Bus Commute: Community of Strangers

 

In transportation professional speak, I’m what is called a “choice rider.” These are the folks using transit who have other options, and tend to be higher-income, white collar, white-skinned professionals. When I first heard that phrase, “choice rider,” I thought it was offensive – like a choice cut of meat. Like there was some intrinsic quality of these transit users that made them preferable to the rest of “those people” who are using transit.

Of course, the origin is more innocuous – it refers to people who “have a choice” about whether or not to use the bus. Hence, “choice rider.” 

I live in a one-car household, and my wife uses it about 95% of the time. We could get a second car for me to use, but haven’t yet done so. For me, being mostly car-free is definitely a choice. If I wanted to, I could choose to buy or lease a car of my own and drive to work, to go shopping, to get to the end of my driveway if I wanted to.

But since I care about the environment and like to exercise and am a cheapskate, I stay mostly car-free. And it’s hit that time of year (dark, snowy, icy) when riding my bike becomes more challenging than I want to deal with. So I’ve switched over to the bus for the time being.

Taking transit in a big city isn’t a big deal. Even where I lived in relatively suburban Belmont, most people working in Cambridge or Boston hopped on the 73 bus or used commuter rail to get into the city.

Mid-sized cities are a whole different story. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky (population 308,000), I never took the bus even once. Going to school in Eugene, Oregon (MSA population: 357,000), I took the bus rapid transit system several times, but only ventured onto the rest of the bus system only once. Even when I was in college at Hampshire, I generally only used the buses between college campuses, which act more or less as a shuttle for students and faculty.

Using the bus to get from Holyoke to Springfield, then, was a fairly new experience for me compared to my prior transit use. The big reason goes back to what I mentioned earlier: there are comparatively few “choice riders” in Hampden County. According to the most recent PVTA rider survey, two-thirds of transit users do not have reliable access to other transportation. That squares with a map I put together showing the percentage of households in Holyoke with zero cars (in some spots, >50%).

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Source: PVTA Comprehensive Service Analysis

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In short, that means a lot of very poor people are using the transit system in Hampden County.

And there is a stigma to using the bus. There’s a sense that “those people” who ride the bus are using drugs, or drunk, or cussing loudly, or stinky, or doing any number of other objectionable things. And of course race/racism plays into it, too – even though Hampden county is three-quarters white, the bus ridership is overwhelmingly non-white.

Riding the Bus

As I have ridden the bus, the biggest surprise is the subtle sense of community that exists. I take the P21 Express from Holyoke to Springfield, which runs hourly. That means that I ride with basically the same people every day, and have the same driver on most days. In an unexpected way, I get to know them all just the tiniest bit. 

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Typical afternoon on the P21 Express. 

Like last year, there was the driver who, everyday before her shift, was on her phone talking with her daughter and going over spelling words. She had to be at work at an ungodly early hour, but still wanted to help her daughter study for apparently frequent spelling quizzes.

There was also the family who would take the express bus most days, with the father who had to be at least 6’ 6” tall and his two daughters. They were always late, rushing to the bus stop – but usually that same bus driver who practiced spelling with her daughter would stop mid-block and open the door for the huffing family. That sort of thing would never happen in Boston, the driver would just keep going. 

I remember last winter that there was the one other biker who would put his mountain bike on the bus alongside mine. He would come in from South Hadley, from a public housing apartment complex, and take the bus down to Springfield where he drove a truck for deliveries. The business owner worked him hard, it sounded like, because sometimes he would just barely make the last bus back to Holyoke. That made for a long 12-hour day, but keeping the job was one of the conditions of keeping his apartment.

On the bus I’ve heard the crescendo-ing arguments of lovers in the midst of a quarrel, one side of cell phone calls with child protective services, and more frantic pocket-searches for day passes and nickels and dimes than I care to remember. Most conversation snippets I catch have the same undercurrent of being broke, being oh-so broke.

And not once have I been  harassed, or thrown up on, or in any way felt threatened. Indeed, surrounded by families and familiar faces, it’s actually comforting being on the P21 E – in an unexpected way, I feel connected. 

Would it be faster to drive to work? Oh yeah. Would it be easier? In a lot of ways, yes. But taking the bus I get to exit my white-collar bubble for a few minutes a day and become part of a subtle, unconscious community of strangers.

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Visiting the Towns That Boston’s Thirst Wiped Off the Map

If you’ve seen the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, you might remember the scene at the end of the movie where the valley is flooded, and a torrent of water comes rushing in to save the day in a flurry of water and banjos and Dapper Dan hair tonic.

I vaguely knew of Massachusetts’ own intentional inundation of some towns thanks to my alma mater; at Hampshire College, the three on-campus housing villages were named after towns that were lost to the Quabbin Reservoir. I lived in Prescott House, though I had friends living in Greenwich and Enfield. The fourth town, Dana, didn’t get a housing village named after it, making its disincorporation and erasure that much more tragic.

(By the way, I learned that “Greenwich” is pronounced “Green-witch”, unlike the town in Connecticut.)

 

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A very official map I found of the four towns overlaid onto the Quabbin. Source: bikemass351.com

 

These four small towns were erased and the residents relocated to quench Boston’s ever-growing thirst. In this time of never-ending public meetings, Environmental Impact Statements, and process, the notion that four whole towns were removed from the map is actually inconceivable – you can barely remove a tree these days without a protest and/or series of public forums.

So I thought I would devote this post to remembering these four towns, and why the Quabbin Reservoir was built right on top of them.

A Very Brief History

The quick run-down is that the population of Boston was exploding during the industrial revolution up through the 1920s, when the state legislature finally decided to create the Quabbin.

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All during the 1930s, workers cleared trees, deconstructed homes and churches, moved cemeteries, and dismantled factories. The whole area, some 25,000 acres, had to be totally cleared before it could be flooded with over 400,000,000,000 gallons of water. They spent weeks burning brush, which I imagine was great for the local air quality.

Another good bit of work was constructing the aqueduct which piped the water to Boston. It took years of boring through bedrock to pipe the water to all those parched Bostonians.

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Source: MWRA.com

I imagined that, just like in O Brother, there was a wall of water rushing through the river valley once the Swift River was dammed. But it actually took 7 years for the valley to slowly fill up, covering up the remaining roadways, well heads, and building foundations. Today, you can walk along the dam in Belchertown, and it’s also a great place for a picnic. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed in the reservoir for swimming or other water sports.

For anyone interested in more information, there’s a nice documentary by WGBY about the demolition of these towns here.

The Four Towns Today

Today, the towns are all but gone, with the exception of Dana Town Common. It’s somewhat hard to find the road turnoff to get to there, but it’s a lovely 2-mile walk to the common and pretty eerie to see the leftovers from Dana.

We shot a couple of pictures, though you don’t really get a sense of common from them. Oh well, selfies are just as good, right?

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There are some nice displays showing the buildings that were on the common, and you can find the building foundations still there. Dana Town Common is unique among the four towns because it wasn’t flooded; you have to put on SCUBA gear to find the others.

Was It Worth It?

The question that inevitably comes up is whether flooding the Swift River Valley was worth it. This is one of those questions that people debated at the time and will continue debating long after this blog post is published, as persuasively written and definitive as it might be.

The four towns combined had about 2,700 residents, whereas Boston alone (not counting neighboring suburbs) had nearly 800,000. The city had struggled for decades to provide adequate clean drinking water to this booming metropolis. As the political and economic engine of the state and the region, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the state was able to push through this massive public works project – especially during the Great Depression when large public works projects were being pushed.

But still, people today from the area are bitter. My former boss from New Salem once said to me, “I get why the Quabbin Reservoir was important. I still don’t think it was the right thing to do.”

In the end, residents in the area were compensated $108/acre for their land, or about $1,600/acre today. According to one article:

“For the rest of his life after we left, my father said he could never go home,” said Linda Smith, 73, who was a toddler when her family left Greenwich and her father closed his auto repair business in Dana.

People struggled both emotionally and financially after they were forced out. It was the Great Depression, and even $108 couldn’t take a person very far in those conditions.

So was it worth it? For Boston, certainly – it has enough water to last it into the low-growth distant future. For the Swift River Valley residents? Not so much. I’ll let historians and economists keep the debate going while Bostonians slake their thirst with some of the best drinking water in the world.

Hartford’s Blazing Glory

While some members of a snobby coastal caste might refer to inland parts of America as “fly-over country,” truth be told there are also places that I consider “drive-through cities.” These are the cities that I have driven through multiple times on road trips, and are just part of the scrolling scenery on my way to wherever I’m going.

A good example is Sturbridge, MA. When I was commuting from Boston to Springfield on a regular basis, there was always a sign directing me from I-90 to “Historic Downtown Sturbridge.” Has anyone ever actually gotten off the highway on a whim to see the living history that is Sturbridge? Well, not me – I just drove through.

When I was in college, I would make the Kentucky – Amherst drive at least twice a year; one year I went back and forth four times. There were a lot of good town names along the way – Moosic, PA was my favorite. And then those curious signs in West Virginia reading “A Certified Business Location.” But this was all drive-through territory. Pull off the highway for gas or food or bathroom, and then start rolling again. Continue reading “Hartford’s Blazing Glory”