A bus commuter hopes for change

Monday, March 24, 2014
(Published in print: Tuesday, March 25, 2014)

NORTHAMPTON — On a recent Wednesday afternoon I packed away my computer and told my Latina colleagues in our clinic in Springfield’s North End that I was off to take the bus home to Northampton. Though only one or two said it, their looks read equally, “You what?” — as if I was announcing plans to jump into the nearby Connecticut River.

Many of them take the bus. They have to. They are paid near-minimum wage, many are single moms who can’t afford a car. And they live in Springfield, so the ride is not a trek.

But I am a doctor. I drive my own car. Why would I make such a choice?

One close friend nodded knowingly, “It’s for global warming, isn’t it?” “Yup,” I responded. Another said, “But you own a Prius!” “I know, but buses are better,” I said as I hurried away, knowing that I was going to have to jog as best as my 63-year-old legs could take me in order to make the next P21 Express to Holyoke, in order to catch the B48 to Northampton. They were left with not uncommon but friendly “Gringos are nuts” musings.

I made it, but just. The bus had pulled out but the driver responded to my frantic wave. I find that drivers are extraordinarily generous and tolerant folks. In the interests of full disclosure, my dad was a Greyhound bus driver and I have always looked at transport workers as some of “my folks,” but it is a real pleasure to find men and women who go out of their way to help harried mothers of babies in carriages with toddlers in tow, elders who can’t speak English and folks like me who, after 24 years of education, repeatedly misread the schedule.

I plopped down after frantically searching for and rendering exact change. I made my transfer in Holyoke and the trip was 50 minutes. Add on the two miles on foot and I have gotten my day’s exercise and made it from work in an hour and a half.

It’s not as fast as driving.

But I have begun to wonder whether speed is not a fair trade for cutting carbon, gaining community and eliminating the stress and isolation of driving.

I did it for the first reason. We are destroying the planet by pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and heating and disrupting the climate and the oceans. The horrible drought in the western U.S. was front page news in the New York Times this month and our food supply is already being disrupted. I am going to admit, though, I figured that my taking the bus would be a sacrifice for my ideals.

Hah. I am no martyr, nor need I be. I read, look at kids, talk to my fellow passengers, plan my evening and watch the Pioneer Valley go by as I leave the driving to someone else.

I often muse on the community part. As Clare Higgins has written in her Gazette column, the Valley is a segregated place and we on the northern side of the “Tofu Curtain” have been cut off from the mainly poor, black, brown and non-English-speaking inner-city residents of Holyoke and Springfield. We whiz on past on I-91 and that’s as close as most of us get. My job means daily contact with poor and Latino men, women and children and I know what they tell me of their lives, I sometimes visit them, and I do my best to support and intervene for them.

But it is a defined role. Being a pedestrian and a bus-rider is something of a leveler. I have found out just why my Springfield elders are afraid to go outside in the winter: the sidewalks are not cleared and I have more than once landed (fortunately) on my backside. Moreover I am likely to get run over when I try to cross the I-91 entrance from Route 20, despite the zebra lines designed to protect me.

And the bus station is jammed and chaotic, without enough seats. It is not an easy thing to get around without a car in our cities.

It needs to be made easier.

Sidewalks need to be cleared as soon as streets.


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