This involves a bit more walking on either end, but the ride is a lot quicker. Plus, on your way home, you can wait for the bus inside the heated transit center on Elm Street.

12/12/07, 9:25 AM  
Blogger Turboglacier said...


I did consider the Congress St bus route-- but by the time I walk up to Congress to get the bus, and then from Monument Square to my office, I've done half the distance to work on foot anyway.

I'm going to stick to my pedestrian ways for the winter, and consider a Honda scooter in the summer...

12/12/07, 11:23 AM  
Blogger Turboglacier said...

P.S. C- Definitely a neighborhood happy hour would be in order. Can't seem to find an email for you though-- drop me an email via my blogger profile page so we can connect.

12/12/07, 11:32 AM  

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