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Riding the Bus in SW

I recently took a round-trip bus ride from Corktown to Southwest Detroit for dinner, and my experience left a lot to be desired.

Photo of Lisa Shaw
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I picked up the bus in Corktown, near the intersection of Bagley and Vermont. I saw the bus approaching right as I reached the bus stop, so luckily there was no wait time. The bus itself was great! Very clean, a nice cool temperature on a hot day, friendly driver, and my bus pass worked swimmingly. I rode for about 10 minutes into SW Detroit and got dropped off about a 10 minute walk to the restaurant I was having dinner at. I didn't mind the walk, because I feel 10 minutes is a reasonable distance from bus stop to destination. The bigger issue was catching the bus after dinner. By that time it was nearly 8:30, and the buses were running with far less frequency. I waited at the bus stop I had been dropped off at hours before, but there was no bus in sight. I decided to walk to the next stop along my route home. I made the walk, and found that it was really difficult to notice street bus stop signs. They are quite small, have no route numbers, and give absolutely no information about the bus that stops there. After waiting a full 40 minutes (10 minutes after the scheduled arrival time, per Google), my return bus finally showed up. Once again, the actual experience of riding the bus was enjoyable (although I did try the advertised free wifi, and it was not in working order), but the frequency of the routes and lack of easily accessible information makes it very difficult. I wouldn't feel comfortable taking the bus if I had serious time commitments.

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Photo of Perry MacNeille

I haven't used mass transit much, but when I have I have had similar experiences. A few years ago I traveled to New York City, and to experience the commuter suburb experience stayed in Summit New Jersey. By train or by car the travel time is about the same if all goes well, about an hour by car and and hour and 15 minutes by train. I had a comfortable ride from the Summit Train Station to Penn Station (in NYC) where I was able to read and use my WiFi hot spot most of the way. I listened to an audio book. Then there was a 15 minute walk to my destination. So far so good.

By the end of the day it had begun to rain pretty hard, so I decided to wait and listen to my audio book in a shelter then walk to Penn Station giving the rain a chance to stop. The shelter was the lobby of a skyscraper intended for that purpose. I listened to the story of a homeless guy there until he asked for money, then I continued to Penn Station. It was still raining when and I walked to Penn with an umbrella which was hardly any protection. The time between trains was greater in the evening so I waited about half an hour at Penn Station listening to my audio book. I was wet, but warn, and all was well.

I got on the train, we traveled under the Hudson River and on the New Jersey side the rain continued unabated and I listened to my audio book. Then the train stopped and we waited. The engineer got out, opened a service panel and fussed with something and the train started again. After 5 minutes it stopped again. She fixed it again and it ran another 5 minutes. She managed to get us to a stop where she waited for help. In the mean time I was getting to know some of my fellow commuters and was mildly anxious because I wanted to get to the Summit Diner for dinner before it closed.

We waited in the train for about 2 hours while the dispatchers decided what to do. There was the possibility of the train company hiring taxis to get us home, or we could get out and get our own transportation (we were at a station). Eventually some repair people showed up and fixed the train in about 10 minutes and off we went to Summit. Arriving in Summit the downtown area was completely dark. I walked to the Summit Diner, but it was closed. I found a Dunkin' Donuts just closing, and reluctantly gave me a breakfast sandwich, my last hope of dinner before returning to the hotel.

It turned out this was not an isolated event, it is well know the trains do not work well in the rain. But, I think when my grandfather took that train in the early 1900s time would be thought of differently. The restaurant closing times would be synchronized to the trains, not to the clocks. They would close after the last train arrived.

If I had taken my car I would have listened to my audio book, but would have had to deal with traffic and would missed discussions with other passengers. That would have been stressful in a different way. I think incident management has had a big impact on reliability of automotive traffic flows and while an accident could have delayed my trip it would not have lasted so long. Also, I would have more dinner alternatives, I could have stopped in Hoboken, NJ for dinner for example, instead of waiting on the train until my arrival in Summit. And, in the end the cars were the backup, they seemed to be what everyone thought would work in the rain.

So what does this have to do with Detroit? I bring this up because there is a lot of talk about abandoning cars to be more like other cities with mass transit. However, mass transit has its flaws and to become a "ride city" would be a major cultural shift that may not make people happier.

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