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Thoughts on Transit

The Cross Country Local on Transit Deserts: Part 2

by William Freedman / December 15, 2015

Continued from Transit Deserts: Part 1, William Freedman writes from his hotel room in Sacramento, one travel day away from the end of his Cross Country Local expedition.  As he watches the Broncos vs. Raiders Sunday night football game and nurses a case of sciatica, he documents the holes in the map where mass transit is not readily available to the public, making travel difficult.

Far-west Texas

So what was I doing at the Mexican border?

West Texas is every bit as big as you’ve heard. So it might surprise you (as it did me) to learn that there’s a system of rural transit all through it. The biggest chunk of Interstates 20 and 10 are covered by Trax, a service of the West Texas Opportunities, the regional economic development authority. And I’m here to tell you, Trax has got Big Spring to Fort Stockton covered. West of there, however, they subcontract to a smaller, local, mainly Spanish-speaking operation called Big Bend Bus Service.

Fifty weeks out of the year, I’m sure, Big Bend could’ve gotten me from Fort Stockton to El Paso. But not Thanksgiving week. The best they could do was Presidio, on the Mexican border. It was that or, best case, spend six days in Fort Stockton.

“I’ll take it.”

Having documented how I could get through just about any other time of the year, I had few qualms about stepping out of bounds and into Ojinaga, a small border town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. But I still had to get to El Paso, and there were two problems with that. The first is that there’s no direct bus route from Ojinaga to the Mexican city across the river from El Paso. The second is that this city south of El Paso is Juarez, the most likely place in the world to get murdered.

The first problem was easily solved. Mexico has a highly developed intercity bus service. And by that I mean the mélange of regional, privately owned companies compares favorably not just with Greyhound, but with most U.S. discount airlines. You’ll get a snack, a soda, earbuds and a neck pillow, and your seat will recline at least 30 degrees. But, like airlines, they operate on a hub-and-spoke pattern, so I’d have to travel to the state capital, also called Chihuahua, then change buses. The trip would’ve been 250 miles in a straight shot; this detour tacked on another 120.

The other problem was Juarez’s reputation. But let’s be clear: Being the murder capital of the world means there’s a homicide every three hours. I was there 12 hours. There are 1.3 million residents. I liked my odds

Missouri, every inch

I arrived in St. Louis aboard a paratransit provided by Illinois’s Rides Mass Transit District. I left Kansas City via The JO, or Johnson County (Kansas) Transit. In other words, I both entered and left the state on vehicles provided by other states’ tax dollars.

In between, I rode St. Louis’s barely adequate MetroLink light rail (it’s basically a one-route subway), and only witnessed the better-reputed KCATA buses on Kansas City’s streets. Missouri’s rural transit was of no practical use to me.

The network of independent, unconnected, underfunded, demoralized dispatch desks is called OATS, which originally stood for Older Adults Transportation Service. But if you’re in the western suburbs of St. Louis and you need to get to Columbia or Jefferson City (the Mizzou campus and the state capital, respectively) for anything other than a doctor’s visit, no OATS office is going to send a van for you.

The only way down Interstate 70 that I could identify was to take privately owned airport shuttles. The EZ-Go bus took me from Lambert-St. Louis International to Columbia. Then the Mo-X bus took me from there to Kansas City International. I’ve spent a lot of time since thinking about how else I could’ve done it, but I got nothing.

Belmont County, Ohio

The RTA out of Wheeling, W.Va., runs as far west as the Ohio Valley Mall in St. Clairsville, Ohio. And then good luck. Every other Ohio county along the National Highway has at last a dial-a-ride service, but Belmont County, of which St. Clairsville is the seat, has nothing. If you’re going to get sick there, you need to get sick enough to rate an ambulance.

It’s 20 miles from the mall to the Guernsey County line, and a daisy chain of rural transit vans that can take you all the way to Columbus. To an experienced hiker, that’s a one-day march. And I was prepared to do it.

But everything I learned about hiking and being prepared I learned in the Boy Scouts. As a pre-teen, I was a Boy Scout for about five months. But as a dad, I’ve been a trained assistant scoutmaster for years.

So as soon as I realized I’d have problems crossing that gap – that is, somewhere around Philadelphia – I called the Scouts’ Ohio Valley Council.

Quid pro quo was always part of the Cross-Country Local formula. If I thought I’d run into trouble, I’d call ahead to civic organizations – including the Scouts – and see if anyone wanted to see my PowerPoint slide show about the expedition. The Scout executive in Wheeling said sure, she knew of a unit in Belmont County that would enjoy watching me present the show.

If I could adapt it to the audience. A Cub pack.

“Of course,” I promised, having no idea how I was going to do that.

I needn’t have worried, though. The kids were mesmerized. I was talking about mass transit to kids who’ve never seen a county bus in their lives, and maybe never will. I might as well have been a visiting astronaut.

As it turned out, the pack’s Cubmaster never showed up, and the Scout executive needed someone to take charge of the boys while she ran a meeting for the parents. So I stepped up and led the kids in a couple party games I remembered from my days as a grange-hall wedding DJ. Let it not be said I didn’t earn my passage that night!

Central Pennsylvania

In an earlier post, I wrote about how big Philadelphia’s SEPTA system is, and how advanced CATA is for a small town like State College. But how do you get from one to another?

With a couple short walks, you can get from the end of SEPTA to the beginning of Lancaster’s Red Rose operation, and from the end of Red Rose to Harrisburg’s CAT (not to be confused with CATA). But CAT goes only as far as the western shore of the Susquehanna River – a town called Enola. CATA’s coverage area doesn’t start until you get to Milroy, almost 70 miles from there.

Again, pure, dumb luck came to my aid. As I mentioned, I grew up in Pennsylvania. Half the kids in my high school class who went on to college went to Penn State. One of my friends from those days, with whom I’ve stayed in touch, decided she liked living out there and bought a farm almost smack-dab in the middle of that gap. She works in Harrisburg, so it was no problem at all to take me the first half. She generously offered to put me up for the night and, in the morning, she did me the kind favor of dropping me off at my next stop – as one does for an overnight guest.

How would I have gotten through that transit desert without her? Although there is paratransit available in that region, it is very strictly limited to the elderly and disabled only. I’m 52, and didn’t even have sciatica back then.

In hindsight, I might’ve tried Craigslist, but that didn’t occur to me until my Periscope friends suggested it weeks later as I was stuck in Tahoe.

Maybe there’s another way, but I couldn’t find it and I’ve got better things to do than worry about it now.

(Five sacks! What did Khalil Mack eat for breakfast today?)

Perry County Case Study

Tags: Transit Trends

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