Too Early; Too Late; Too Bad

I have taken this bus numerous times. I’ve got the schedule down pat. I know the bus arrives at this particular stop between 25 and 30 minutes after leaving the Cherry Street Station. And when the bus leaves this stop, it heads down the road for another couple of minutes, executes a turn-around and comes back on the other side of the road. If you miss it going north, you have another five minutes in order to catch it coming south, assuming you want to head downtown.

When it comes to mass transportation there are three kinds of people.

  1. There are those for whom mass transportation is the ONLY transportation they have. They use it because they need it.
  2. Thee are those who use it for moral reasons – as a kind of “protest”. They have options, but see mass transportation as pro-community and anti-global warming.
  3. There are those who simply don’t – because they won’t because they don’t have to – and never will use mass transportation.

I’m in the #2 category. I think automobiles have done more damage to family life, the sense of community and our overall well-being than any other single invention contrived by human beings. According to the US Census Bureau 36,000 people died in automobile accidents in our country in 2009. That’s down from almost 47,000 in 1990.

In his book The Very Hungry City, Austin Troy (formerly at UVM, currently at Univ. of Colorado) writes: “For the vast majority of Americans the car is the unrivaled [transportation] mode of choice. An indicator of Americans’ devotion to this contraption is the sheer quantity of gasoline we consume: if you walled off a football field, the walls would have to be 50 miles high to contain all the gas used by cars in America in a single year.”

I had another meeting to attend at 7 that evening. I planned it to catch the bus – I was heading south into the city – but I would catch it going north before it got to the turn-around. From past experience I knew the earliest the bus would be at that stop. And I had timed the walk between where I was and the stop I needed to be at. I’m no rookie when it comes to riding the bus. And this bus would get me home in time to have a somewhat leisurely supper. Yes. I had a plan.

In 2001 Barbara Ehrenrich wrote a book called Nickel and Dimed. She chronicled what it meant to make it on minimum wage in America. More recently, Ehrenreich wrote the Forward to Linda Tirado‘s book Hand to Mouth – Living in Bootstrap America. In that Forward Ehrenreich writes that she allowed herself a couple privileges when she was doing her “research” for Nickel and Dimed. “I got a Rent-A-Wreck in each of the cities where I worked,” she writes, “so I wouldn’t end up writing a book about waiting for buses.

Knowing that I was cutting it just a bit close to catch that north-bound bus I double-timed it all the way. I ran, and checking my watch (my phone, actually), I knew that I was in good shape. In fact, I was certain of it, until …

The folks in the #1 category above don’t ride the bus as a “protest” or out of some moral compunction. They ride it to get to work or school. At the end of the shift they ride the bus to get back to an apartment that typically has at least some of the necessities – and maybe a beer or two to wash away the strains and stresses of being poor.

I arrived at the stop only to see the bus – MY BUS – heading south. The bus was well past the stop I would have used as my backup – my ace-in-the-hole in case I missed it headed northbound. I looked at the time again. The only thing I can think of is that there must have been no people on that bus requiring stops and every traffic light must have been green between Cherry Street and my stop. It would have been early had it arrived at the northbound stop where I was; but to have already gone a mile down the road, turned around, made several stops, and now be fading into the cold winter night … I still don’t see how it was possible.

So, with the wind whipping and my 7 PM deadline closing in on me, I waited. For 25 minutes I waited, my eyes straining down the avenue so as to see the telltale yellow strip of lights across the top of the on-coming bus. And i thought to myself: What if I had needed to catch that bus in order to get to work? True – I have another commitment; but the thing that is going to get crunched for me is my supper hour. I’m not in danger of losing my job for arriving at work half an hour late!

Troy writes: “To attract a large ridership, transit must be competitive with cars in terms of speed, ease of use, cost, and dependability. Part of the equation is making transit more available, affordable, and higher in quality.”

Tirado recounts in Hand to Mouth one situation in which she was working two jobs. She was centrally located – one job was a mile in one direction from her apartment; the other job was three miles in the opposite direction. I have it better than she did on several counts. First of all, I have access to a bus. There were no buses where she lived. Second, I have a car as a backup. She did not. Third, I would never walk from my house to that meeting out on the “Avenue”. But that’s exactly what Tirado did – she walked. Her daily commute was about the same in terms of time as what someone on the South Shore would have getting into Boston every morning – a couple hours. The difference is that she was walking, not sitting in a heated or air-conditioned car listening to the radio sipping a latte from Starbucks.

I have a suggestion: The bus driver has access to the times the bus is scheduled to be at certain stops. Given the fact that so many routes in Burlington are loops, couldn’t they stop at the end of the loop when they are running early and let the time catch up with them? When I’m late getting to the stop I have no one to blame but myself; but when the bus is ten minutes early I feel justified getting a bit angry at the situation.

I can only imagine what it is like for people who have to confront the “system” every day. They get blamed for being too late. And they get no sympathy – and no back-up – when the system is too early.

FYI – that photo at the top is an actual happening – I don’t know if the man was late or the bus was early. But the guy who took the picture is riding that motorcycle. What happens next is worth watching.

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.