A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about community connections.
I lived in New York for awhile during college, and I mentioned how using public transportation there was one of the main ways I felt connected to the city.
Every morning, I’d wake up, walk to the subway, and push my way onto a train so full of people that I could hardly move. The community was literally squishing me.
But in all seriousness, using public transportation and being around other people really does make you feel like you’re “a part of something,” and when my article came out, I got a call from Betsy Kachmar at Fort Wayne Citilink buses.
Betsy wanted me to ride the bus for a day and see if it was something I was interested in doing more often.
I’ve always been curious about Fort Wayne’s bus system. I rode the bus a lot in New York. But everyone does that, so it’s not unusual. In Fort Wayne, everyone drives their own cars. You a see a few random passengers waiting by the bus stop from time to time, but that’s it. Honestly, none of them ever really looked like me, so I figured I wouldn’t blend in very well.
Riding the bus here was something that fascinated me, but it also made me uncomfortable.
When the day came, I met Betsy at the Meijer on Illinois Road where we parked in the lot by the Garden Center. She said that lot usually stays empty, so if people want to park there and hop the bus downtown, they can do it easily. Tickets are only $3 for a day pass, and kids younger than 18 or seniors ride half price. You can either buy a daily or monthly pass online ahead of time, or pay per ride in cash on the spot.
I thought that if I ever wanted a ride downtown on busy day of the Three Rivers Festival or something, maybe I really would ride the bus, so I didn’t have to park.
Betsy explained that the buses have bike racks on front, too, so if I ever got adventurous and biked too far away from home, I could ride the bus back.
That’s an idea, I thought.
A few minutes later, the bus pulled up, and we got on. It wasn’t as busy as buses in New York, but it was still mostly full. The people seemed nice enough, and they mostly kept to themselves just like in the big city—reading newspapers, listening to music on headphones, staring out windows.
We sat next to a guy probably in his late 40s named James. James was a regular rider. Betsy introduced me, and told him I was the girl who was going to write the article that convinced millennials they should ride the bus, too.
I smiled about that, but inside, a realization started eating at me. Chances are, unless bus service times get a big boost, or all of my friends suddenly decide to start riding the bus, I’m not going to be the type of person who does this on a regular basis.
The fact is, Fort Wayne is still very much a car city, and I have a car, and at the end of the day, it’s simply more convenient for me. People are creatures of convenience, after all. And even though riding the bus would do wonders for our environment and our community, most of us aren’t going to do it until it’s truly our best option.
As I sat there, staring out the window, worrying about what I was going to write, James reminded me why buses are still important in Fort Wayne.
“I ride the bus because I have to,” he said. “It’s the only way I can get to my doctors appointments.”
I guess I always figured that the people who rode the bus here were the people who needed it, but it’s different when they’re sitting next to you, telling you about it to your face.
As I listened to James, I stopped thinking about myself and other “young professionals” for a moment, and my mother’s voice came to mind: Maybe it’s not about you.
Maybe as much as I wanted to find a reason why I, a healthy, young, middle class person in Fort Wayne might ride the bus on occasion, the fact is, the bus system in our city isn’t really meant for that yet. It’s meant for people like James—people who literally need it—and that’s why all of us need it, too.
As much as I would love to do a good deed, and pick up people like James every morning to take them where they need to go, that’s not practical or efficient in my compact VW Jetta. So cities pay bus services like Citilink to provide public transportation for them, and it helps them remain active, contributing members of society.
Betsy said the buses have fixed routes and flex routes, and while the fixed routes follow the courses you see marked on the Citilink website, the flex routes change every day according to the need. They’re primarily for physically or mentally disabled riders, as part of a service that all city bus programs have to provide in exchange for public funding.
When people in need of transportation have no better way of getting to work or their doctors’ appointments, the bus is there for them.
Maybe it’s not about you.
As Betsy and I kept talking, she explained how buses used to be privately owned, and everyone used to ride them, even in cities like Fort Wayne. But as most working class citizens grew wealthy enough to afford their own autos, privately owned bus lines starting struggling, and companies like Citilink took over, seeking government funding to keep the buses running.
Betsy and I talked about how public transportation is the way of the future because people are moving back downtown, and like it or not, our environment simply can’t bear the burden of privately owned vehicles forever. Eventually, we’ll all have to find more environmentally friendly ways to get around.
But which comes first the chicken or the egg?
Do you make the buses nicer and more convenient to entice new customers now, or do you wait until the customers reach a critical mass, and then grow as needed?
Citilink seems to be choosing the latter (more practical) option. But the problem is, funding for the bus system we have now—the bus system people like James need—isn’t getting any better. Actually, it’s remained stagnant the last few years even though operation costs have increased. And with the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts, it’s likely to get worse.
Indy’s bus lines could see major cuts, and Indiana's Amtrak is slated for cuts as well.
Betsy is leery about what these changes might mean for Fort Wayne.
“That’s so frustrating,” I said, staring out the window again.
But as I said it, another realization came to mind.
Perhaps the reason public transportation is getting cut is because the people making those cuts are thinking like me. Maybe they're looking at the budget full of things the government is funding, and thinking: Public transportation? In cities like Fort Wayne? Who needs it? Everyone has cars.
But the fact is, the people you don’t see every day, the people waiting at the bus stop, the people who don’t look like you or act like you or dress like you, the people you might be afraid to approach, do need public transportation. And realizing that is not necessarily a solution, but it might be a new way to start thinking about the problem. And if you think about it, maybe it's also part of the reason our community feels segregated.
For those of us who don’t need buses, it’s easy to forget that they even exist.
Ride the Bus
If you’re interested in experiencing a bus ride for yourself, you can see the map of stops on the Citilink website. You can also purchase a bus pass there.
Ride for Free
If you are downtown or near the University of Saint Francis, you can take advantage of Citilink’s Cougar Express bus for free. It’s a complimentary service Citilink created for students that is open to all members of our community, as well. Just flag the bus down, and hop on.
HereSay, in partnership with YLNI, is a bi-weekly blog about our say on what’s happening here. It is written by YLNI member Kara Hackett, and the opinions are her own. Photo by Matt Thomas. HereSay@ylni.org