Waiting on the number 9

Number9

I just got out of work after a long day, and I’m waiting at the bus stop. My bus is late. It should be be by at 6:07 or so, but it’s 6:20 and I don’t see it yet. It turns out it will get here at 6:23, but I don’t know that yet, so I’m a bit anxious.

Why is my bus late? I don’t know, but it’s in the nature of local buses to be late. Before it gets to me, the 9 needs to loop around Gulfton, with plenty to slow it down. Every traffic light, every traffic backup, every rider fumbling for his change, is a delay waiting to happen. At mid-day, with fewer riders and better traffic, the bus is more reliable. But the 6:07 isn’t. I tracked arrival times for a while: 6:16, 6:18, 6:05 (or was that the 5:40, running late?), 6:21.

And of course, I can be late just like the bus can. A phone call, a last email to answer a question, and I’m late. If I were taking the train and watched it pull out of the station just as I showed up, I’d wait for 6 minutes and catch another. With the number 9, I’m sitting there for 30 minutes.

I take the bus because I’m lucky. It happens there’s a METRO route that stops a block from work and two blocks from home. And it’s a pretty quick run, express for about half its length. For me, the bus is less money to spend on a car, a nice walk in the morning, and an extra few minutes that I can spend working rather than riding. Most of the entries on this blog are written on the number 9; I grab the seat with the extra legroom just behind the rear door and pull out my laptop.

But the fact is that for most people, their trip isn’t that simple. A local bus — slow, unreliable, intimidating to new riders — will never be the mode of choice for all but a handful. Local bus service is an important social safety net, a mode of last resort for those who can’t drive due to income, age, or disability. I know many people who take light rail; I know few who take local bus.

There are things METRO can do to improve bus service. In fact, they’re working on some of them: “signature” express bus service in some busy corridors, a number to call for updated, real-time arrival times. But as long as the buses are running in traffic, they will be unreliable. The Rapid service in LA has gotten a lot of press as an alternative to rail. I rode it; I got a parking ticket because the bus I was on got delayed so much by traffic and people getting on that the bus behind us caught up and passed us. In LA, they think of the Rapid as a feeder to rail, and they’re building more rail lines. BRT solves the reliability issue with reserved lanes, but now you’re spending nearly as much as you would for rail. In building transit as in riding it, there’s no free ride.

On some days, like today, I wonder about taking the bus. I watch the cars go by, sit on the big concrete block that stands in for a bench, look at the time again, and hope I don’t get rained on. I don’t blame METRO. But don’t tell me that we should just run more local buses instead of building rail or BRT. When the train coming? 2012, I hope, and six minutes after that, and six minutes after that, and…

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