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Is it Un-American to Ride Public Buses?

November 5, 2011 4 comments

The driver’s voice crackled over the speakers with his request for us to step further backward so new riders could board the bus. Step back to where? This bus was already loaded with folks going home from work. If the sardine were alive in the can, it would know our plight. On this hot Pittsburgh day, visions of a refreshing shower in the evening flashed through my mind, interrupted only by the riders wriggling past me to get off the bus. Although Pittsburgh’s buses have doors in their midsections, riders here are required to exit the bus at the same front door where they enter the bus.** On the crowded afternoon bus, this rule burdens riders seated at the back with the Herculean task of maneuvering to the front and ensures that we all trade sweat with our fellow riders. To further prolong our discomfort, on portions of the route the bus picks up and discharges passengers at successive blocks. Is it not excessive to have stops that are literally a stone’s throw apart from each other?

By the time I got home, I was eager to prescribe remedies for making the Pittsburgh bus experience a comfortable and efficient one. In a given neighborhood, for example, designate stops that are spaced farther apart. People can walk an extra block! The rest were similarly straightforward. Later, though, refreshed after my shower, I pondered if there were reasons—beyond my immediate perception—for the current mode of operation. Perhaps numerous stops were designated to accommodate riders with limited mobility?

** This rule seems to apply only during afternoon rush hour. All riders are allowed on the bus, and pay when they step off. Still, the question remains: WHY?

I wrote the above two paragraphs as part of an essay to work on transportation policy. You could call it my “Pittsburgh Bus Rant” – well, due to limited space, I couldn’t include my favorite bus-induced indignation: you’ve waited for a while (the bus rarely comes on time) and when it does arrive, it drives right past you because it is too full to take on new passengers. This has happened at all times of the day.

Clearly, I’m not the only one frustrated by this situation. Some clever people at CMU designed an app called Tiramisu to crowd-source in real time the bus timetable in Pittsburgh, so you’re not endlessly wondering when it’ll arrive at your stop. But this doesn’t address the underlying problem.

If someone grew up with this bus system, they might come to accept it as just-the-way-things-are. On the other hand, moving to Pittsburgh from a place where you could set your watch to the bus, I see room for improvement. Certainly, I acknowledge that European cities can have different layouts and can be more compact than American cities, but I refuse to believe that our engineering and logistical skill can’t address our unique transportation inefficiencies. Call it a sense of American exceptionalism, or whatever else you like. [Brief history recap: mass production of the automobile, the polio vaccine, sending men to the moon – all accomplished in the USA.]

So what are the hang-ups? Well, it looks like there’s been some short-sighted financial judgment by the Port Authority, and with the credit markets going south in 2008-09, now they’re short on cash. [Quick aside: The creativeness of the financial engineers on Wall Street has been, well, exceptional. When you have to invent words like “swaption” to describe your product…]

Now, these guys would like to rehire the bus drivers and mechanics that got laid off when the money dried up. Fine sentiment, but if you look at the bus schedule now, some of the routes have pickups every 15 or 20 minutes. If the buses were timely, that would suffice going through most neighborhoods. People who ride the bus care about the bus getting them to their destination at the time they planned for it to get them there. With a fraction of that cash, my recommendation would be to do an actual study of # riders vs. time of day in order to know who’s using your bus, when they’re using it, and where they’re getting on and off. So you can deploy regular-size buses when passenger traffic is light, and send the buses with the accordion-midsection when it’s known to be super busy. Also, stop charging $2.25 – people who don’t have the good fortune of using their ID card or monthly pass are subject to the annoyance of digging for that quarter. Alternately, avoid the transaction costs of cash ENTIRELY by switching to a pay-by-mobile-phone setup. This would not discriminate against anyone – everyone and their purse dog has a cell phone these days.

At the risk of sounding cynical about U.S. politics – these issues won’t be resolved because the decision makers are sequestered from the users. Could someone help me formulate an argument that goes like “PNC Bank / PPG / Heinz shareholders could see a steep improvement to their company’s bottom line as a result of (fill in the blank) which could be achieved with a more efficient Pittsburgh bus service”? After all, those folks have the lobbyists! 🙂

Bonus read: A young lady romanticizes her endeavor to be a bus rider in San Francisco; nearly gets put on anti-depressants as a result.

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