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The Car-Free Chronicles – How a Four-Hour Shift Becomes an Eight Hour Day

September 23, 2012

This is the fourth in a series about my experiences being car-free for a year. I see it as health-related in the sense that our automobile culture is hard on the planet and exposes us to pollutants, and our reliance on driving affects where and how we live, how we move, what we eat, what information and services we have access to, and many other aspects of our lives. However, individual posts may or may not focus on health implications, and some will be fairly specific to the environment of Nashville, TN. I hope this is useful to people considering their use of cars and others with the potential to affect how cities organize themselves around transportation.

Nashville MTA bus 7 Hillsboro

7 Hillsboro by afagen, on Flickr

Yesterday, I worked the four-hour Saturday shift at my library, something we each do a few times per year. The work shuttle I typically walk ~30 minutes to does not run on weekends, so I have to rely on less work-specific methods to commute. This time, I took the city bus (Nashville MTA) for the whole commute so I could document the times for each leg of the trip so I could share it here as a clear illustration of what riding the bus actually takes.

I hope seeing some of this actual data helps people who never take the bus understand that your support for improvements and proper funding is needed (and appreciated) – and not just for the proposed multimillion dollar BRT East-West Connector to move people with money and no intent of giving up their cars between hot spots for meetings, bars, and restaurants. We need improvements all across the system to move the people who are serving those drinks, washing those dishes, and watching the kids while the moneyed go to happy hour – from the whole city, throughout the whole city. Now.

Before I share the numbers: whenever I share specifics of my commute like this, I inevitably hear the well-meaning suggestion, “get a bicycle.” It’s a great idea – for my specific commute, in certain circumstances, if I can afford and ride a bike and don’t get hit by a car in a city that doesn’t handle bikes vs. cars and roads well. I live three miles from work, why not ride a bike? Why not just walk the whole way?

It’s a fine idea. But what it doesn’t do is capture the actual experience of riding public transit, and it doesn’t account for the many people who can’t simply ride a bike or walk the whole way. It doesn’t take care of people with babies, with multiple children, with disabilities, with other physical limitations, whose route to walk or bike would not be safe or is too long, who can’t get to work really sweaty in 109 degree heat, or any other number of factors that mean people really need to get on a bus instead of a bike. There are plenty of reasons why less than 1% of Americans commute by bike, and it’s *not* solely because they’re simply not aware of bikes. Thus, public transportation must be available and improved, because bikes are just not going to work for everybody, or even most people.

So, here’s what it looked like on the way to work, three miles from my house, with the extra-special limited weekend route schedules:

10:50 am Leave the house to walk to the bus stop.
10:57 am Arrive at the bus stop on Nolensville Rd. Wish for a shady bus stop instead of a bench, or, say, a route times sign.
11:24 am Picked up by the Route 12 bus. It was supposed to be there at 11:12 am. The bus is pretty much full, with only ~5 seats open.
11:43 am Get off the bus downtown. According to the schedule, plan to wait until 12:15 pm for the next bus.
11:51 am My next bus, Route 7, pulls in. It’s the 11:15 bus running late. Because we’re “so close” to the next time, they don’t just go – this bus becomes the 12:15 pm bus, so we just sit on it until then.
12:19 pm 12:15 pm bus pulls out of downtown.
12:33 pm Get off the bus at Vanderbilt. Just enough time to snag lunch before my 1:00 pm shift starts.

And on the way home:

~5:05 pm Leave work from my four-hour, 1-5 pm shift.
~5:10 pm Get to the bus stop for Route 7 to downtown. Sit and wait for more than an hour.
6:12 pm Get on the bus to downtown. It was supposed to be there sometime ~5:55 pm and get downtown at 6:12 pm to catch the next bus out at 6:15 pm (yeah, those turnaround times are great for people with mobility limitations…)
6:28 pm Get off the bus downtown. Ask a supervisor if the time or bay has changed, because the electronic sign over the usual spot says nothing. Because buses are only running once per hour, the late pickup of the previous bus means I have to wait until 7:15 to catch the next bus home.
7:18 pm The 7:15 pm bus actually pulls out of the bay downtown.
7:30 pm Get off the bus and start walking to my house.
7:39 pm Arrived home.

And that is how a four-hour shift becomes an eight hour day.

And yes, there was a marathon going on yesterday that altered some routes for a few hours and probably caused delays. But the event was one that happens every year, the route has been planned for ages, and the downtown bus hub through which all travelers must go is nearby to many other major events in a city – other marathons, NFL games, NHL games, huge country music events, holiday celebrations, and more. Making public transportation actually work during those many, many times during the year when “something is going on” is part of the responsibility of the city, and is something that seriously affects the daily lives of people who depend on the buses to get them where they need to go. If buses ran more often on the weekends, event-related delays could be more readily absorbed and minimized. It’s not a shock that people need to get places on time, unless you have so much privilege that you never do.

And you know, I complain about this, and I think it’s important to talk about so people understand better where their city is failing to provide crucial services. But I don’t forget for a minute that I have tremendous privileges that mitigate the shortcomings of Nashville’s public transportation. In no way does my aggravation rival that of the diabetic homeless man at the downtown station who would sleep on the street last night because the delayed buses meant he couldn’t get to the shelter before lock-out. Dude offered me half his rotisserie chicken, but Nashville can’t offer him a bus ride on time to sleep in a bed.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2012 11:58 am

    I am learning these truths as well. For me, it’s been a huge loss of income because of what I do (or try to do). I’m glad you are documenting this.

    • September 23, 2012 4:24 pm

      Thanks for commenting. I bet you need to go several places to meet with different people throughout the day, and that is particularly hard with the buses in this town.

  2. September 23, 2012 5:07 pm

    Ever since Boston raised it’s fares in July, the minimum time it takes me to travel into the city from the closest ‘burb is 1 1/2 hours. Almost every ride has had unannounced delays, stoppages or missing buses. As you stated, it’s quicker to walk, even if that walk is over 6 miles. I just can’t due to injuries and the fact that my feet blister and bleed before I finish the walk. The city did put in a great shared bike system, but it doesn’t extend to my neighborhood, and frankly, I’m terrified of biking in the city – bike lanes and all.

    Your post is excellent – it captures the experience so well and lays out the punishment that people who rely on it for food, shelter and work receive and are imperiled every single day.

    • September 23, 2012 6:05 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience and commenting – shared bikes in Nashville don’t extend out here, either, they’re just downtown. I totally feel you on be afraid of biking – bike lanes are spotty here, but drivers for the most part have absolutely no training or knowledge on how they are meant to interact with bikes.

  3. Jenny R permalink
    September 23, 2012 7:40 pm

    I don’t know Nashville at all, but the story is familiar. For me to get to work on a weekend is a two hour proposition and I’m about 13 miles away. I live car-free in San Diego, which is definitely a car-oriented place like all of Southern California. Walking and biking routes are interrupted by freeway on- or off-ramps all over town, and bike lanes and sidewalks temporarily vanish. The most direct route to your destination is often impossible unless you are in a vehicle. Funders here seem to treat public transit as an extension of welfare rather than a viable transportation alternative for working people. Transit is for those who are too poor or sick to have a car, and of course for those who have had their licenses taken away. When I was househunting three years ago, transit proximity was my top priority. I live within walking distance of six bus routes. Much of the city has no transit service at all. It’s very frustrating.

    • September 24, 2012 7:35 am

      Thanks for commenting, Jenny. That sounds like a really inadequate system where you are, too. I think you’re right that people tend to look at it as “poor people should take whatever crappy thing we offer” instead of a vital public service, an important strategy for reducing fossil fuel use, etc.
      Great idea to think of that in house-hunting – so many people don’t. We also did that a few years back – one of my “must-haves” to the realtor was “be able to walk to work if I have to.”

  4. Diane permalink
    September 26, 2012 9:11 pm

    I work with people on dialysis and people with MS. Both conditions can make driving impractical, either due to disabilities or finances. Because I work in a rural/semi-rural area clients often live outside the boundaries of public transit. It’s unpopular but I often suggest to clients that they consider moving closer to medical care, shopping and to a place within 3/4 mile of a bus route (the limit of paratransit services, at least in my state). Especially for dialysis, which usually means going to a center for treatment 3-4 times a week, the cost of a cab or medical transportation service is prohibitive and friends/family often work and can’t help long term. Even at that, though, long waits and shared rides are common and tiring.

    • September 28, 2012 3:42 pm

      Thanks for sharing that, Diane. What a frustrating experience for your clients. I grew up in a rural area like you mention, with no real public transportation – I have definitely seen people have to take cabs to their job at Waffle House or wherever, which as you point out is really not a viable long-term solution.

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