For the first week of the #CarFreeMemphis Challenge, my goal was to try my work commute by bike (something I have regularly done) and by bus (something I’ve never done) and give readers an idea of what each is like for a first-timer. I’ve managed both bike and bus this week and they’ve both been positive experiences. Let’s take a look at both:
Commuting by Bike
I’ve been what I call a “Fair Weather Bike Commuter” for the past seven years. There’s plenty of great resources on this site and others about what steps you need to take to commute to work by bike: what gear to get, what to pack, what kind of bike to use, how to get “office ready” upon arrival, etc. I think I might explore that a bit more in-depth in my next post, but I think it’s important to start with what it’s like on the road on your bike in Memphis – that to me would be the greatest source of anxiety for a first-timer that might not be used to riding on the road.
The biggest takeaway from my commute this week was how much less anxious it feels to ride on our city streets now versus seven years ago. Certainly, my own experience riding is a factor in my feeling of comfort, but I think the biggest difference has come from motorists. Over the last few years, the building of bike facilities across our city has served two purposes. It’s certainly made it easier, safer, and more convenient for cyclists to get around on our streets by bike. But a by-product of the facilities has also been in the education of motorists, increasing their awareness of cyclists on the road, and you can feel the difference on our streets whether you are on two wheels or four. Drivers seem to me to be giving bikes more space, and as long as cyclists hold up their end of the bargain and follow the rules of the road, I don’t encounter the ill-will from motorists that was much more common a few years ago. By all means, you must be aware and observant of every vehicle on the road, especially on your bike. But if your greatest apprehension stems from fear of cars, I’d encourage you to give the bike a try. I think you’ll be surprised by your experience.
Commuting by Bus
My learning experience this week, however, came from riding the MATA bus. I have to admit up front I’ve bought into all the anecdotal information about our transit system over the years and had essentially written it off as inconvenient, unreliable, and unsafe. Obviously, MATA has a perception problem. I can admit my prejudices about MATA had built up a great deal of anxiety in me to the point I was nervous about riding the bus. I’m happy to report that I’ve been fed a lot of misinformation, but it’s going to take a great deal of effort and total community support to turn the tide on that. I am not offering any solutions on that today, but I do want to tell you about my positive experiences thus far as a MATA rider.
I work at FedExForum and live in Cooper-Young. Before this week, I had zero idea how to get between these two places using our public transit. I’d say accessibility to route information may be part of that issue and could lay the blame on MATA, but to be fair, I’d never really sought the info out, either. As it turns out, there is a bus stop for a line (the #5 bus – Central Line) that picks up within a 90 second walk from our offices that would take me to the intersection of Cooper and Central, a leisurely ten to fifteen minute stroll from my house. While this is certainly not the case for every resident of our city due to the vast area of Memphis (not enough time to get into this issue here), for me, at least, I can no longer use “inconvenience” as an excuse.
Moving down the list, I have assumed for years that whether or not a bus route was convenient, there’s no way I’d use it because the schedules were unreliable. We as Memphians have all heard the horror stories of “I’d use the bus, but it would be late and it would take me X hours to get home!” My first bus trip home from the office yesterday, while not perfect, chipped away a little at that myth. I picked it up at the office and it was about 8 minutes late. I figured that was the start of a long journey. However, from stop to stop, my total ride time was only 11 or 12 minutes, almost identical to drive time in a car for that same trip. Factoring the wait in, the total “bus time” which I’ll call wait time plus ride time, was about 20 minutes. This morning’s ride in, however, was another story. The bus was on time to the minute, putting my total bus time right at 12 or 13 minutes. Granted, I add a total of 15 minutes of walking time, but that put my commute at under 30 minutes. That’s a far cry from inconvenient in my book.
Now on to unsafe…I’ve used transit in cities across the country and internationally, and approached all of them with a sense of adventure and not fear. Why was it different in my home town, a place where I feel generally safe no matter where I am? Again, urban legend can be a terrible thing, and after a while I guess no matter how you may dismiss newspaper website comments on the surface, they can have a subconscious cumulative effect.
There has been nothing about my bus rides so far that made me feel unsafe. Nothing. The drivers are friendly and helpful, riders all seem intent to get where they’re going and enjoy a little quiet, it’s a totally normal “big city” transit environment but for a couple of differences I noticed:
1. The buses I’ve ridden are only at 20% capacity (small sample size alert)
2. While I’d by no means call them dirty, the interiors seem a bit “tired” for lack of a better term. This issue would seem to fix itself if issue #1 were to be addressed, which will take total community support.
In the end, I’m on my way to being staunchly pro-MATA. I’d encourage everyone to put your preconceptions aside and give the bus system a shot one day. It will be more difficult for some than it has been for me, of course, but I think everyone will be surprised at their experience. You’ll see for yourself it’s much more convenient, reliable, and safe than you’ve been led to believe.
I look forward to posting again later this month about my experiences in #CarFreeMemphis Month and hope you try your own car free adventure soon. Even one day makes a difference.