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Anyone who rides a bus regularly knows that if there isn’t a passenger dealing with some form of mental illness aboard when you get on, there will be before you reach your stop. It’s sometimes amusing to watch the reaction of the other passengers. Long-time riders will go on reading or texting or looking out the window as if nothing is wrong, even if the person shouting or singing or acting out in other ways is sitting right next to them. New riders, of course, can’t take their eyes away from the social awkwardness occurring right in front of them.

Crazy Lady on the Bus

This conditioning is both helpful and harmful. On the one hand, I’ve become pretty tolerant of a wide variety of behaviors and unfazed in the presence of any language or apparel or ethnicity or ability, all good things. But a crazy lady on the bus today pointed out some of the negatives. “I take five or six buses a day,” she said. “And you know what? Every single goddam time I have to transfer, I can see the bus I need pulling away when I get to the stop. It’s not just inconvenient to wait thirty or forty minutes for the next bus. There’s an emotional reaction. We’re being left behind. It’s dehumanizing. We’re being told we’re not important. And it’s more than that. Subconsciously, we feel not just left behind, not just late for work, but abandoned. How do you think that affects the psyche of the thousands of riders who are abandoned day after day, year after year? It takes a psychological toll.”

If that doesn’t sound like the talk of a crazy woman, it’s because I edited out the other twenty minutes of her monologue.

In the past twenty years, I’ve waited at bus stops at least an hour and a half every day. Do the math. That means I’ve spent more than an entire year just waiting for the bus.

But people with mental illnesses aren’t necessarily stupid. Or wrong. This woman added, “In the past twenty years, I’ve waited at bus stops at least an hour and a half every day. Do the math. That means I’ve spent more than an entire year just waiting for the bus.”

I live in Seattle, which has a better bus system than my hometown of New Orleans. But I first learned to love public transportation when I lived in Rome for two years. You could get anywhere easily. And you never had to worry about getting lost. If you ended up someplace you didn’t want to be, you just boarded a bus going the other way. It was great. And the price was reasonable, the equivalent of twenty cents per ride. You could get a monthly pass for $8.

Back in New Orleans, though, I discovered that public transportation wasn’t simply a matter of convenience or even class. It was a racial issue. All the years that I rode the bus there, I was almost always the only white person aboard. My friends and family told me they were “afraid” to ride, which led to their not caring about or supporting public transportation because it only affected those they considered “less than.”

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Seattle used to have a “ride-free zone” downtown. Anyone could ride for free within a given area. Lots of middle class folks of every ethnicity rode, even if homeless people could ride for free, too. I loved riding public transportation that seemed focused on...transportation. The city abandoned the ride-free zone several years ago, and in general, the bus routes have also become more difficult to navigate. What used to take one bus now takes two. What used to take two buses now takes three. People have become more isolated, too weary to face the commute to meet friends. Or go to the doctor. Or participate in a political rally. People give up the things which make life enjoyable because getting there is so unenjoyable.

Seattle is facing the closure of a major downtown elevated expressway to make way for a tunnel that will hopefully be more resistant to earthquakes. But the months-long closure will create more gridlock in an area already far too congested. Kshama Sawant, a Socialist city council member, suggested Seattle offer free public transportation for the duration of the project to encourage fewer drivers to add their personal vehicles to the mess. But I wonder if it would be even better to make public transportation free all year long, everywhere.

Whatever convenience having our own car affords would be tempered quickly by saving money on gas and parking, saving emotional energy by reducing road rage and rush hour fatigue. And if the city provided more buses per route to accommodate a larger passenger load, the biggest drawbacks passengers face now—wait times and crowding—would be reduced significantly, too.

A bus driver I know was recently asked to substitute on a route to Vashon Island in the Puget Sound. When he got back to the terminal, he said, “My, what friendly people live here on the island. Folks were waving at me everywhere I went.” The cheerful greetings made him feel happy, so he waved back enthusiastically. What he didn’t realize was that because so much of the area was rural, there were few official bus stops. Passengers waited by the side of the road to wave down the bus to stop for them.

His story made me realize how rural buses didn’t even exist in the areas of Louisiana and Mississippi where I’d grown up. If people feel isolated in major urban centers because of the difficulty commuting by public transportation, for almost every rural area, lack of public transportation practically creates prisoners. My grandmother, for instance, was prohibited from driving by my grandfather, and by the time he died, she was too afraid to learn how, leaving her completely dependent on others not only during the four decades of her marriage but for the two decades after as well.

I left suburban Metairie thirty years ago, but I still have frequent dreams, disturbing but not quite nightmares, where I try to get from downtown New Orleans to my father’s house in the suburbs. There’s only one bus, and the nearest stop to the house where I grew up is an hour’s walk away. The dream seems to take that entire hour as I physically experience every single step, apparently trudging through invisible molasses. I sometimes even have dreams about getting off the train in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and then walking for hours to reach my grandmother’s isolated farmhouse. I never actually had to do either of these things, but the knowledge of how trapped so many people are still haunts my subconscious.

We need to invest heavily in public transportation in urban, suburban, and rural areas. We also need to invest in long-distance public transportation. Doing so would improve traffic flow, increase social cohesion, and improve both physical and mental health. Most importantly, it would decrease carbon pollution long enough to give us time to move away from fossil fuels. These benefits all contribute so heavily to the social good that they are well worth subsidizing, the way we subsidize public education, the police, firefighters, and the military. We can’t let addressing public transportation be an afterthought. It is essential to a more productive, healthier, and successful society.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend