Public good(s) and the case of the missing bus
I was at a meeting this week about public transportation in my town—what we have of it—and during one of our many tangents into how we could actually get viable transit throughout the valley, at least among the three main cities, I happened to mention that my car had broken down over the weekend, and that I had jury duty later in the week. At the county courthouse in the next town over, about 15 miles away.
I hadn’t seriously considered taking the public bus to jury duty because the last time I’d checked the schedule service was almost nonexistent in the early hours. But it was still a bit of a startle to have it affirmed that, “You can’t get to Kalispell now.” On the bus. Because there is no longer service.
I became a little obsessed with buses while researching my book. I had a lot of time to think about the neglect of bus services while trying to get to Happisburgh, a little village on the Norfolk coast where 800,000-year-old fossilized footprints had been found. If you didn’t have a car, it was only accessible by bus, and only on some days and at some times:
“The timetable, like the Rosetta Stone, still held some unanswered questions. Some buses only ran on school days, some only on non-school Mondays-through-Fridays, some stops at certain times were only by request, and some villages seemed to get passed over completely at certain times of day. Happisburgh was one of them.”
The driver could drop me at the next village over, several miles away, which did me little good because I needed to get back to Norwich to catch a train to London to get my flight home the next morning. The next village over would mean I’d miss the last bus on the main line back to Norwich.
Too much of our world is bent around the needs of cars, but when it comes to buses it sometimes feels like you’re asking for free desert at a restaurant just because, something that you’re scorned for even presuming to ask for, rather than a basic public service. San Francisco, supposedly a transit-first city, only just voted last week to remove legal parking spots from in front of bus stops.
In the cities I went to while researching the book—New York, Denver, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, the first thing I did was try to find where the public bus service picked up at the airport (or train line in the U.K). It wasn’t easy. Wayfinding for buses isn’t often kept up, nor are the bus shelters, schedules, or other kinds of signage. I was often reminded of when I lived in Sydney, Australia, in my early twenties and took the bus over an hour into work every day, but good luck finding a schedule if you weren’t already physically on the bus and could grab a leaflet. Nottingham in the U.K. was the only place I visited where the bus service actually felt like a service, transportation that treated its users with respect, like they deserved to go places whether they had a car or not.
It got to the point where I felt like you could tell everything about how a city values its residents—and which residents it values—by comparing the bus system to a bike share service if it had one. In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, for example, it was difficult to find accurate maps of where buses were going and where they stopped, much less an up-to-date schedule that didn’t require good phone service for website access.
But its bike share? New and snazzy and well maintained, up to and including excellent, detailed maps of the city and the system at every station.
The U.S. in particular has a poor relationship with bus services. Those in charge of making sure they run well don’t often seem to think much of the needs of people they’re meant to serve, at least in urban areas.
Yet I’ve learned from transit advocates over the years that buses are truly crucial components to a workable public transportation system in the U.S. Too much of our infrastructure is built for cars, and something like Bus Rapid Transit is about the only thing easily adaptable to the existing road network.
Compare that with Britain, which doesn’t have perfect bus service (as I found on my adventures trying to get to Happisburgh), but does have enough to have led to this delightful write-up on Mike Sowden’s Everything is Amazing of an equally delightful Twitter thread of British civil servant Jo Kibble’s adventures seeing how far you could get from London, via bus, in 24 hours. As Kibble later observed (though the trip was made for fun, not to make a point),
“Bus networks are a very important part of building a fairer country and an economic system that works for more people.”
Bikes are great transportation, but a bike share network does not serve the same purpose as a comprehensive and reliable bus system in spread-out cities whose original public transportation (usually tram lines) was removed decades ago in favor of highways and private cars.
In rural areas, public transportation can be a very difficult subject to make progress on. Maybe particularly in areas that were recently rural and are well on their way to being more urban but don’t want to admit it. Areas like mine where traffic is becoming a stressor at certain times but not yet a nightmare and widening roads still seems like a viable option.
My spouse managed to fix our car (corroded battery leads), and my jury duty seems to be canceled, but the problem of how I get around my valley—how all of us get around this valley—without a car remains. We have county commissioners who think bike and pedestrian paths are for elite liberal people (this is, I’m sorry to say, not an exaggeration) and who more fundamentally believe that government should not spend money, or more to the point shouldn’t exist at all.
How we perceive these problems matter. How we frame them, how we see our own roles as citizens and residents and community members, how we imagine the potentials of our possible futures—all of them depend on the paths we choose to take now, today. They depend on the possibilities we consider, and the paths that we close off.
Disability Rights Washington has faced the state’s transportation gaps straight on, asking state legislators to participate in a Week Without Driving to bring home the reality that transit isn’t an issue for elites, or only for small population groups—their surveys found that 36% of age-eligible Washington residents can’t or don’t drive, and I’m sure other areas would find similar numbers. For many, not driving is an everyday reality; but it could become an issue for anyone, at any time, like if you break a leg, or when you have jury duty and your car breaks down. What if that jury duty had instead been my job, or a child’s urgent medical appointment?
The people mentally and intellectually invested in public transportation in my valley are doing good work, and hard work. What we need, and what many places need, is elected officials and leadership who recognize that public needs exist, as do public goods. The free market has had decades of deregulation and lowered taxes to step up to the plate and has shown at best lack of interest, especially in serving all the public, not just those who can pay premium rates.
Approaching these issues in ways that are remotely effective depends on how we think about the needs of the public. And we need to. We need to do better. Because the public and its needs exists. It’s made of all of us, and it’s not going to disappear, no matter how hard we try to atomize it into autonomous individuals each existing in our own universes, driving around in our cars.
I forgot in my last post to link to this essay I published with Human Parts, on publishing a book (or not) and what “success” means as a writer.