Tag Archives: Reviews

Buses on film

While we’re on the subject of transit and class, here’s a quick report on that Bus Riders Union documentary I went to see a few weeks ago:

The film basically focuses on the BRU‘s struggle to make the LA MTA more responsive to the needs of the poor and disabled, people who don’t have a choice about whether to ride. I am supportive of the organization’s goals (if not all of their tactics), but I found it unfortunate that they seemed to dwell on a (in my view, artificial) distinction between bus and rail. Apparently, the vast majority of the MTA’s resources are spent on rail, which tends to be used by middle-class commuters, and according to the 10-year-old documentary, not very many, at that. A small fraction of its resources are spent on buses, which tend to be used by poor people, and a much larger proportion of MTA’s customer base. In the film, the BRU reps argued for a drastic reduction in the amount of money being spent on rail.

This distinction seems to me to be less a function of the mode of transportation and more a function of its implementation. Rail transit can and does serve the poor in many major cities, and it could certainly do so in LA. It is true that rail costs more than buses initially, so, if we’re talking about getting bang for limited bucks, it might make sense to invest in a BRT system like the one in Bogota. But if you’ve ever been to New York or Chicago (or, for that matter, Paris), you know that everybody–and I do mean everybody–rides the train.

Saulty on the subway
New York City subway riders: Beware of this man.

Pilgrims on a bus bound for glory

Get on the Bus (source: Amazon.com)Today marks the 10th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite movies, Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus.

For those who haven’t seen the film: It’s about a group of black men who travel (by bus, of course) from Los Angeles to Washington, DC to attend the Million Man March. (Today is also the 11th anniversary of the march.)

It’s no coincidence that Lee chose a bus (the most democratic of vehicles) as his characters’ mode of travel. The men come from varied backgrounds, circumstances, and stages of life but share in common a desire to attend the march, and, consequently, their time on the bus. Over the course of the three-day ride, they discuss their beliefs, prejudices, hopes, fears, and histories. They discuss the problems facing the black community and their differing views about how to fix them. They develop friendships and rivalries.

No one mentions public transit. :)

To commemorate the film’s anniversary, I watched it again and found it just as moving and (sadly) relevant as I did the first time. It was definitely worth the bus trip (speaking of getting on the bus) to Scarecrow, including the return trip on the Husky Downer Express.

A side note: In real life, Rosa Parks (also known as my all-time favorite bus chick) was one of the speakers at the Million Man March.

The bus driver who wanted to be God

Most bus riders know the joy of having built-in reading time, and this book-loving bus chick is no exception. I have my standard favorites (Morrison, Austen, Boyle, Senna, Durham, Smith), my list of “shoulds” (still haven’t gotten around to finishing Middlemarch), and my recommendations from friends (currently reading A Fine Balance, loaned to me by my friend Donna). Then, every once in a while, I’ll discover someone new on my own. This week, it’s Israeli writer Etgar Keret. Keret is not new to the literary scene (apparently, he’s been around for over a decade), but he’s new to me. He’s written a delightful collection of short stories, the most delightful of which is the story the book is named for, “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God.”

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

This is the story about a bus driver who would never open the door of the bus for people who were late. Not for anyone. Not for repressed high-school kids who’d run alongside the bus and stare at it longingly, and certainly not for high-strung people in windbreakers who’d bang on the door as if they were actually on time and it was the bus driver who was out of line, and not even for little old ladies with brown paper bags full of groceries who struggled to flag him down with trembling hands. And it wasn’t because he was mean that he didn’t open the door, because this driver didn’t have a mean bone in his body; it was a matter of ideology.

Intrigued? Check this book out at the library. (I’ll be returning my copy this weekend.)

I tend to prefer novels to short stories, but I have to admit, stories are ideal for bus reading. Keret’s stories are really short, which means you can get through at least one (no matter how slowly your read or how minimal the distance) per ride. They’re also ideal for bus stop waits–unless you’re waiting for the 48, in which case you might want to break out that copy of Middlemarch you’ve been meaning to get to.

Kids, don’t try this at home

Google Transit (one of the projects from Google Labs) now provides trip planning services for King County Metro riders.

King County Metro Transit has partnered with Google in its implementation of an online transit trip planner that highlights Google’s map features. The Google Trip Planner uses Metro-generated data to find transit trips that are operated by Metro in King County.

Along with an itinerary based on their entries for point of origin and destination, people who use Google’s trip planner have access to a street map, a satellite image or a hybrid of the two in order to see a graphical representation of locations along their route. Google’s Transit Trip Planner also provides transit information for Portland, OR; Eugene, OR; Tampa, FL; Pittsburgh, PA and Honolulu, HI.

Pop-up stop information
Google’s UI is good at showing you where the stops are–not so good at helping you get where you’re going.

I really love that Google is thinking beyond cars in the area of directions and mapping. (Can I tell you how tired I am of the “driving directions” tabs on all the mapping websites? Talk about carist.) I love the potential of this service to simplify and standardize transit trip planning. With a few minor exceptions, I even love the UI. Now, if they could just get their algorithms to work.

Today, I tried five fairly simple trips using Google Transit and, despite the claim that the service uses “Metro-generated data,” none of the results matched Metro’s–or were remotely accurate. I was told to walk for 14 minutes to catch a bus downtown when two downtown routes stop right in front of my house. I was told to ride several miles in the wrong direction to transfer to a bus going in the right direction. I was told to take routes I have never even heard of. Of course, as a frequent rider, I knew that the information was bogus, but I pity the poor fool who actually tries to follow Google’s instructions.

Other Seattle bus riders are having similar problems. Christina from Capitol Hill sent me this:

Have you messed around with Google transit yet? It’s not very good. What can we do to let them know how wrongwrongwrong they are? This is from my friend’s house to Group Health. Seattle.metblogs.com is reporting that sometimes you have to cross a jersey barrier on Aurora to follow the directions!!

Note: I altered Christina’s friend’s address slightly (stalker prevention measure), but the insane route remains intact.

And then there was Todd Bishop’s article in today’s paper:

“It was so far away from anything that was even remotely logical,” marveled Ronald Holden, a Belltown resident whose Google Transit itinerary would have required him to walk 13 blocks and ride two buses for a half-hour to visit his son in Seattle’s Central District.

My advice: For now, stick with Metro’s Trip Planner. It doesn’t have cool maps, but it usually works. When you have time, try the same trip in both tools. If you get crazy results, tell the folks at Google. The great thing about software is that it improves with time–and user feedback.

Car-free living goes mainstream

Despite the large number of fabulous, active, interesting people who choose to be car-free, it is still considered an “alternative” lifestyle. We bus- and bike-dependent types are viewed as outside the mainstream: martyrs; angry, political types with something to prove; or die-hard environmentalists participating in “sustainability experiments.” Here’s the thing, though: Some people choose not to own cars out of good, old-fashioned, American self-interest.

I wrote an essay on the personal-benefit aspects of car-free living for this month’s issue of Seattle magazine. And then, a couple of weeks ago, I found an entire book on the subject. Chris Balish’s, How to Live Well without Owning a Car (Ten Speed Press, 2006) shows people how to improve their lives–especially their finances–by (don’t make me say “I told you so”) giving up their cars. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

Without a car to constantly take care of, you’ll have fewer hassles, lower stress, less aggravation, and less to worry about. You may even find you have more free time. With no car in your life you may also improve your health, get more exercise, lose weight, and sleep better. In other words, you’ll be happier, healthier, and much wealthier. Best of all, practically anyone can live happily without owning a car–or, as many people call it, living “car-free.” This program is not abstract theory. It’s not a fringe concept applicable to a select few. It’s a broad-based, step-by-step process that almost anyone in mainstream America can follow to start saving money right away. Even if you’re convinced you “need” a car, this program may change your mind.

How to Live Well… has received a fair amount of media attention, and not just because of the novelty factor. Though it’s a bit repetitive in parts, the book extremely persuasive–so persuasive that I predict it will convince lots of people to dump that extra ton (or two) they’ve been lugging around. Here are some reasons why:

• It is written by an attractive, successful, image-conscious, Midwesterner who accidentally discovered a better way to live–just the right person to convince the skeptical that car-free living isn’t only for granola-eating, hemp-wearing, co-op shopping, Berkeley students.
• It provides many alternatives to driving cars, including walking, public transit, bicycles, and scooters.
• Though it focuses on the financial benefits of not owning a car, it doesn’t leave out any of the others: environmental, social, physical, emotional.
• It explains the detrimental effects of our car-centric culture without demonizing cars or judging the people who drive them.
• It gives useful, specific information about how to prepare for, and eventually live, a car-free life.
• It includes a chapter about car-free dating–critical for all the sexy people who are considering taking the plunge.
• It promotes car-sharing for situations that require a car.
• It offers strategies for reducing car use for those who can’t give up their cars completely.
• It is full of inspiring testimonials from people all over the country who are happily living car-free (and “car-lite”) lives.

Buy How to Live Well without a Car for every prospective bus chick you know. Buy it for all your broke friends who are two value meals away from selling their plasma. Buy it for your upstairs neighbor, your Aunt Mae, and your cousin Junior. Buy it for your fraternity brothers. Buy it for your dentist.

Better yet, make all those folks check it out at the library. It is, after all, a book about saving money.

And speaking of car culture…

My new second-favorite cartoonist (Aaron McGruder remains unchallenged at number one) is Andy Singer, author of the syndicated comic No Exit and of the (cleverly named) book, CARtoons. CARtoons addresses the negative impact of cars on American society (a subject that, despite its importance, has not heretofore resulted in many page-turners) in a humorous and easily digestible way. Interspersed with the (short) essays and facts and figures are anecdotes, interesting quotes, and lots and lots of Andy’s car-culture-critiquing cartoons. I posted one of them several weeks ago. Here’s another I really like:

I'll take door number two.

From a 7 to three sixes

Despite the fact that I am not a fan of advertisements or of horror flicks, I am totally digging Sound Transit’s creative new ad campaign. The ads, which I’ve seen on billboards and the sides of ST buses, show pictures of monsters and zombies, once-normal people who turned to the dark side after one too many hours in traffic. The slogans are reasonably clever pseudo horror movie titles, stuff like: It Came from Issaquah, Phantom of Tacoma, and The Creature from Edmonds.

Here’s the one that was on my bus home tonight:

Rosemary's Commute

Speaking of love…

On Saturday, I received a surprise in the mail from my future mother-in-law (too cool for that title and so to be known henceforth as “my Gail”). My Gail lives in Detroit, a city that, despite plans for a fabulous new Rosa Parks Transit Center, is not known for its buses. It is, however, a city known for its cool t-shirts, and my Gail managed to find me the coolest one of all. It has a picture of a vintage 53, a route that travels the length of Woodward Avenue, one of the longest of Detroit’s very long streets. (I think I rode the 53 to a museum on one of my visits.) I can’t find the shirt on the Internet, but here’s what the picture of the bus looks like:

Detroit Transit apparel

I wish I could wear it every day.

A yoga studio combats carism

Yesterday I went to a lunchtime Yoga class at 8 Limbs with my friend Donna. A few hours before the class, I went to the 8 Limbs Web site, intending to find the street address of their Capitol Hill location and then use Trip Planner (or my fairly extensive knowledge of central city bus routes) to figure out to get there. Instead, I found that they had done the work for me by listing the bus routes that serviced each studio. (I can’t link directly to that page, but if you want to see it, go to the site. In left navigation bar, click Reach Us, and then click Maps and Directions.)

I’m guessing it didn’t take much effort for the folks at 8 Limbs to add this information to their site, but it spoke volumes to this bus chick about how they think about the world and participate in their community. It also made me feel welcome.

I felt the same warm fuzzies at the end of the class, when the teacher, who wanted to continue for five extra minutes, asked, “Does anyone have to catch the bus at 1:15?”

Somebody did.