How Do We Take the Bus?

I didn’t have to work today, and wanted very much to finally make good on my multi-year goal of taking the bus somewhere, anywhere really. I decided to go to the mall.

I had heard that there was a new comic book store in Eastdale Mall, and I wanted to check it out. At 10:54 a.m. on a chilly Wednesday in March, I left the house on foot.

But wait. Before I left the house, I made some preparations. I downloaded the app from the transit system’s website, so I could check the location of the buses in real time. I also entered my point of origin and my destination into the website, so that I knew what buses to take, and where to change. And I made sure that I had the increasingly-elusive paper money that I would need to buy a bus ticket: $2 for the ride to the mall, and $2 for the ride back.

11:04 – As the website told me to do, I arrived at the corner of Norman Bridge and Fairview to catch the bus. It would have been easy to arrive on this corner by walking on roads through the neighborhood, but I wanted to be on the main route, just in case the bus was coming. I didn’t want to miss it. It should be noted that we don’t have “bus stops,” per se, but the buses operate on a “call system,” whereby you can flag them down anywhere on the route.

Board here on Norman Bridge. Don't walk down to Fairview.

Board here on Norman Bridge. Don’t walk down to Fairview.

The problem with walking along Norman Bridge is that there are no sidewalks. So you’re walking in yards, looking over your shoulder, glancing at your phone to see if the bus is getting close, stepping out into the street when the yards have shrubs planted along the perimeter, dodging puddles, hoping not to get clipped by a vehicle. It probably goes without saying that an older person could not do this, nor could someone with any disability affecting speed and agility, nor could someone who was a stickler about not walking through the yards of a stranger. If you take your headphones out and pretend like you’re a ninja, you can do this.

11:09 – Don’t try to catch the bus at the corner of Norman Bridge and Fairview. The bus has to turn left there onto Fairview and you can’t cut across lanes of traffic to board the bus. Fortunately, the bus driver saw me, quickly surmised that I was an idiot a first-time bus rider, and motioned for me to cross two streets and meet her diagonally on Fairview, where I hopped on board, slightly embarrassed.

 11:11 – On the bus! It’s clean, and I’m the seventh person on board. One guy is snoring so loud, it’s hard not to laugh. One guy has the word “exclusive” tattooed where his eyebrow used to be. One guy has a cigar that he is slowly emptying of its tobacco, keeping the wrapper perfectly intact. We head down Fairview. As we head onto West Fairview, I notice a new piece of Civil Rights-themed art in front of St. Jude’s. That’s a nice thing about taking a bus — you’re not driving, so you can notice scenery, and you’re going out of your normal route, so you see things that you might otherwise miss.

11:23 – Arrive at the Fairview transfer station. Everyone gets off but me and the cigar guy. More people get on. We leave pretty quickly.

11:35 – Arrive at the multimodal center downtown, near the Montgomery Advertiser headquarters. I have to change buses, but the #2 bus, is waiting for me already. It’s clearly labeled “Eastdale Mall,” and the transfer process is quick. Pro tip: Get your transfer ticket when you get off the first bus, put it in the ticket machine on the second bus, and then throw it in the tiny trash can placed there for that purpose.

11:42 – We leave the bus station, heading up Madison for the mall. We made a few stops along the way, but not many.

11:55 – We’re at Perry Hill Road by the Milo’s that burned, just to give you a sense of the progress we’re making.

12:02 – We actually pass the mall, but we’re going to double back and hit it on the other side of the road. This is a good idea because there don’t appear to be any pedestrian crosswalks here. We go all the way down, past Frazer Methodist Church, and turn around at Jim and Nick’s BBQ, and head back towards the mall.

12:14 – I’m standing in front of Dillard’s at Eastdale Mall. Success! I spend a little more than an hour wandering around in the mall, marveling at what was once a retail wonderland. It’s the middle of the day, but still surprisingly empty. A lot of the stores are shuttered. I feel a surge of relief for the people working in the food court when a bus full of Blount County high school students arrives, likely fresh off some kind of field trip. I order a veggie burger from a place called Flames, which the cashier tells me is unrelated to the downtown burger joint that is now closed. It’s quite good.

Don't try to go upstairs at Dillard's.

Don’t try to go upstairs at Dillard’s.

1:25 – I’ve cruised the forlorn ice skating rink, the incredibly bored sellers of gold chains, the purveyors of Cinnabon, the merchants of Air Jordans. I buy some incense from the Earthbound Trading Company and I’ve discovered that the “comic book store” is really more of a strange collection of lunchboxes and toys and maybe some candy. They do have four or five comic books there, but I decide to head outside and try to catch a bus home.

As I leave the mall, I call up the app to see how far away the bus is. One problem: There is no bus listed as being on the route — like anywhere. I decided to walk along the bus route, hoping that one will come by. I circle the mall until I am near the Red Lobster at the main mall entrance. I lean against the stop sign for a while. No bus on the app, no bus in sight.

1:45 – The app tells me that it is unable to make a prediction about when the bus might arrive. I decide to enter Red Lobster and have a drink while I wait. I use the app to set a notification, which seems like a pretty nice feature. It says that it will tell me when the bus is 20 minutes away. I drink some Knob Creek. The lady next to me asks the bartender what a lobster roll is. He says that he does not know. She orders one anyway.

2:20 – I go back outside and lean against the stop sign some more. The app tells me that this is the bus route. I feel awkward and conspicuous. Not only are bus stops nice because they give you benches and shelters, they also let passers-by know that you are not about to try to rob them. They give purpose to your loitering. I get a lot of looks.

2:30 – My Uber arrives. He is blasting praise music. He tells me that Lyft is also going to start operating in Montgomery tomorrow. I pay him $20, which is the cost of five bus tickets.

2:47 – I arrive at home.

I don’t regard this mission as a total failure, because I did take the bus to the mall, and it was fine. I’m pretty sure that in a month, it will be too hot to do this mission comfortably. There are no benches, and no shelters. I can’t speak to the climate control on the buses, but I’ve heard mixed reviews. I absolutely can’t imagine taking the bus to a job where I had to be on time 100 percent of the time. If I had a boss who was watching the clock, there’s simply no way, app or not, that I would rely on public transportation to get me to work. On a relaxed day with no schedule, it might be an option assuming that I can figure out some of the details of walking in a city that also lacks sidewalks on most streets.

A few last points: Public transportation will never make enough money to sustain itself from farebox revenue provided by riders. To increase routes, the number of buses on those routes, the maintenance on those buses, the salaries of those drivers? That requires funding from the city, the federal government, and the state. Alabama is one of the only states in the nation that doesn’t provide any dedicated revenue for its cities’ public transportation systems. And public officials are often caught in the chicken-and-egg cycle of not wanting to devote funding to systems that don’t get used. That’s part of the reason why buses don’t run on Sundays here. And that’s part of the reason why most people rely almost exclusively on cars and trucks — whether their own or their friends’ and neighbors’.

A lot of cities have figured out the public transportation puzzle, and a lot of young people in those cities prefer taking buses and trains instead of driving, paying for gas and insurance, and cruising for parking spaces. But as ride-sharing becomes more and more pervasive, fixed-route transit systems have a new pressure on their hands. People who can afford to pay $20 for a ride home from the mall are going to think long and hard about waiting for the bus.

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  1. Meg Lewis says:

    Thanks for conducting the experiment I’ve been wanting to do for some time. It’s also really helpful to know how well the app helped (or not). I’m going to share your experience with the HackMGM group that’s dealing with some of the city’s open data. A first hand account of how some of the initial efforts to connect users and the bus data could help open up more opportunity to innovate.

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