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%).
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.
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.