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The Misadventures of My Very First “American” Bus Ride

So last week, we interrupted your "regularly scheduled" newly minted blog post to bring you what we felt was a critical reprisal of a discussion of the role of facts - and the rejection of alternative facts. This week, we have two reasons for yet again bringing back an "oldie but goodie:" 1) I think we all need some levity this week given the state of affairs...and 2) while I know we said we don't usually reuse blogs, we kinda need a work break too - as we are currently preparing our application for Phase II funding from the Small Business Innovation Research program from the NSF! So please enjoy one of the most embarrassing tidbits I've ever shared about my pre-PhD urban mobility naiveté (or, you could argue, the precursor to my post-PhD absent-mindedness) - my very first bus ride...and of course, how urban data and analytics can help others avoid my nails-on-the-chalkboard-level-of-embarrassment story (scroll to the bottom for the how-to part of the blog if you're short on time! Blog has been updated for context. 

I must have been about 21...since I’m pretty sure I had already graduated college and was working at Y&R in Brickell Key in Miami. My 1987 Chevy Nova without a working AC (and a non-functional driver’s side window) must have been in the shop for the umpteenth time. It liked to just stall out, especially when I was turning left on wide South Florida roads while facing an onslaught of drivers steadfastly determined to make the light.

Between that ever-overheating engine and the sauna-like conditions that made me stick to everything in that car, including the plastic steering (barely) wheel, I sure did earn my stripes. No wonder I never want to own a car again.

But I digress. This isn’t the story of my “hard-knock” life in Weh-che-steh, Me-ya-me (Westchester, Miami) it’s the misadventurous tale of my very first bus ride in the U.S.

So that morning, I had ridden the bus with my mom. She too worked in Brickell. As she also had a beat-up old car, she had been “forced” into bus-ridership on a fairly regular basis and knew the drill. I was in good hands for the first part of my inaugural round-trip bus ride.

Later that afternoon, I called my mom to ask her what I needed to do to catch the bus back home. I was leaving work before she was and wanted to make sure I had proper directions (yes, I was that clueless). But something must have gotten lost in translation – or perhaps it was my newly minted status as a South Florida bus rider that led me to my next pathetic step...

I happily walked the few blocks from my office to the bus stop. Enjoying the breeze on that 85-degree day (which seemed downright nippy compared to the usual 100+ degrees inside my Chevy Inferno, I mean, Nova), I waited for the bus. But as is quite typical for Miami summer afternoons, that friendly breeze soon turned into a thunderstorm. Caught without an umbrella (I usually stored one in the car), I got drenched. And while I won’t go into details, let’s just say I was wearing one of those oh-so-delicate summer dresses that, when wet, have a quite unwanted clinging, see-through factor.

This return trip was not boding well. But thankfully, the bus arrived shortly thereafter, of course, just when the rain stopped. Miami! I had never been happier to see a bus – except that the bus was freezing, as it was blasting that omnipresent AC that pervades indoor spaces in South Florida!

Nevertheless, glad to be drying off, I took in the sights of Downtown Miami. Distracted by the fact that I was cold and wet, it didn’t quite yet phase me that I was supposed to be heading west, and we were heading north. But by the time I got to Bayside Park (a few miles north of Brickell, and for all intents and purposes the northern boundary of Downtown circa 2000), I was starting to wonder if my mom’s instructions might have been a bit “off.”

And then came the moment of complete humiliation: looping back around to the spot where I had gotten on the bus to begin with. Only here’s the kicker: I didn’t feel humiliated (not yet), but rather illuminated! I thought: “Why would my mother loop all around Downtown if she could just get on the bus on the opposite side of the street of where she gets off in the morning?” I couldn’t wait to tell my mother how she could shave 30 minutes off of her bus commute!

Much to my surprise, my mother was home by the time I got back. Before asking her how she got back so quickly, I told her all about my misadventures and shared my “ingenious” piece of advice about how to significantly shorten her commute. I’m not sure if she wanted to laugh at me, cry for me, or kick me for thinking that she could be that dense!

Flash forward to over 15 years, this urban datageek has since happily ridden countless buses, trains, subways, and trams (I even took the subway when I lived in L.A. - before it was "cool"). I admit I still sometimes double and triple check whether I’m waiting on the right side of the road or tracks (and yes, I still sometimes - endearingly? - get lost, sigh) . Nevertheless, it’s clear that I have shed my naiveté (or, perhaps more appropriately, my misguided arrogance) regarding taking public transit.

But I fear that this story is not entirely an uncommon one among many residents – young or otherwise – of our overwhelmingly auto-oriented cities and suburbs in the U.S. While transit ridership is indeed going up in many of our metropolitan areas, it’s still a decidedly small percentage in terms of “mode-share.”

Part of the reason is design - that walk to the bus stop was not the most pedestrian-oriented one. Part of it is a stigma that still persists in many places around public transit (people still give you pity looks if you’re walking or waiting for the bus in Miami). Part of it is lack of funding or funding that still favors auto-oriented transportation infrastructure. And part of it is sprawling land-use patterns...

So how can we make it so that riding the bus or train (or walking and bicycling to boot) is so ingrained, so natural, so fun even, that my story would be classified as a far-fetched fantasy instead of a comedy-of-errors? Well, I'm glad you asked! ;) We actually referenced this is in yet another previous blog - the first one of 2017, actually, about having to "step on the (place) scale" first in order to put on the place muscle!

Check it out, but in short, to make public transit more accessible, you have to make it convenient, safe, and pleasant (more so than other types of transportation options). Here are four steps to help make that happen:

  1. Understand the built environment assets and needs of the "walk-shed" (as my good ol' friend, Shyam Kannan of WMATA puts it) of transit stops so that you can begin to take stock of how to make it more walkable.
  2. Prioritize which changes (and which stations) would give you the biggest bang for your buck (both in terms of walkability and economics)
  3. Quantify how proposed projects would boost walkability (and ridership!)
  4. Run the numbers to show the ROI of actually doing this - so you can get those, let's say "naive" naysayers on board too!

And the good news is, this is kinda our thing here at State of Place! So if you're striving to improve the walkability of your transit network, let's work together to truly make that bus ride a "magic bus" (ride)...man, I love me some nerdy urban planning songs!