“You’re crazy for taking the bus!
Yeah, I’m crazy! So, what’s the fuss?”
-Jonathan Richman, 'You're Crazy for Taking the Bus'
Today, I was riding the public bus in Hamilton at about one o’clock in the afternoon. This can be a bit difficult at times, and this was one of those times. The brakes on the bus were going bad, and to compensate, the driver was pumping them for the entire block leading up to each stop. It was a bit like that herky-jerky ride up the first hill on a rollercoaster. And then you had people who wanted to know where the bus was going, in great detail, before riding. So, the driver would have to explain, while stopped at the bus stop, for five minutes or so. Then a drunken man got on with his wife and she paid for both of them, and he paid for himself. They had lost $2.50 here, and so the bus came to a halt while it was decided what to do. The bus driver completed a form so they could file a claim, which was sort of a Christmas miracle for them, but ten boring minutes for me. Finally, you had a guy who held up the bus for five minutes to make sure it was going near to the beer store he was aiming for. After getting on, he quizzed everyone sitting near him about what was the closest stop to his beer store because he didn’t want “to waste any time” walking there. My thought is that, if it’s one in the afternoon on a Monday and you’re taking public transit to the Beer Store, your time is probably not that friggin’ valuable.
But, I love taking the bus. Really, I do. A lot of people don’t like to take the bus, but even on bad days like this I like it. It allows me to relax and think. I can read a book. I don’t have to worry about parking. And Claire can confirm that I hate to drive. Besides, a bus pass costs 1/4th my monthly car insurance bill, and that’s before gas and oil. Most of all, I actually enjoy the people who ride the bus. They’re interesting and they give me things to talk about. Sure, some of them have been rode hard and hung up wet. I can now distinguish, on sight, between alcoholics and meth addicts, a trick that is sure to impress people at the next cocktail party I attend! And I’m still amazed at the virtually identical hip hop “street” clothes work by all young males in this town. But, there’s just something inherently interesting about people on the bus; maybe it’s the fact that, if you’re riding the bus, you’re not usually that pretentious. You’re not likely putting on airs on the bus! People are just themselves there, in all of their bewildering glory.
Our city has a few hundred buses, which means that the service is very regular. Rarely do you have to wait more than five minutes for a bus. They tend to be well-used too; a lot of people here can’t afford to have two cars or a garage. Nevertheless, public transit makes less money than it spends and makes up the difference through taxes.
There’s no particular shame in this. Every public transit system in the world runs at a loss, with the exception of a few subway lines in Japan, which are notoriously busy. As you might expect, then, there are plenty of people who believe that public transit should be privatized. Why should the taxpayers subsidize the losers on the bus? No wonder the buses lose money; after all, the “state” runs them. If they were run by private companies for a profit, they would surely be run more efficiently, be cleaner, and the service would be better. And, hey, there would be competition, so more buses!
Of course, if there were more buses, each line would have less riders, thus make less money. Not to mention that you’d have to raise the fares anyway to make that profit. So, nobody doubts that the fares would have to go up. The hope is that you could justify the higher fares through added “value”; special perks like music on the buses, plush interiors, or people coming around to stamp your ticket. Riding the bus would become more of a luxury or a special treat. The quality would improve with the profit motive and the higher fares.
And yet, I’m guessing that most people in this town wouldn’t vote to have more expensive private bus lines replace the public buses. Because the value of the public buses is not just economic- they haven’t “failed” simply by losing money. Their value is in making life a bit more livable for the people who need to use them. Elderly people ride the bus because they can’t drive any more but still want to go to their doctor, the library, or the market. People who are mentally or physically disabled ride the bus to go to the social services offices downtown or to the park. Young parents ride the bus and spend the money they save on their kids. Most of all, people who live in the seedier part of the city go work in the more prosperous side and bring money back. In many cities- Paris is a perfect example- the outskirts are still vibrant because the buses and trains serve as a lifeline. Otherwise, you’d have more complete social collapse in the poor neighborhoods.
The argument against all of this is that, if people were physically isolated, they might have the inspiration to improve those slums. But, of course, they still wouldn’t have the money to. And then you have a lot more people who are working class and who are just trying to save money; getting rid of a car is a great way to do that. In general, the buses serve a social good because they allow for people in urban areas to have the sort of physical mobility that brings cultural and economic benefits to all parts of the city. They allow for circulation between social hubs and cross-cultural exchange. It’s a cliché in New York to say that the Metro lines are the circulatory system of the city; it’s also true.
The irony, of course, is that the privatization movement, which is aimed at freeing the public from the iron hand of the state, isn’t actually popular enough with the public to ever offer them a chance to vote on it; you can thus only “liberate” them without their consent. When cities actually do try to get rid of public services, it amounts to a betrayal because people plan their lives around these services. Californians know all about this. I actually lived in a city that tried to cut back on trash pick up, libraries, and emergency services; people were outraged.
Besides, given how the economy is going, a lot more people will be riding the bus in the future. This, after all, is why you build bus lines in the first place, or really do anything in the interest of the common good- because one day it could be you that has to use them! Don’t worry, though. There’s still plenty of room on the bus, and riding the bus is a great way to meet people.