Monday, December 22, 2014

Making Personal Connections aboard the Bus

Another drippy forecast derailed my plan to check out possible great streets in the Napa Valley.  And with final holiday preparations underway, I can’t reschedule the trip until after Christmas.  (Had I known that planning a series of field trips would have brought needed rain to the North Bay, I would have done so a year ago.)

However, the unexpected gap in my schedule gives me an opportunity to touch upon the sense of community that can form among transit riders, a subject of unexpected topicality.

I sit on the Transit Advisory Committee for the City of Petaluma.  That committee recently adopted a policy asking all committee members to ride a selected bus route at least once a month.

The intention is for the members to observe the performance of the route under different operating conditions, which will improve their skills at reviewing overall transit operations.  (Some committee members ride Petaluma Transit far more frequently, using it to help conduct their daily lives, which provides even better insights.)

As a result of the new policy, I recently spent a couple of morning hours riding the 1T route, which conveys students to and from a pair of local schools.  It was a pleasure to observe the bus driver as he managed his route, holding to schedule and consistently checking that the passengers were boarding their intended bus.

But even more interesting was the sense of community evident among the bus riders.  It was 7:30am on the way to morning classes, so there was no exuberance in the greetings, but as new riders boarded the bus, other riders would make eye contact or and give a slight wave to acknowledge the first sight of daily acquaintances.  As a group, they didn’t seem likely to party together, but they knew each other, were pleased to see each other in the morning, and would have been diminished if one of them had ceased riding the bus.

Perhaps the best moment came when the driver found no one waiting at a bus stop.  As the driver re-entered the flow of traffic, he spotted a tardy rider huffing his way toward the bus stop.  The driver slipped onto a shoulder so the rider could board.  The delinquent rider gave an embarrassed smile to the other riders and they acknowledged his chagrin.

From a later conversation with the Transit Manager, I understand that extra stops aren’t an approved practice and could garner a reprimand for the driver.  I understand the reasons for the policy, but still like living in a world where a bus driver will bend the rules to accommodate a regular rider, especially one who is part of a bus community.

I mention this story because of a similar, but much more dramatic, transit saga that occurred on the opposing side of the globe in the past week.

As the terrorist hostage situation developed in Sydney last week, public transit was filled with people escaping from downtown.  On one train, a passenger, Rachel Jacobs, observed a Muslim woman, Mariam Veiszadeh, removing her head scarf in apparent fear of the reactions of other passengers to the terrorist situation downtown.  Jacobs, unwilling to let fear pervade her train, went to Veiszadeh’s side, encouraged her to retain the scarf, and offered to accompany her on the remainder of her trip.

From that initial act, a Twitter hashtag #illridewithyou grew as other Sydney transit users tweeted their transit travel plans and stated their willingness to accompany transit riders who might be traveling in fear.

The scale in Sydney was far greater and more serious than in Petaluma, but the underlying reality is the same.  A community is formed among transit riders, a community that, most days, is only comprised of a wry smile but, in more stressful situations, will be honored with a protective arm.

Transit is essential to communities.  It eases congestion, reduces emissions, and provides an alternative for those who can’t afford a car or choose to do without.  But transit is susceptible to disruption by those who would undermine our cities and who see transit as an easy target.  The naturally forming communities among transit riders can help push back those forces of disruption.  And that’s a very good thing.

My next post will fall on Christmas Eve.  In keeping with the day, I’ll offer a couple of urbanist Christmas stories.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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