I didn’t learn to drive a car until I was in my 20s. Rather than save my meager McEarnings toward a vehicle, I was the ultimate nerd, using my hard-earned cash to help pay my way to debate camp every summer instead. And then I went to college in New York City. Sure, I might have needed a car if I’d stayed in Idaho, but NYC is all about that car-free life—perfect. And when I moved to northern California? Nope, still car-free, unless you count my girlfriend’s Nissan Sentra; she certainly would, given how much time she spent driving me around. The only thing that got me driving was my twin sister threatening to learn first—no way was she going to beat me to it, so I finally learned.
And then I became a driver’s license-carrying passenger, until I moved to New Orleans. This was shortly after the federal flood that followed Hurricane Katrina (that shit was man-made) and I was somehow under the impression that if I moved there, I’d need a car to drive straight out when the next storm hit. So I got a car, a 2006 Hyundai Accent, purchased from a University of Oregon cheerleader who was in the market for a Jetta, of course. And I drove that car from Portland, Oregon to New Orleans, Louisiana, where I promptly got a bike and let that car sit. It drove me away from one hurricane and got itself flooded in a couple of different rainstorms, but mostly it just sat for weeks at a time as I got to know the city by bike.
Getting a bike changed everything, and it did so almost immediately. It was like I was suddenly at home, cozied into the saddle, feet on the pedals, and I was free. After years and years of waiting for buses and subways and BART trains and streetcars, I was an independent traveler. Delays due to track work? Who gives a shit—I’m on my bike. Bus caught in traffic? See ya later, suckers, I’m just going to speed up ahead of y’all. I appreciated my car when I moved to Baltimore because getting to the county for work on a bike is a drag, but when the transmission gave out last year, I let it go. I’ve got a bike that can get me pretty much anywhere I need to be in 30 minutes or so, and if the weather’s bad, well, I can always take the bus.
And then there was February 2015. The weather was bad, really bad. Not just cold, but snowy and icy and generally inhospitable for a biker with nothing to prove (that’s me, by the way, all indications to the contrary). So this month’s field trips have been all about that MTA bus.
Even if you don’t ride the bus in Baltimore, you probably have a sense that the system is terrible, that it takes forever to get anywhere, and that taking the bus has got to be a last resort for people. Few of us love taking the bus. The ladyfriend does, though—our third date had us meeting up at a bus stop, her handing me her backup CharmCard for a ride to the library. Lucky for both of us, that was about the most romantic date I could imagine. But there’s a difference between the occasional romantic bus ride, shyly peeking at each other as we playfully argue about who gets to press the yellow strip as we approach Monument Street (I’m pretty sure there’s some hot lesbian porn featuring this exact storyline) and depending on the bus to get you somewhere on a somewhat timely schedule.
This month has featured a lot of that second kind of ride. I’ve needed to get to the shuttle I take to work on time, to my therapist’s office on time, and, yes, to the Rotunda on time to catch an opening-weekend viewing of “50 Shades of Grey.” Most of the folks on the bus with me need to get to work on time, to school on time, to the places we all need to be—on time. I have not experienced the bus to be a great way to ensure that I am on time, and I’m the kind of person who really, really needs to be on time. This has meant a month of leaving really, really early to get places, and mostly being on time, though I did miss the opening minutes of the movie, and in the process surely something very important about what young virginal sadomasochists like to do before their big dates.
I happen to be lucky enough at the moment to have the time to wait around for the bus. I get paid a salary, but if I got paid by the hour, like many of my fellow bus riders surely do, those hours of waiting are very expensive. I don’t have children, but if I did, the stress of dragging them and all their shit aboard buses crowded with frustrated people who have been waiting forever would make taking the bus a whole different kind of yuck. But the thing for most of us on the bus is that we don’t actually have another choice, so we’re stuck with the hit-or-miss service that comes with a public service that is used mostly by people without a lot of power or clout, the kind that is leveraged every day to make sure we spend all our transportation funds on roads so everybody in their private vehicles can get a fast lane. Shared transportation can work, and it often does. I have spent a lot of time on a very reliable Quick Bus 48 this month, and it is totally a quick bus. Shorter routes, more buses, and dedicated travel lanes for them, and we’d have a system that people might actually use. We can’t actually drive our way out of traffic or climate change, so perhaps it’s time to think forward a bit and get on the damn bus.