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    After spending a semester in New York City, I consider myself a bus-riding, subway-taking, public transportation convert. It’s relatively reliable, frees my hands and eyes up for reading and makes me feel like I’m doing a little something for the environment.

    In Louisville, however, public transportation is not nearly as widely used. New York City, including bus routes throughout all five boroughs, claims almost 2.5 million riders on an average weekday and had 5,710 buses on the road in 2014. Meanwhile in the Greater Louisville area, the daily average of 47,000 riders will take one of the 230 available buses. The Louisville Metropolitan Statistical area includes an estimated population of 1.27 million, while the population of New York City is 8,491,079. This means about three percent of Louisville’s population takes the bus every day, while nearly 30 percent do so in New York (and all this completely excludes subway statistics!).

    As a college student on a budget, with parents who made the fiscally smart (if personally annoying) decision to buy one car for four daughters to share, I’ll be taking the bus for the duration of my internship at Magazine. But aside from my stint in New York, I’m used to personal transportation myself: at college I walk to classes and borrow friends’ cars when necessary, and from primary school on I was strictly a car-riding kind of gal.

    Since the bus is clearly not Louisville’s most popular form of transportation, I’m a little nervous. With so many commuters choosing to drive themselves, who’s left in the three percent taking the bus?


    The Day Before:


    I begin researching the bus routes and stops early in the day. In this case the TARC website isn’t extremely helpful, since on the “plan your trip” section of the site they completely ignores all smaller stops. I resignedly plan to walk six blocks to the nearest stop, and then another five to work. This can’t be right.


    It’s not right!  There’s a stop just across Central Park that I can easily reach from my grandparents’ house. They, in their infinite bus-related wisdom, walk me carefully through how to get to the stop, when to get off, and how to get to work from there. The small question of cost arises. For some reason, none of us think to use the tiny, incredibly powerful computers in our hands to find the definite answer, so instead we guess. My grandmother knows that with the senior discount, the cost is .85 per ride (she is wrong: the discounted cost is .80), so she thinks the regular price must be a little over a dollar. I gather a few dollar bills, and my grandmother throws some coins on the pile. I am prepared for my first TARC ride.


    Day 1:


    With fear and dread in my heart I wake up at an ungodly hour (I think the first number on the clock was still a six but I honestly don’t trust my vision that time of day, so who knows.) Starting a new job (internship, technically, but a girl can dream) is nerve-wracking, but at this point getting there seems like by far the most difficult part.

    I leave the house at 7:35 a.m. in order to give myself plenty of time for my 8:30 start time, allowing myself only briefly to consider the fact that this is about the same time I would have had to leave my hometown (Bardstown, Kentucky) to get there on time if I was driving.

    There’s only gray light outside, and Central Park is kind of spooky this early, the lion statues peeking menacingly out from behind bushes. On the other side, I find the bench my grandmother said would be waiting next to the “board here” sign, but I’m too worried I’ll miss the bus to sit down. No one else is around. I put my headphones in and wait. When the bus arrives, big, bright “4” dancing above the driver, I breathe a sigh of relief. There’s no sign indicating how much to pay, so I give a dollar and wait—the bus driver hands me a transfer ticket and I smugly move to an empty seat. Why was I so nervous? I am a pro.


    As I leave work I play a guessing game, wondering which of the people walking the sidewalk downtown with me are headed to my TARC stop. Without fail, each person I see at some point removes a set of car keys from their pocket or bag. At 5:30 p.m., my stop is deserted. Toto, I don’t think we’re in New York anymore.

    I’ve been told it’s okay for me to board either the 6 or the 4, so when the 6 pulls up just a few minutes later I hop on, pay my $1, refuse the transfer ticket with the air of a person in the know, and take a seat. For some reason, the bus driver feels the need to announce again: “number 6 bus for Outer Loop!” which is when I panic. Outer Loop? That can’t be right? Oh my God where am I going?

    I arrive safely at the stop one block from my grandparents’ front door less than ten minutes later. Crisis averted.


    Day 2:


    Now that I am master of the TARC, I leave about 15 minutes later than the previous day. Perhaps because of the slightly later time, or because of the abundance of dog walkers, my walk through the park is less creepy. At the stop, I am—horror of horrors—joined by someone else who also appears to be waiting. Once again, I don’t sit, choosing instead to suspiciously eye the perfectly average-looking guy holding a red fabric lunchbox.

    It’s unfair of me to do so, but as a (middle class white female) college student, I’ve been catching myself either pitying or fearing my fellow bus riders. I remind myself that here I am, riding the bus, and that the last thing I would want is to be either feared or pitied. It does seem that public transportation in Louisville is utilized mostly by those without the means to buy a car, but I remind myself that this does not necessarily turn each rider into a boogeyman or a sob story—and lunchbox-holding young men should be anything but scary.

    The boy and I exchange competitive glances when the bus finally arrives, before he silently nods to let me step on board to pay my dollar first. I accept this as my right: after all, I was there first.

    Calmer this morning, I have more time to observe my fellow bus riders. We’re a scattered group: no one sitting next to someone else unless forced. The younger people all wear headphones, while the older generations look out the window, or read. There aren’t a lot of headphones though, since the bus seems mostly full of older folks, overwhelmingly African American, almost evenly split between men and women. In my three rides, it has been standard to for at least one or two riders to be handicapped in some way. On the bus—this line at least—I am definitely a minority.


    As I walk back to my afternoon stop, I feel my heart drop when I notice a crumpled truck near the shelter. After ascertaining there’s not enough damage for it to seem that anyone’s been hurt, I move on to more selfish concerns. It’s not completely blocking the roadway, but is the space left enough for a bus? I want to get home, and delays are not part of the plan.

    Luckily, my fears are unfounded and the bus easily moves around the truck. The driver pulls to a stop, and suddenly there is a crowd of people. I end up somewhere near the middle, and I step confidently forward to deposit four quarters. The driver motions for my attention, as I have headphones in. I take one earbud out and say, “oh no, I don’t need a transfer ticket!” The driver is unimpressed with my knowledge and says, “fare’s $1.75.” My cheeks flush, and I move to the side while other passengers pay and I search for more quarters.


    Day 3:


    This is my last day bus-riding for the week, and I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. After my discovery yesterday that each trip costs $1.75 instead of $1 (who knows how those first three trips slipped by), I am in a panic to find more change. Eventually, my grandmother comes down with enough for the day, and the news that I am ineligible for the student discount, since it only applies to high school students (and Louisville students, who ride for free. Lucky dogs Cards.) Great.

    I walk through the park much later than usual because of the great change-finding frenzy. The stop is in sight, but still a few hundred feet away when I spot the bus, stopped just one street away. I sprint across the park, waving my hands wildly. Dog-walkers and dogs alike are intrigued, and watch as the crazy woman races towards the bus. I run straight into the street, arms still waving, and the bus slows.

    “Thank…you…” I pant, climbing on board. The driver is expressionless (I’m starting to think it’s a TARC requirement) but a man standing nearby laughs and says, “You must really have to be somewhere!” I smile, and look for a seat. But apparently, this is primetime, and there isn’t one available. As I stand there a woman with a walker tells me to “please move” as she leaves—an oxymoron of polite and rude that leaves me confused. Luckily, she leaves a seat open, and I collapse into it, sweating beneath my puffy coat.


    This is it: my last bus trip for the week. I gather the very last of my remaining coins, and head towards my stop. It’s more crowded than usual today, and somehow I end up getting on last, behind even the elderly woman who is using a walker/grocery cart combo to help her walk and hold her bags. The bus sinks to the level of the sidewalk to allow her on, and once she is settled, I pay my fare and sidle past her.

    The evenings are generally more crowded, and seem to have an influx of younger riders, maybe coming from after school programs or practices that have run too late for them to be able to take the school bus.

    The next stop brings even more people to an already crowded ride: including another woman with a walker, and a man with a seeing-eye dog. The women with the walkers sit across from each other (really, these are the only places for them to sit, since they are the only places that afford room for their walkers). Unfortunately, this means the walkers meet in the middle, and no one can get through. My seatmate and I exchange looks. We stay like this for a while, with the bus driver shouting for people to “move to the back!” not realizing that they can’t. Finally, one of the women folds up her walker and moves it to the side. The man with the seeing eye dog is helped to a seat near the front and the dog sits down under the seat.

    When both women with walkers get off at the same stop, a man in a Louisville sweatshirt stands by the driver to make sure he stays put until everyone gets off who needs to. “We all good?” this good Samaritan says, before helping the last woman off and retaking his own seat.

    I get off at my own stop feeling pretty good about Louisville’s bus system, or at least the people who use it. 

    Nettie Finn's picture

    About Nettie Finn

    DePauw University student, currently pursuing an English Writing BA and graduating this coming May. Pastimes include binge reading, attempting to discover a diet that is both healthy and consists solely of carbs, and doing my best to discover new music before my family does.

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