Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Boise Bus Tale

This isn't directly related to bicycling... sorry. It's about a bus ride I took yesterday. (The bus is my "alternative transportation.") I wrote it for the Boise Guardian; I don't know if he'll publish it or not.

Merry Christmas!


Public transportation is a contentious issue in the Treasure Valley.

Proponents say it's the inevitable answer to increasing congestion and pollution, and fluctuating fuel prices. Opponents point out that it will always be heavily subsidized by non-riders, particularly if the buses are often transporting very few passengers.

In our generally affluent society, most people can choose whether or not to ride the bus, because they can afford to own and operate a car (or multiple cars, in most households). However, some individuals depend on public transportation to get around; their only other option is shoe leather.

Why do people choose to drive cars? Usually they cite "freedom." Freedom to go where they want to go, and when.

Most people say the bus isn't an option because of inconvenience, or scheduling issues, or difficulty to use.

My own local transportation choice is bicycle. Has been since 1986. I feel it affords the same freedom that a car offers, but without the expense. The main limitations are... it involves some exercise (is that bad?), and weather looms large. Slippery roads can be difficult in a car, but deadly on a bicycle. So occasionally I depend on bus transportation when the roads are snow-covered or icy.

Yesterday was one of those occasions.

I had to travel across town (from downtown to the Cole/Ustick area) after work, for a family Christmas gathering. If I caught the 5:15pm bus, I thought I could easily arrive at my destination by the 6pm gathering time, despite the 3/4 mile walk at the other end. (Amazingly, no bus gets closer than 1/2 mile from Cole/Ustick, other than one "high school" route change in the morning, and again in the afternoon.)

I was at the downtown bus stop five minutes early, and watched as other buses arrived, loaded passengers, and departed. I got anxious. But other people were there, waiting for the same bus, which provided a bit of comfort.

Finally at 5:28, the Fairview bus arrived. I paid my fare and sat, still somewhat optimistic that I might get there on time if I hurried.

But as it turns out, that was the 5:45 bus. Apparently there wasn't a 5:15 bus yesterday, for whatever reason. But at least I got to wait another 15 minutes in a nice warm bus (and arrived fashionably late).

I'm a lifelong Boise resident, and have no plans to leave. So I have a stake. And for that reason, I would love to see a viable bus system. The traffic jams don't have much impact on a cyclist, but the air pollution certainly does. Transportation is a quality-of-life issue for everybody.

I'm asking myself: Would most of my fellow citizens be willing to walk 3/4 mile to get to a bus stop, or from a bus stop to their destination? I'd have to say no... particularly when it's 3/4 mile of ice and frozen slush. Would they choose a transportation option where the scheduled bus might or might not show up... at all? I'm thinkin'... um ... no. (Yesterday I was wondering if the Boise Bus system is run on the same computer that does the BCS football thing!)

The bus system is severely underfunded. Nobody would deny that. Federal funds have dried up over the years, and there is no local funding either. But the harsh reality is, without more riders it's hard to justify more dollars. And without better routes and reliability, I can't envision more voluntary passengers. Right now it serves desperate citizens who have no choice (like me), and the lucky people who it's convenient for.

I jokingly (at least half-jokingly) say that "cars are for losers." But I sure didn't feel like much of a winner yesterday.


fpteditors said...

Simple solution. Free public transit. Costs about 0.6% sales tax. Mitigates a hundred problems, including making cycling safer in the long run. Framing note: unless public transportation is run by for-profit companies, the money spent is an investment, not a subsidy.

Brent said...

I'll have to agree with you that in Boise, biking is the only real alternative transportation option. I've tried the bus a few times. My trips always start with an optimism that quickly deflates as I struggle with late buses and poor scheduling. The bus stops that were added this year are an improvement, but until you can be guaranteed that a bus will come every 15 minutes (7 would be far, far better and pull a lot of folks out of their cars, especially if paired with $4/gallon gas) you won't see increased ridership. The real deal-breaker for me is that unless I run out of work at 5PM, I can't get home on the bus. Why do busses stop at 6PM? How is it better for society to have people driving their cars home inebriated. The cost and safety savings of this alone would cover the increased cost of an extended bus schedule. What we have is a great start, but it's a tentative step into the pool. Public transportation won't swim until routes are run more frequently and longer into the evening. And knowing there was another alternative home if the weather goes foul would increase cycling as well.

Bikeboy said...

Regarding the notion of FREE public transit, I'll have to differ. Meaning - if the cost of a ride went from $1 to 0 here in Boise, there wouldn't be a meaningful increase in ridership, if everything else were the same.

We'd still have the same marginal routes, half-hour coverage (that's during the PEAK, one-hour the rest of the time), no service after 6pm or on Sundays.

Everybody who's driving a car can afford the $2 round trip. To make the bus a viable transportation option, it has to be reliable and not too hard to use, and most citzens just aren't seeing it that way.

Regarding funding of the system, in these parts it comes pretty much from the ridership (small slice of pie) and from municipalities. The state provides no funding, and on top of that, our enlightened legislators have opposed letting the voters decide whether they'd support it with a sales tax increase. (I'm not sure I'd vote for it, but I'd sure take a serious look at the proposal... if given the chance.)

Anonymous said...

You got me a-thinkin'! I started a comment here, but it got too long. Will post a long post soon. Thanks for the inspiration!

Anonymous said...

I think maybe the Bus folks need to invest some good old-fashioned elbow grease in simple, free improvements.

db said...

Yeah, your account and those of the commenters here are why I keep harping on the bus system.

I'd love to use the bus to get to work or to get downtown, but I cannot rely on even hourly lines to run correctly.