Notes from a nine-day transit odyssey

Making an effort in an age of convenience

Recently, I had an opportunity to use public transit for a nine-day stretch. Prior to that I’d used it occasionally — twice actually — in the four-plus years I’ve lived in Minneapolis. I’d always had a car, so why bus when I could drive? I was interested in my immediate environment, and in the morning that means a hot cup of coffee on the work commute while listening to 89.3, NPR or a favorite CD. Here follows my account of an experiment with Minneapolis public transportation:

Preparations

I call Metro Transit and request hard copies of maps be sent to my home. Several days later, I receive maps with routes and times all through Minneapolis. This is a waste of paper, as I can’t read maps very well and have always functioned better through trial and error; indeed, my life could be described as a series of wrong turns. I suppose wasting these maps counts as getting off to a bad start, but I recycle, hoping to ease my contribution to landfills.

I do find out that by calling 373-3333, a person can speak to a transit representative about routes, schedules and fares. Given a starting and ending location, the representative will actually plot your course, much like a global positioning system/person (gps/p).

The website also has these plotting functions. Using the online planner, I’m told I need to get on a 7:28 a.m. bus on Excelsior & France through Uptown and Downtown to Hennepin Avenue & South 5th Street, where I’ll transfer to the light-rail station and head direct to work at the airport.

Day 1

I’m waiting for toast and looking at my watch, calculating whether I’ve got time to make the three-block walk to the bus stop. Normally, I could leave at 7:27 or 7:28 or whenever, really, because the car leaves whenever I tell it to leave with a key in hand and my foot on the gas pedal. My toast pops and I walk briskly, only to see the 7:28 bus drive away without me. I nibble the toast nonchalantly and waddle to wait for the next bus, which arrives in about 20 minutes. I get on the bus.

My first impression is that the bus is quite different from my car. There are lots of people — not nearly as many could fit in my car. I’m not listening to 89.3 or NPR in the morning although I did bring a coffee Thermos. There are some pretty girls present on the bus. There are no pretty girls in my car. A girl next to me puts on hand lotion, and rubs it in for quite a while — an unreasonable amount of time, really, although it is cold and dry out.

Today, I leave work early but find the bus route differs according to hours of the day. I recalculate the route by calling a global positioning system/person because I’d planned for a 5 p.m. departure, forgetting I needed to leave work by 3 p.m.

Lesson learned: Bus schedules change depending on time of day, day of week, etc.

Day 2

I think maybe I left my notes for this day on the bus. I also lost a hat.

Day 3

I catch the 7:28 bus. A girl next to me rubs lotion on her hands, for a reasonable amount of time. A lot more people are on the bus today, perhaps because it is a Tuesday. Day 1 for me was a Friday — all these slackers probably called in sick. Immediately I notice, above the usual reserved quiet, two talkative girls in the back sitting in the far corners of the bus speaking loudly to each other. Two people are in between them, and those two people, who, more than any others on the bus, must feel trapped in an unwanted conversation, not really knowing their roles. They and all the other riders look stoically forward. I hear one of the girls say, “He’s a midget.” The other responds, “Nuh uh. A midget has short arms and short legs — he just got short legs.” It strikes me that the conversation, though different, was a nice change from NPR.

On the ride home, I take the light rail to Lake Street where I exercise at the YWCA and stop at a farmers’ market. I buy potatoes and mixed peppers, stuff them into my gym bag with shorts and socks and go to the Y. After exercising, I make a phone call to Metro Transit and a gps/p tells me to take bus 21 to bus 12C in Uptown.

“12C leaves at 7:24 p.m.” she says. At 7:28, I’m still waiting and I call the number again. This time I’m told by a gentleman that I should have been on platform A, not C, which is just out of sight from where I’m waiting. I almost yell, but it’s not his fault. I’m irritable because I’m getting hungry from the exercise and delay, and I contemplate eating peppers and potatoes while waiting another half hour for the bus.

After 10 minutes, I call my roommate and ask for the Green Mill delivery number. The pizza arrives shortly after I do — now past 8 p.m. I tear into it ravenously, and it tastes so good — like deep dish victory over the masses. I realize having pizza delivered probably cancels any progress made on my personal contribution to global warming, but for a while in my hunger I was seriously considering converting my car to run on coal or just having a fire going in the trunk at all times. After eating too much, I go to bed guilty but sleep soundly.

Lesson learned: Overeat to avoid staying awake with feelings of guilt.

Day 4

The two loud teenage girls are seated in the back of the bus again. Today, the loudest one has her head in her hands and is quiet. In a way, I’m disappointed.

Lesson learned: Those two girls work better as a team.

Day 5

I realize I’m going to miss the 7:28 so I can either wait about 20 minutes or take the car, which I easily rationalize doing, at least to Ft. Snelling station, where I’ll take the light rail from the Park and Ride.

There is frost on my windows today, and when I start up the Honda, the old cold weather squeaky belt has returned — it sounds like the train taking the curve near the Metrodome — gratingly loud. The radio volume shoots to max on its own — another feature of an old car with quirks. I won’t need coffee this morning.

On the radio, it’s the NPR fund drive again. I feel like they hold that thing every other week. The talkative bus girl didn’t ask for money on the bus when she was lecturing on the characteristics of midgets.

On the way home, I notice a small, permanent display of art at the Ft. Snelling station. It’s one of those little globes with a picturesque scene in miniature, surrounded by clear liquid. I give it a turn and the little flakes inside begin to snow and a poem is triggered, read from an attached speaker by a man with a soothing voice. I contemplate leaving; after all, I’m on my way home and don’t have time for poetry. But something about the words draw me in. It’s about the Midwestern plains … the grasslands … and for a minute I’m taken away because I can see it. I have seen it. By the final words I’m in jeopardy of shedding a tear, but I man-it-up and walk to my car to drive home, with an odd sense of ease. (Later that night, I write to Metro Transit asking about the poem, the transit lady says that: “The particular display at Ft. Snelling was part of a grant to install some artwork after the opening of light rail. Interactive pieces like that one are at 11 of the stations. The artist is Janet Zweig. The title of the programs is, ‘Small kindnesses, weather permitting.’”

Lesson learned: There is no way art would have made it into a funding bill by public referendum. Maybe sometimes private decisions made for the public good are good.

Day 6

After the weekend break, the public transport process on Monday morning seems too great a threat and I actually call in sick to work. Tuesday, I’m back on the bus. The loud girl is in back alone. Where is her friend? I hope she’s OK.

Soon, it’s standing room only. What happened? Tuesday must really be a big work day.

Day 7

Anyway, it’s Wednesday. I decided I would hit the Y and the grocery store on the way home, and although they’re both on one route or another of the transit system, the comfort of carrying groceries in my car is enough to persuade me otherwise, and I drive. On the way home from the airport to Ft. Snelling, I listen to “Small kindnesses, weather permitting,” again. This time, the globe turns and I hear a song about Minnesota by someone calling himself “The Man in Grey,” and who sounds like a weaker Johnny Cash.

Lesson learned: I like Johnny Cash a lot, but I already knew that: no lesson learned.

Day 8

NPR is still going with the fund drive. I know this because I drive again. I listen to a new CD I bought, and it is good. At Ft. Snelling, I hit “Small kindnesses, weather permitting,” and it starts to play funk music. It’s not yet 8 in the morning and there are quite a few people standing around. It’s actually quite loud, and with decent sound. People look nervously over their shoulders not wanting to catch the eye of the person who invited this. Who doesn’t like funk on a cold, gray, morning? On the way home, a traffic accident slows the commute, and I find myself wishing I were on the bus.

Lesson learned: Begin the day with funk whenever possible — which is always.

Day 9

Another full day on the bus, to and from work. The driver is a bald, short, portly fellow who does word-finds at stops. On rough streets, his air-chair bounces furiously and the windows shake and rattle. But the bus itself is a nice ’70s style interior, short only the shag carpet.

A pretty girl sits down across from me. She’s wearing Dewberry — an unmistakable scent I associate with a very attractive ex-girlfriend. She’s also wearing an iPod, just like everyone else, cutting off contact with anything but her world. It’s probably to deter people like me. Have the tools of communication improved, or have they only changed form and in doing so ruined true communication? I make a note to ask the Internet when I get home.

Lesson leaned: I have not purchased an iPod, and I never will.

Conclusions

I think if I learned any overall lesson from my public transportation experience, it’s that people often tend to take the path of least resistance; at least I do. Taking the bus is hard, and quite honestly, if I have to make more than one connection, I’m probably not going to do it. I work for an airline, and understand the allure of direct flights quite well.

I also notice that at the airport people do not take stairs when they can avoid them, choosing escalators instead — able bodied people traveling only one floor with little or no luggage — and frequently, they stop moving when ascending or descending on escalators and let the machines do the work. Sometimes, we suffer a disconnect from the amount of energy necessary to power our various contraptions.

People take the bus for different reasons, but most often if it’s not simply a matter of convenience, it’s that they don’t have a car because owning a car is expensive and becoming more so. Or it’s because they’ve convinced themselves that decisions made for the public good are good and worth it. Consistent riders of public transportation have essentially learned to take the stairs rather than the escalator. I will continue to ride public transportation when it’s convenient, I suppose. In doing so, I may not be taking the stairs, but I’m doing something — taking steps where I can — like walking while on a moving escalator.