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 www.MoreMetrlink.com 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 www.NextStopSTL.org 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!