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  • Katrina Martich

This One Is Me

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

I can’t see a bus go by without the refrain from “Another One Rides the Bus” by Weird Al Yankovic going through my head. “Another comes on; and another comes on; another one rides the bus.” I now live on a four-lane arterial with a bus line and am hearing the song a lot. I’m also hearing a lot of noise because of the traffic on that arterial. It’s one of the sacrifices I made to live where I do now.

Buses are becoming a regular part of my life, but that wasn’t always the case. I was lucky to live within walking distance of my school for most of my childhood. Buses for me were special occasions. They took me on field trips and to summer camp. Greyhound was how my grandmother came from Cleveland to Milwaukee for visits. Buses meant family, fun, and good times. That changed in 10th grade, when my family moved to Montgomery, Alabama.

My house in Montgomery was far enough from school to be on a bus route. I started riding the school bus, but it didn’t last long. I met a few classmates who lived in my neighborhood, and none of them rode the bus. I quickly learned buses weren’t for “people like us.” Looking back, I realize it meant “white,” or at least “not poor.” But at the time, I was in a new school and a new culture and wanted the one thing probably every sophomore in high school wants: to fit in. Fitting in meant avoiding the bus. I alternated between getting my Dad to drop me off at school on his way to work and bumming rides with friends.

School buses came up in my life again years later, when I was an adult living in Johnson County, Texas. The school district’s bond election included money to build a large parking lot for students’ cars. Forgetting my own high school experience, I asked some parents in my Sunday School class why we needed to pay for a parking lot, when we were already paying for school buses. They said the buses were “not safe” for their kids. I’m not a parent, so I kept quiet and said nothing more. However, I wondered about the kids who had no choice except to ride the bus.

My most recent experience with buses was in Fort Worth, Texas. We intentionally lived near an express bus route, so my spouse could ride it to downtown for work. The unreliability of the bus surprised us. Times varied, and occasionally the bus didn’t show up at all. We had a car, and I could pick up my spouse when things went wrong. We wondered about people who had no other options for getting to work. We started asking questions about the bus system. Frequently, the people in our circle of contacts didn’t care, because the buses weren’t for “people like us.” They were just something the city “had” to provide for “those people.” Public transit was talked about like forced charity, not a public good.

In general, the US has one of the lowest rates of public transit usage compared to other developed countries. The reason I most commonly hear is the greater distances associated with development in the US. However, Canada has large distances and fewer people than the US. They use public transit at twice the rate we do. Prior to the pandemic, about 5% of US workers used public transit to commute, compared to over 12% in Canada. Distances and population density may contribute to our low use of public transit, but they’re not the whole story.

In a few US cities, it’s so expensive and difficult to use a car that many people ride public transportation. But in the majority of the country, including the places where I’ve lived, most people don’t. This wasn’t always the case. Looking at the history of mass transit in the US, there was a time when most people rode subways, buses, and electric street cars. There was no stigma attached to it. Prior to World War II, so many people used mass transit that it was profitable for private companies to operate the transit systems. Ridership peaked during the austere years of World War II.

After the war, our country experienced the car culture, civil rights, white flight, and urban sprawl; all of which changed our attitudes about transportation. As more people used cars, mass transit was no longer profitable. Transit companies went out of business. Transportation became “public,” instead of “mass,” transit, operated and subsidized by municipalities and the Federal government. For the Federal government, funding public transit was secondary to the main transportation priority: building an interstate highway system. Similarly, the primary focus of cities was building infrastructure for cars and neighborhoods for people with cars.

Both the Federal and municipal transportation priorities had racial components. The routes of interstate highways were intentionally designed to disrupt communities of color in the name of “urban renewal” and “clearing the slums.” Urban sprawl segregated cities into predominately white, middle class, car dependent suburbs and an inner city that was economically disadvantaged and disproportionately people of color. Racism was embedded in the public transit systems designed to serve cities. These dynamics formed the prevailing attitude about public transit today. The attitude includes elements of racism, classism, and individualism; i.e., “I’m entitled to go where I want to go when I want to go.”

The environment didn’t fare well in cities designed for cars. Our transportation system emits over a quarter of our country’s total greenhouse gas emissions and is a significant contributor to climate change. The majority of transportation emissions come from light-duty vehicles, i.e., the cars and trucks most of us drive. The legacy of leaded gasoline still contributes to soil in many urban areas being unsafe for gardens. Urban sprawl fragments native habitat, decreases biodiversity, increases the wildland urban interface at risk of fire, and increases human conflicts with large mammals, such bears, mountain lions, and moose. Electric cars only address the emissions problem. They won’t remedy all the social and environmental impacts of a car dependent city.

The injustices inherent to a car dependent lifestyle were on my mind when we looked for a home during our move to Spokane. We intentionally chose a century-old house in an established neighborhood on an arterial street, because it facilitates a more sustainable way of life within community. I can walk to the grocery store, pharmacy, restaurants, and businesses. Walking to places comes easily to me, since I’ve long had a walking habit. Now, instead of walking in circles around the neighborhood, I go places and do errands when I walk.

I also have access to several bus routes. Going back to Weird Al and his song, I still laugh when I hear it, but unlike when I was younger, I now cringe when I listen to the lyrics. Embedded in them are the attitudes and prejudices from decades of policy decisions that worked against public transit and for the benefit of people who had cars. I’m a product of that system and feel the negative attitudes about public transit within me, too. They’ve made bus riding a more difficult habit to adopt than walking.

I’ve ridden buses with friends and family when visiting other cities. Somehow it seems different when riding the bus alone in my own city where I have a car. I admit to being anxious the first time I rode the bus in Spokane. It was humbling to discover I had to learn how to ride the bus and make transfers. I didn’t know to pull the cord as we approach my stop, because the driver won’t stop if nobody is waiting there. I didn’t know the rear bus door won’t open unless I tell the driver I’m exiting. Somebody even had to show me how to insert the fare the first time!

Figuratively and literally, the bus takes me out of my bubble. I engage with a variety of people with different abilities, languages, and perspectives. I’m learning things about people, my community, and myself that I’d never know if I only used my car. Riding the bus is making me a better person and a more informed citizen.

A surprise benefit has been the gift of time. On the surface, it looks like the bus requires more time to get somewhere than driving my car. The truth I’ve learned is that driving the car is wasted time, while riding the bus isn’t. The bus frees my brain to reflect, pray, prepare for the meeting I’m going to, do some work, clear emails, and all kinds of things I can’t do while driving. I arrive at my destination calmer than if I’d been dealing with traffic and trying to find a parking spot. Afterwards, the bus ride home gives me time to process what I’ve done and transition to what’s next. I’ve previously written about time, and the way our modern focus on speed creates a hurry-sickness for us and has environmental ramifications. It turns out riding the bus helps treat the problem.

I’m not riding the bus anywhere near as frequently as I hope I will. Lifestyle change doesn’t happen quickly or easily. A new habit takes time to develop. It requires practice and discipline.

Speaking from a Christian perspective, Pastor and Bonhoeffer scholar Mark Brocker in his book “Coming Home to Earth” describes forgoing the car as part of taking up our "ecological cross." He argues that we are willing to dabble in ecological reform but have an aversion to the sacrificial way of life embodied in love of God, love of neighbor, and love of God’s creation. As someone who tries to be a follower of Jesus, I turn to his example of love when I need motivation and discipline to choose the bus over my car.

I’ve begun to think of riding the bus as a protest of the injustices inherent to a car-centric lifestyle. Love of neighbor compels me to use my body and money to support public transit and to travel alongside people who may not have the option to use a car. Love of neighbors who bear the brunt of a changing climate compels me to reduce my emissions by riding the bus. Love of God who is the source of the climate, the planet, the universe, and all the gifts of creation that I enjoy compels me to ride the bus for a more sustainable lifestyle. And so, another one gets on the bus, and this one is me.

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