Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Day With Metro St Louis *Slash* I Rode A Bus!

Full disclosure: I actually have ridden a bus. The title to this wasn't supposed to throw you off, but I can see how it could. Quite the contrary, busses and I have a long and heated history going all the way back to 1st grade. That was the year I saw a 12 year old boy hit a 10 year old girl in the head with a lunch box. Keep in mind this was 1983 and lunch boxes were built like cars and weighed 7 pounds. I mean, seriously... Did the 80's not have the best built lunch boxes of any decade? Why did I need steel and iron to protect my cheese and mustard sandwich? Yes, I often had cheese and mustard sandwiches when I was a child. Try trading that... Anyway, yeah, one of my earliest memories of the bus was a girl bleeding from the head and the bus driver having no idea what to do.
Cut to 25 years later and where do I find myself? Riding with Ms. Courtney Sloger down Broadway past the Farmers Market in just such a contraption. My life had come full circle! There she was bleeding, and I with my metal He-man lunchbox... Woah... Flashback... Luckily for Courtney, that actually didn't happen. However, I had an uneasy feeling as I climbed the steps on my first bus ride in quite a long time. As it turned out, my school bus flashback was probably the most dangerous thing on that bus. Well, other than my dance moves.

I hadn't ridden a bus since 1993. And that was a school bus. True story. In all honesty, I had no idea how to ride a public transportation bus, nor did I want to. I always assumed they weren't a safe way to travel. After all, that's what all the scoundrels, kidnappers and identity thieves used when they wanted to look for their next victim. So, when Courtney from Metro asked me to go for a ride on a few of the downtown bus routes to get my opinion on St Louis public transportation, I had no idea what I would think about it, but I assumed the worst. I mean, it's the bus! Right?!

Yeah, it is the bus. It's not glamorous and you're always on their schedule, but they weren't like I assumed. First of all, they weren't dirty or falling apart. Second, they're kind of fun! Did you know you can control the bus!?!? Yeah, there's a cord you can pull on that makes the driver stop! I thought they only had those in the movies. Actually, it's a bit embarrassing that I didn't know that. I guess I thought it worked like the train... Fine, I thought it was still like the school bus. They stop everywhere. That would be impractical for buses. Make sure you're paying attention when you're getting close to your destination. They'll pass it by if no one is standing there or you don't notify the driver that it's your stop.

Currently, that's the most fun part of bus riding... A few negatives for me: At least on some buses, you need exact change. As a guy who rarely carries cash (apparently Brunswick Zone "fun dollars" don't work anywhere) it would be much more convenient for me to pay with debit. Unfortunately, the cost of installing a system like that on Metro's buses would be well beyond current public funding. Also, I think there is a sharp learning curve to hopping on the taking-the-bus wagon. I just don't know the routes. Very few stops post the times or the routes the bus will be taking. Multiple bus lines stop at the same location. I just think it's too easy for a new rider to get lost in all of this. I would imagine that it becomes routine after a few rides, but it's a big jump for me.

That said, there's one route Courtney took me on that I could really see as useful to the quickly thriving downtown-living community. The 99... Or the Downtown Circular (PDF). This route seems like a great opportunity for Metro to cash in on the late night crowd that hops bar to bar down Washington Ave, not to mention post-Cards and Blues games. Also, for those nights that parking around Washington Avenue is impossible, a park and ride seems like a pretty smart idea. If your friends think it's weird just tell them you're doing your part to save the earth. They shouldn't mock you for that, but if they note that driving to the city and then taking the bus for a mile doesn't really help save the earth, just remind them that they paid $10 for parking. And that wearing a fedora is douchy - it's 2010 for God's sake. Of course, you could have just taken the Metrolink in and saved your friends from themselves.

I have taken the Metrolink before... I actually find it quite enjoyable and would take it often if given the opportunity. Therein lies the problem... The Metrolink light rail system in St Louis is simply inadequate. Living anywhere north or south of the city you really don't have any easy access to it. Sure, I could drive to it, but why not drive a few miles more to my destination... I could bus it, but now we're talking a serious increase in travel time. Public transportation thrives on being convenient and St Louis' simply isn't. Take a look at Chicago's L map. It's like the veins of the city. Just like off ramps on an expressway, businesses thrive around L stops. Now take a look at Metrolink's map.

View MetroLink Stations, St. Louis, MO in a larger map
What we're missing here is a convergence. A hand, of sorts, stretching throughout the city. I'd take the train quite often if one came through Soulard. Unfortunately, this is not a likely scenario anytime soon. There's a vote coming up in April on a small tax increase to support St Louis transit. Now, I've heard rumors that no one likes tax increases... That may or may not be true, but before you pass judgement, do a little research. Check out the for more detail on exactly what the small increase would be and what St Louis could gain from it. Also, hit up this explanation of the possibilities from the St Louis Post-Dispatch where you can find some maps on proposed expansion. After all that reading, if you're so inclined, join the Facebook Group, "Vote Yes For Public Transit in St Louis," that's dedicated to supporting the issue. Even if you're against it, it might be fun to go Troll it out over there. Start with, "you suck." That always works.
As for my time on the buses with Courtney, I'm happy to say both of us made it out without any serious head-wounds. You can find Courtney blogging over at and on twitter at @STLTransit. Thanks for the fun ride Courtney! I wish I could remember how to safely secure my bike to the front of the bus... To Arch Observer video!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

How Do You Wake Up A Sleeping City? Yelp!

It's not like I'm constantly thinking about how St Louis can improve, but I do think about it a lot. Case in point: As you know, one of the most important discussions you can have at work (besides the validity of Mark Wahlberg as an "actor") is what is everyone having for lunch. During a one those deep discussions last week a co-worker was wondering what he can get in the downtown vicinity fast. Then it hit me. I sat back in my seat in complete and utter shock. My jaw figuratively fell to the floor. My brows literally furrowed in a way that makes my forehead wrinkle so strangely that it can only be compared weird-wise to the likes of my Weird Beard. Yes, I'm exaggerating. Well, not about the forehead.
Anyway, you're likely asking why you're still reading about me describing my shock. Relax, I'm trying to build drama. Here comes the payoff... While my co-worker wondered where he can pick up food quick, I realized that there isn't a McDonald's downtown! How is that possible? They're everywhere! I think there was one in my basement when I was a kid. Actually, I should clarify that there *are* McDonald's in "downtown" St Louis. There's one pretty far south on Jefferson and Google maps (The Mickey D's listed on there are incorrect) tells me there's one on Tucker a few blocks north of Washington Ave, but I wouldn't count either of those walkable to the everyday downtown worker. Not that this is a bad thing.
It's not like not having a McDonald's is a huge loss. I, personally, don't even eat fast food. It's just weird to imagine a major downtown area without one! Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago it's hard not to find two McDonald's within a mile of each other. And in downtown Chicago, if it's not McDonald's it's something else. No matter which way you swing a love handle there will likely be a fast food restaurant begging you to try their new "premium" something. Try that in downtown St Louis and you'll quickly notice that your stomach will be pointing at almost anything other than a fast food joint.
And that's where it gets even weirder. There really isn't a lot of chain restaurants downtown. Going even further, there aren't very main chains of anything! There are very few stores you'll recognize when traveling in the core of the business district. Where am I going with all this? Well, what you *will* see is a downtown stocked with locally owned small businesses.
Yes! Another thing that makes downtown St Louis awesome! It hasn't been destroyed by Walmart-like corporate invasion. I realize some of this wouldn't hurt. Hell, I'd be crazy excited for a downtown Apple store. What we have now, though, is a local business heaven and we need to preserve it.
It's no secret many downtown restaurants are struggling. There's just not enough people here to fill all of them all the time. But it's getting there. I foresee a time not so far away where every empty storefront is bustling with customers... Where it will be difficult to get a table on a Tuesday night at Jade... Where El Borracho will need to kick a full bar of people out at closing... Where we'll all be driving flying cars... Here's the cool part. I'm not the only one.
Perhaps the most telling sign that downtown St Louis is about to explode is that the local business-centric website, Yelp, has begun investing in making a presence here. Yelp is huge in most of the major US cities and they've recently installed a St Louis Community Manager (the person in charge of sponsorships and organizing Yelpers) who'll be expanding their operations in the coming months. What this means for local businesses is that they'll be getting support not only from a large online community, but free promotion. That is, if they want it. Too often small businesses ignore what people are saying about them online. A smart business owner will take advantage of what Yelp brings them - direct discussion with their customers that potential customers will very likely see. This city is on gigantic opportunity and we need to take advantage of any help others are willing to give us.
So there. We don't need McDonald's if we've already got great local businesses that offer good food fast. Oh, you don't know where to go or if you'll like it? Hmm... Try Yelp. And feel free to contribute. We'll only get out of it what we put in it. I think I'll end this with a Yelp review I wrote for the aforementioned Jade. Too bad Yelp doesn't accept reviews of Mark Wahlberg... It wouldn't be pretty.
Jade Restaurant and Lounge
910 Olive St.
St Louis, MO 63101

The first thing you'll notice about Jade is exactly what you won't notice... A large, well placed sign. It's a bit hard to find - especially on a dark rainy night.

The great news is that everything else about it is delightful! From the decor, to the cleanliness, to the excellent and accommodating staff, I was pleasantly surprised on my visit to Jade Restaurant and Lounge.

The food? Another win. If you judge your asian food on the deliciousness of the crab rangoon like so many St Louisans do, you'll be very happy you chose to dine there. It's hand made, crisp and not too greasy. Pretty much everything you want in a rangoon.

I, however, judge almost solely on the spicy tuna roll. And let me tell you... it was the best I've had in St Louis. That's no joke. Perhaps it was just a good night for the Sushi chef, but I haven't had better here. The tuna was fresh, the rice perfectly cooked and the spiciness was just right. I'll be a patron of Jade again sometime soon just to make sure it's as good as I had the first time. Until then, 4 stars!

One caveat - when I was there it was mostly empty similar to other reviews here. Being a new restaurant I hope people give it a chance. If the problem is that you can't find it, just go to the corner that Culinaria is on and walk west. When you smell crab rangoon take a left and enter the door. You're either in an Asian restaurant at that point or somebody's apartment building. If you're in an Asian restaurant, you're probably at Jade! Sit down and order some saki. If you're in an apartment building, look at the resident listing like you're pretending to visit someone. Then feign a cell phone call and say out loud, "Oh, you're at Jade? I'll be right there!" This saves embarrassment. Now leave and start over from Culinaria.
P.S. Since this review was written Jade's business has considerably picked up. I'm happy to say you'll now find it much busier! Also, here's some of my other reviews to peruse.