I lived in New York City for a few years after college and learned to use public transit there. I kept a monthly transit pass, and I took the subways back and forth to work. I took the buses when I needed to get somewhere off the beaten path. It wasn’t that important to learn schedules because both the subways and the buses ran every few minutes. I didn’t own a car. It was wonderful.
When I moved back to Memphis for graduate school, I thought I would continue to use public transit. I would buy a monthly MATA pass, plan my schedule carefully, learn the bus routes, and never pay for a tank of gas again. But I quickly settled into old routines. Now I drive almost every day, and I definitely feel a little guilty about it. Sometimes, when the weather is nice and my schedule is flexible, I’ll take my bike instead as a kind of penance.
When I was first approached about participating in the 30 Day Car-Free Challenge, I knew that this would be my chance to finally learn to use MATA. I was so excited about the idea that I decided to make “Learn to ride the bus” my Lenten resolution this year. I thought it would be a great way to learn about the city and confront my preconceived notions about MATA buses – that they were dirty, crowded, dangerous, and unreliable; transportation for those who have no other option. I planned my first MATA bus ride for the day after Ash Wednesday.
I did just enough research to know that I could catch either a 9 or a 35 bus to take me down Highland to the University of Memphis in the mornings. I arrived at the bus stop, nervous and excited, and typed the stop number into MATA Traveler on my phone to find out when the next bus would be arriving. Turns out, I’d missed the earlier bus. The next one wouldn’t be there for 45 minutes. “I could walk to the University of Memphis in 45 minutes,” I thought.
That was a curious experience, standing on the side of a busy road waiting for a bus to arrive. I was embarrassed that I’d messed up, and I felt like all the drivers speeding by were watching me. I worried that someone I knew would drive by and see me standing there and wonder what was wrong. I wanted to hide. Or at least walk home and just take my car.
But I waited. After 45 minutes, the bus arrived and the driver smiled as he opened the door. I stepped on, fumbled with my MATA pass, and took a seat.
Immediately, any preconceived notions I had about MATA were gone. The bus was very clean (cleaner than any bus I’d ridden in New York), and it certainly wasn’t crowded. Two women near the front of the bus held a quiet conversation. Another woman looked like she might be a professor or graduate student, with several books open on the seat next to her. As we drove along, the driver greeted each new passenger. He knew by some of them by name, and he would ask them about their families or their work. With others, he would chat about the weather.
That first bus ride lasted only about 15 minutes, but it radically changed the way I think about MATA and alternative transit in Memphis. No, our bus system isn’t perfect. It’s clumsy and limited, and taking the bus regularly takes a great deal of planning ahead. But it’s also a wonderfully liberating experience to leave the car at home and use public transit instead. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten much better at using the bus system. I’ve ridden to a number of far-flung places that I never thought would be accessible by bus – to the airport, to the dentist (twice, ouch), to get a haircut. And each time I take the bus, my confidence grows, and I feel like I gain a greater sense of independence and a new appreciation for this city.
Since the official start of the 30 Day Car-Free Challenge, the weather has been so nice that I’ve ridden my bike every day. (I also have to ride my bike on days when I have night class, because I get out after the buses have stopped running.) But I really look forward to those days when I can ride the bus. I would encourage everyone out there who lives in Memphis but has never ridden a MATA bus to give it a try, even if just for the experience. You might be surprised.