Tuesday, March 6, 2012

When regimented structure is terribly inconvenient: The Case of the Utah Bus System

This weekend my car developed some mechanical issues. I found time to take it in last night after running some last minute errands. I parked my car in the lot and left a note with my keys at the shop just as I was instructed to do. Before leaving for the shop, I looked up the bus route information to see how close the shop was to a bus stop and I was please to find that it was about 350 feet away. I am a worrier and as is expected, I double checked the locks on my door and after seeing the bus arrival time, I raced back to my car to check just one more time. As I was making my way back to the bus stop, I ran because the bus was scheduled to arrive any second. If anything, it was running a little late. I saw it approaching and I was at most 100 feet away from the designated spot. I stopped when it was apparent that the bus was not slowing down and with hopes that the driver would look and have mercy on me for being 100 feet away, I stuck out my arm and attempted to make eye contact with him. He zoomed right past and the stoplight was green. There was no way that I could catch it.

Now, if I was in Jordan, I would have gone to a designated bus stop OR I could have stood next to the mechanic shop and put out my arm and easily gotten a lift. Additionally, I would not have to worry about having exact change for my fare because the bus driver will allow you to exchange money with him. Obviously this is not the case with US drivers.

 I was a little frustrated, I checked the schedule, because I knew that this was not the last bus out for the night. Another bus was scheduled to arrive in 30 minutes. Now, the decision is do I wait by the side of the road in the dark for 30 minutes, walk further down the bus line or find an alternative activity for 30 minutes. I chose the latter. In some regards it bothers me that I would be safer if I was a man waiting at a bus stop at 8:30 PM, but as a woman, I elicit honks, flashing lights and calls. I do not believe that my attire provoked such responses because I was wearing a long-sleeved cardigan, a scarf and skinny jeans. The most significant difference that would elicit such responses was merely the time at which I was out -- in OREM!

Because it was a little chilly outside and I felt uncomfortable about the responses that I was getting from passing traffic, I decided that I would buy safety for 98 cents at Carl's Jr. It came in the form of a kid sized Dr. Pepper that was terribly flat. I made my way to a booth, sipped my Dr. Pepper and passed the time in the empty restaurant by reading a book. Because the buses can pass their stops early or late with no negative repercussions on their part and a world of a difference on my part, I ventured back out of Carl's Jr. 10 minutes before my bus was to arrive. It was late. It made me nervous that I had not given myself enough time to wait for it. "Had I missed it," I wondered. I hadn't it was late. I was relieved when it slowed down because I was concerned that even thought I was basically standing on the post, he would not see me yet again and steam past. The bus came to a stop and I was saved from waiting another hour for the next bus.

In being so efficient and structured, the bus system in Utah does not reach its goal - to serve the riders in a time effective manner. This was definitely not the first time that I have missed the bus when I was ahead of it in traffic. Had I been in Jordan, I would have received the transportation at the time that I wanted it, but because I was in Utah I was denied this because I was not on a designated stop - I was less than 100 feet away from it. The requirement to have exact change is also bizarre to me. Who carries $2.25 in their pocket these days? The answer is - those who have to ride the bus and no one else. In Jordan, it is a good idea to have a small bill or change, but they will switch your money out if necessary or you can get a bus card and forget the cash issues. Scanning it will charge you the exact amount. On our buses, you can also scan your credit or debit cards and get charged the exact amount, but what about those who do not have credit or debit cards? Is it a safe assumption that they will have exact change? Maybe it is.

Another issue that bothers me is the under-utilization of the buses. I see empty buses running their routes all of the time. I have been on buses where I was the only passenger for my entire trip. When I climbed the stairs of my bus, I was pleased to see four other people were riding. However, with a carrying capacity of at least 30 people, it is a shame that my bus was only carrying 4 passengers. In Jordan, the buses do not run until every seat is full. If the bus does not fill for hours, it will not run for hours. If it fills in five minutes, it will run every five minutes. I really like this model because it does not waste resources by running a route that no one rides at 12pm, but also does run the same route when passengers do use it - say rush hour. I know that Utah puts a lot of state money into the bus systems, yet they are still not meeting the needs of the riders and are grossly underused. I think the issues of under-utilization is exacerbated by the unforgiving and inflexible structure of the Utah bus system.