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Thoughts on Transit

In Praise of the Route Warriors

by William Freedman / June 2, 2017

Regular readers of Ecolane’s blog might know, but the public at large doesn’t: There is such a thing as a transit geek. You might be one yourself. A small but dedicated subculture, comprised mainly by industry professionals, passionately promotes mass transit to anyone who expresses the slightest interest. And without them, I might still be hiking up Pennsylvania’s Mt. Cresson instead of waiting for my lift from the Ohio line into central Indiana.

I’m the guy who’s traveling across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific using only local, publicly available transportation. No Greyhound, no Amtrak, no Ambien. Just a series of approximately a hundred transfers from mode to mode, county to county. Ecolane has proven to be a generous and encouraging sponsor.

At first it was just an idea. I’m not under the misconception that it was a particularly bright idea, it’s just one that hadn’t been seriously considered since at least the dawn of the internet. (Scott Bogren of Community Transportation magazine tells me that, in the early days of motorized transit, this was once possible although the United States lost this capability in the mid-20th century.) So this expedition, called the Cross-Country Local, sparked the interest of these transit advocates. In return, their enthusiasm has not only restored my faith in the Cross-Country Local’s feasibility, their knowledge of local resources has already shaved a week off my timetable.

So I’d be remiss not to dedicate my first blog post for Ecolane, my first corporate sponsor, to my valued and trusted guides. Route Warriors, I salute you!

The first transit geek I met was Terri Quici, who runs vanpools for Centre Area Transit Authority in and around State College, Pa. (My next blog post will focus on how CATA, which serves a relatively small community, has become the third-largest transit provider in the Keystone State, behind only Philadelphia’s and Pittsburgh’s.) Before she replied to a formatted, cold-call email I’d sent to her, I had no idea transit geeks existed. But her passion for her job bubbled through the pixels and we’ve since exchanged many more emails, texts, restaurant tables and hugs.

Of course, it wasn’t just her moral support that got me through Pennsylvania. I’d contacted her to see if I could get a lift from Lewistown to State College. She made the arrangements – without going into the details, I can tell you now it was a heavier lift than it sounds – and she didn’t quit there. She asked me where I was going next.

“Altoona,” I told her. “It would be great if you could get me that far.”

“Sure, we run vans to Altoona,” the Route Warrior replied.

“Great! Then the local bus takes me as far as Hollidaysburg and from there all I have to do is hike five miles to Cresson, and then it’s …”

“Oh, we go to Cresson.”

So Terri is directly responsible for getting me 90 miles through central Pennsylvania, but she wasn’t done yet. It was in large part thanks to her intercession that I was able to ride the CommuteInfo van from the Pittsburgh area into Wheeling, W. Va. That’s how I found out that Terri wasn’t alone in being a transit geek. Her enthusiasm for the project infected her professional network, including Lisa Kaye, who has a similar role in southwestern Pennsylvania.

It should be said in this space that Ecolane’s sponsorship, apart from the financial support, has proven even more valuable in terms of street cred. Terri tells me it wasn’t until she was aware that Ecolane was behind this project that she had confidence that the project was doable and that I might be the one to do it.

Every state, it seems, has a transit geek who proves to be the linchpin vital to moving the Cross-Country Local from plan into reality. Ohio had some stubborn gaps along the aptly name National Road, and it took Denise Cook, Southeast Area Transit’s dispatcher, to square everything away so that I could take a cascade of three rural transit vehicles to Reynoldsburg, outside Columbus, from Cambridge, outside pretty much everywhere.

As I write this, I am preparing to embark on the next leg of my journey, which will bring me from the Cincinnati area into St. Louis. That means a lot of rural transit through Indiana and Illinois. Fortunately, each of those states have a transit geek bright enough to steer by. Tomorrow I’m having lunch with Becky Allen from Access Johnson County. This is what you need to know about Johnson County, Indiana: It’s nowhere near Cinci. So Becky went out of her way to get me a lift from the Ohio line through Decatur County, then another lift from that county line through Shelby County, then another lift from that county line to a Mexican restaurant where I’ll meet her and her husband Jeff for lunch, then another lift from the restaurant to Greenwood, from whence IndyGo buses run into Indianapolis.

Becky had these vans and buses lined up like Rockettes. And then when she found out that one of them would be delayed, she sent me a text. On a Sunday. On a Sunday!

There’s a private inter-city bus carrier in Indiana called (and I love this) Hoosier Ride, and that’s how I’m getting from Indy to Terre Haute, near the Illinois border. From there, I’m fortunate to have yet another transit geek stepping up. My Route Warrior through the Land of Lincoln is Michelle Keller of Rides MTD, and what an amazing human being she is! What makes her “amazing” rather than just “helpful” or even “indispensable” is that it is in no way her job to assist me.

Rides MTD is a network of transit systems running semi-autonomously through 18 rural counties. Michelle works in Paris, Ill., in Edgar County, which I’m not coming within 15 miles of. But she worked the phones and not only came up with a county-to-county handoff, but engineered a way for me to get picked up in Terre Haute – well on the Indiana side. My request was to get dropped off close to Highland, Ill., where I could take a Metro bus into St. Louis, but again my local guide knew better. Michelle got me on a paratransit ride-along all the way across the Mississippi river into Missouri.

Thanks to my Route Warriors, the Cross-Country Local will be a week ahead of schedule by the time I spend the weekend with friends around Chesterfield, Mo. I have no doubt that, as I do my advance work, I’ll find their kindred spirits in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, as well as a cacophony of voices offering alternatives across California.

Having arrived at this point in my travels extends the luxury of being able to say, “Hey I made it this far. And everywhere I’ve gone, somebody’s been able to help me move forward. Are you telling me this journey comes to an end in [Your State]?” Nobody wants to be known for dropping the ball, so I continue westward with great confidence.

And I won’t ever forget that it was endorsement of such an industry leader as Ecolane that convinced the first Route Warrior that the Cross-Country Local is for real.

 

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