There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The morning commute

The bus driver carries no change. That's what the sign says and that's what the driver is telling the man standing next to the fare collecting machine. The man needs an all-day pass, which costs $5. He's got a $10 bill and four $1 bills.

"Anyone got a $5?" the man asks the passengers. "Can anyone loan me a dollar?"

There are four of passengers. A guy next to the front door says no; the rest of us are silent.

"Can you spot me a dollar?" he asks the driver.

The driver points across the intersection to a mini-mart. He tells the guy to get some change. "I'll wait here for you," he says.

The man says thanks and dashes across the intersection and into the store. He is back just as quickly, pays the fare and pockets his all-day pass.

All in a day's work for the driver, I assume.

A little while later the bus is at a stop on Watt Avenue. My head is buried in my book as we take on passengers. I hear the bus honk and look up. There is a gentleman sitting on the bus stop bench asleep. His chin is on his chest. His hands are folded in his lap, holding a small bag of belongings. The bill of the ball cap he is wearing covers his face. The man is unmoved by the bus driver's attempt to wake him. We move on.

I take that as another kind gesture and return to my book.

Buses are radio equipped. The drivers keep the volume loud enough for everyone to hear. On evening rides home I have heard bus drivers calling to see if they can arrange to meet another bus so a passenger can make a connection. This morning, though, I hear something about Fair Oaks and Cadillac Drive. An accident. I look up from my book. We're on Howe Avenue now and the bus is stuck in traffic. The man talking on the radio explains that Fair Oaks is blocked at Cadillac, just east of the bridge. From my seat I can see the intersection of Fair Oaks and Howe. It's gridlocked. The radio makes a "This Is An Important Announcement" series of beeps and then alerts all 82 (mine) and 87 buses to hold at their current positions and await instructions. That's no problem for our bus. We're already stopped, along with several hundred commuters trying to get through what is one of Sacramento County's busiest intersections. The alert sounds and I hear the drivers of buses 82 and 87 instructed to detour around the accident and go directly to the 65th Street light rail station. Passengers on their way to Sac State will have to ride to light rail and then return to Sac State on the 82's return leg.

The driver acknowledges his instructions, and then, without getting up, asks if anyone is going to CSUS. About a half-dozen hands go up. The driver explains that Fair Oaks is closed by an accident and the bus won't be able to stop at Sac State. Passengers heading for Sac State can stay on the bus when it arrives at the light rail station. The bus will then go to Sac State.

Traffic eventually opens up enough for us to get past Fair Oaks. Behind me I hear a man explaining to a girl everything the bus driver had just explained. The girl is sitting with her iPod ear buds in her hands as she listens.

I think to myself, if she missed the radio traffic and missed the driver's explanation and didn't figure out anything was amiss until after we missed our turn on Fair Oaks, then she really needs to turn down the volume on that iPod.

The traffic accident delayed me about 15 minutes. I was at my desk by 9:49 a.m. Since I'm not on a clock, it was no big deal. But I am sympathetic to the plight of students who may have missed their first class of the day.

This delay wasn't RT's fault. Clearly, RT did everything it could to keep to its schedule. But this is another example of why people who don't have to rely on buses feel better in their own cars. If the girl had been driving in a car behind the bus instead of riding in the bus, she would not have made it to school any sooner, and might have been delayed further if she tried to use Fair Oaks to get to school. But as the driver of her own car, the girl would have felt in control. She would not have felt helpless to change the situation. That's what hurts transit. Each time a passenger feels helpless that's another reminder that having your own car is better. Even if that's illogical.

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