Transit blog, day six

Gaining a new perspective

Reaching the halfway mark of my two-week stint on public transit feels good. It also seems like a good time to relax a little and reflect.

I drove my car this weekend, and I must admit that I enjoyed it. For Mother’s Day, I wanted new shoes and my sweet husband suggested I just go and find the ones I wanted. In fact, he told me to “buy two.” It was a task made exponentially easier by car, even though Cedar Rapids Transit offers free rides on Saturday.

But even as I drove around, visiting various retail joints, I was more aware of the community and the transit buses than I normally would be.

If you ride city buses for any period of time, you can’t help but gain a new perspective on things. Public art is no longer seen at a glance, while you wait on a light to change or while you speed by on your way to somewhere else. There’s time to take in the details, to see the sculpture or paint in context with its surroundings.

You also notice people — people you might not have really seen if you hadn’t been walking the same street or sitting on the same bench. And, if you are a little brave, you can start a conversation that tilts perspective a couple of degrees more.

You see where the sidewalks need repair, and where they don’t exist. While walking in the street, you’ll become the subject of angry stares from drivers who cannot see how difficult it would be to walk in the mud, rocks or other obstructions where the sidewalk should be.

You also take stock of bus stops, noting which ones are only a patch of grass and a pole and what others offer a place to sit. (This topic deserves a blog post of its own.)

A passenger on the Route 5S bus pays his fare as he gets on the bus stop at Lindale Mall in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. The bus travels from the Cedar Rapids Ground Transportation Center to the Marion Walmart then back to the GTC.
A passenger on the Route 5S bus pays his fare as he gets on the bus stop at Lindale Mall in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. The bus travels from the Cedar Rapids Ground Transportation Center to the Marion Walmart then back to the GTC. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

And, once you are back behind the wheel, you’ll remember all the cars that pulled out in front of the bus, or cut the bus off in traffic. Some mornings I’m convinced the voice in the bus driver’s head is little more than a string of curse words, and I marvel how he or she still manages to greet passengers onto the bus with a smile.

Time and again during the past week, people who have been following the transit blog posts or have met me as I have traveled want to know if I will continue to use the city bus when the experiment comes to an end. For the most part, I’ve shrugged my shoulders in uncertainty.

On days when I need only to come into the office and then travel back home, the city bus is a possibility. Riding is much more cost effective than driving solo, and routinely navigating the same bus route would not be mentally taxing.

But on those days when I need to attend a meeting or want to have lunch with a friend, I would not choose the bus. It simply takes too much time and planning. If there was a way I could enter an address and have the system map the route, I’d feel differently. But that is currently not an option.

A good example of this difficulty was part of one of the tasks that riders asked me to perform: Take your laundry to a laundromat using the city bus. I’m aware of two public laundromats within walking distance of my home, but that felt like cheating. So, I searched an online map program for all laundromats in or near Cedar Rapids. The program returned about a dozen results, including the ones in Marion.

Although it was easy enough to pull those addresses from the map program, I couldn’t plug the results into the transit app or on the transit site to get directions. I needed to compare the locations of the laundromats to the multiple PDFs of bus routes on the transit site, and figure out which route was closest to which laundromat. Then I needed to pull up that specific route on the app in order to view each bus stop. (That level detail isn’t available on the PDFs.) From there, I could determine which laundromat location would require the most walking, and which route would take the most time (i.e., if I would need to travel to the hub and/or try to find a connection so that I could transfer to another bus). I had to compute all of the time estimates manually by using the incomplete bus schedules available on the transit website.

If you’ve visited larger cities and used their transit apps, you know the difference. Those apps allow you to enter your current location and where you want to go, and receive step-by-step directions on how to navigate. They provide time estimates for each option. And, in the case of the best apps, you can plan ahead. That is, you can tell the app that you don’t plan to make the trip until the next afternoon, and it will provide information based on the schedule for the time you choose.

In Cedar Rapids, if I want to plan today for a trip tomorrow, I must rely on a combination of printed schedules, online maps, the app and my own brain power. Based on my limited research, this is a major barrier to bus use.

Those who don’t use the bus, who have never used the bus, are apprehensive about it. They don’t want to be the person who holds things up at the bus stop while they figure out how to purchase a day pass, or where they insert their money.

Even when they believe they are ready to ride, once they begin to look at the routes and try to figure out the system, they get overwhelmed. It isn’t easy to understand or navigate, especially if you are new to public transit. It’s the reason my desk at work is plastered with sticky notes showing routes and estimated travel times by bus from one place to another.

How about some homework? Take this address — 3933 Mount Vernon Rd SE, Cedar Rapids, IA (a medical office) — and see how long it takes to map a route to there from your home or office. That one should be relatively easy because it is on a bus route. Even so, how much time would you need to spend walking? When would you need to leave in order to get to your appointment on time? Would you want to take the same route back, or is a different way quicker? If your appointment takes longer than estimated, how long will you need to wait for the next bus?

If you need an address that is more challenging, map your route to Cleveland Elementary School. 2200 First Avenue NW.

This blog post by Lynda Waddington originally published on The Gazette website on May 9, 2016. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette