The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


A Day in the Life of a Bus Rider

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Want to get healthier, save money, and lower your stress? I have a simple answer for you: Ride the bus. I use the bus in Milwaukee almost every day and it has made me more active and fit, saved me thousands of dollars, and kept me out of hundreds of stressful traffic jams and endless hunts for parking. It also familiarizes me with my city and my fellow residents.

If you haven’t used public transportation much, it can seem really daunting to figure out how to make it work with your life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “The bus system in my city is horrible,” only to later find out that that person has never even ridden the bus! It’s absurd but far too common for Americans to dismiss bussing altogether as a viable transit option. There is a major stigma surrounding bus ridership–that it is only for poor minorities–and that needs to end now.

I’ll be up front here: Public transportation in most cities is woefully inadequate. It serves far too few people and takes far too long to get them where they need to go. However, without riding it, we’ll never figure out ways to fix it and convince our leaders to make that happen. Systems don’t change unless they have buy-in. So today I’m going to walk you through how I use the bus on a given day to get everywhere I need to go. It isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than driving a car.

Here is what a day in my life as a public transit user looks like:

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7:30am  My alarm goes off and I shower, dress, eat cereal and make coffee. Continue reading


The Way You Move

Modes of transport venn diagram

How do our modes of transportation effect the way we experience our cities? I put together this little chart looking at the different factors we usually consider when traveling by car vs. bike vs. foot vs. bus or train. (Let me know if you think I left anything off or if you disagree with any of the points.)

It helps to see overlaps in the concerns of transportation users because we can utilize these commonalities to share ideas and build power. For instance, a significant consideration for bikers and walkers, which does not matter much to drivers or public transit riders, is the safety of their route. That’s “safety” as in bike lanes and sidewalks, not criminal presence. When you’re in a car, you rule the road, but when you’re using one of the other forms of transit that our cities and towns have so frequently declined to prioritize, you have to think about how safe your route is before you head out. Some routes are so treacherous as to prohibit a person from using a bike or their feet to travel there. So, when I understand that safety matters for both bikers and walkers, I start envisioning sidewalks and paths built alongside one another that protect everyone who uses them. Then, as projects are proposed to create bike lanes and wider sidewalks, I know who would benefit from them and whose opinions should be present in decision making.

Similarly, knowing that a big concern for drivers is the availability of parking spaces and that a big concern for bikers is the availability of secure locking locations, I begin to wonder whether an increase in the latter could help increase the former too; by alleviating an obstacle that may prevent people from biking, we can encourage biking over driving, and leave more parking spots open for people who truly have no other option than to use a car. Besides, bikes take up far less space than cars, so it would be relatively simple to designate a small plot of land for a shed that could then hold dozens of bikes.

Even the weather, which seems to be a largely immoveable force, can be mediated for public transit users with heated and/or covered waiting areas. This also creates an alternative for walkers who, instead of deciding to drive on a day in which rain is forecasted, can continue walking to work as usual, but have the option of ducking into a shelter and taking the bus if it suddenly starts to rain.

What I’m getting at here is that understanding the concerns of different transport users does not just help us to work for their individual and overlapping benefits, it also helps us to encourage their participation in new modes of transit. Once we determine which factors turn people away from, say, taking the bus to work instead of driving, we can work to mitigate those factors by creating more direct bus routes or building a more affordable pricing structure for bus passes. Then, with the right research and packaging, we would hope to induce further public transport use. Of course there are dozens of steps involved in this process, but it’s an example of how an awareness of transportation needs and concerns can advise our development and use of transportation infrastructure. Consider this chart a jumping off point to take a look at the transportation needs and concerns in your own community.

As a final word, transit gets a fair amount of play in this space, but many urbanist blogs focus far more on the tough and vital issues that are related to this integral element of our cities. If this transportation post piqued your interest, consider it your invitation to explore those blogs further. Check out Streets.MN and Streetsblog for starters.


Roadblocks to Progress: Summer Construction and Small Business Struggles


Penn Ave and 53rd St, a couple blocks from my house

A few years ago, I was introduced to a daunting conflict between small business and government. My friend Harry brought me to a Caribbean café in St. Paul, Minnesota, located off a central corridor (University Avenue) that was undergoing major renovations to become a light-rail line. As you know from previous posts, I’m a strong supporter of public transit, especially in my own city. However, what I found out that evening at Caribe Caribbean Bistro made me rethink my enthusiasm. The thirty-seat restaurant had seen a serious downturn in business since construction began on their portion of University Avenue. Speaking with one of the owners, my friend and I learned that the lack of access and parking was turning away numerous customers away, and that they didn’t think Caribe could survive this indefinite spell of isolation.

Harry, who worked for the University Avenue Business Association, offered the owner a small business loan to potentially tide them over, but even this was not enough. The owners also attempted a Kickstarter campaign to help them relocate their business (a campaign which I supported). However, they were unable to obtain the necessary funding for that. My plans to return to the café a few months later were never realized because it had to close down. Continue reading


Public Transit Trends: What a Bus Ride Can Tell You About Race and Class

Two weeks ago, I started a discussion about the relationship between cities and public transit. I outlined the different public transportation models that I’ve seen broadly employed in big cities, sprawling cities, mid-size cities and small towns, but now I want to go more in depth to talk about two intersecting issues that effect public transit across the nation: race and class.


Riding the bus is one of the best ways to understand race and class differentials in a given city or town. By watching who gets on which routes, at which places, and at what times of the day, you can begin to notice the demographic make-up of your city. This information tells you what sort of jobs people have (night-shifts, office jobs, etc.) as well as what neighborhoods they live and work in, and how segregated those areas are. But public transit doesn’t just demonstrate how our cities are divided by race and class, it can also create those divisions.

Two Examples

I know I mention these cities a fair amount on The City Space, but New York City and Washington DC offer excellent fodder for an examination of the relationship between public transit, race and class. While I’m not a transportation expert by any means, I feel comfortable speaking about public transit in these places because I’ve used it a lot, and the corresponding issues seem to come up frequently in discussions with friends. Stick with me on this example—it’ll make sense in the end.

Let’s start with New York City. Here, the subway costs $2.50 no matter where you’re going. $2.50 buys a trip from the Far Rockaways to the heart of Manhattan, lending a certain equality to the daily commute. $2.50 also buys a homeless person a warm place to sleep on a cold winter day. In New York, everyone from grandmas to babies in strollers, from politicians to actresses, takes the train. $2.50 is by no means a bargain, but it can take anyone almost anywhere in the city. Continue reading


Public Transit Trends: From Cities to Towns

With numerous recent articles commenting on my generation’s decreasing use of the automobile, it’s time I started a discussion here about the relationship between cities and transit. Having never owned a car myself, I’ve often relied on public transit to get me where I need to go in a number of cities. Thus, from both a personal and an urbanist standpoint I know how important it is. In this first post in the transit series, I’ll outline the different transportation models that I’ve broadly seen employed everywhere from major metro areas to small towns.

IMG_0164 Big Cities
New York City and Washington DC provide some of the most expansive public transit systems in the nation and they are usually pointed to as examples of top-notch public transit. (Chicago is also a notable example of quality transit.) These cities’ transportation systems serve millions of residents a day, taking them to the office, the supermarket, the theater, the park and everywhere in between with relative speed and ease. The webs of their bus and subway lines reach the corners of the city (though both, notably, exclude certain neighborhoods like Red Hook in Brooklyn and Georgetown in DC). Public transit in these metropolitan areas may not be cheap, but it is the quickest method of movement in traffic-logged cities that cost a fortune to park in. In New York and DC, it is completely reasonable not to own a car and if the need arises for an out of town trip or an IKEA buy, one can grab a ZipCar for the weekend. Class differentials seriously effect access to such resources and I’ll speak more about that in a future post.

Mid-size Cities
Mid-size cities are a vastly mixed bag when it comes to public transportation. Some, like Philadelphia, have gone all in with a commitment to maximum accessibility and frequency. Others, like Atlanta hardly try. Still others—Milwaukee, WI for example— have a transit system that quietly links thousands of residents to the surrounding area while whizzing through, unnoticed, by its wealthier, car-bound citizens. I won’t deny that having a car in my mid-size hometown of Minneapolis makes transportation a lot quicker—with the exception of rush-hour wherein a designated highway lane makes commuting on the bus a relative breeze. Ultimately, quality public transit is entirely achievable in these sorts of places if governments and people want to make it happen.

Continue reading