When I first moved to Kansas City about two years ago, every morning I drove six minutes to work along your route on Main Street. I was proud of my choice to live in the urban core and proud of a commute time much shorter than the Kansas City average of 20 minutes. But every time I saw you at the stop right around the corner from my apartment, and every time I saw you dropping off passengers a couple of blocks from where I worked, I felt like a fraud, MAX. Seeing you reminded me that I was dismissing a perfectly convenient transportation option. You also reminded me that I drove 0.27 miles – to the gym – on a regular basis. And that I didn’t recycle enough, or grow my own herbs. You reminded me of all the ways I could be better if only I made that little extra effort.
Then my car got stolen while parked at work, which for a moment made me hate the stupid urban core and reminded me that I wasn’t such a fraud after all, as I was beginning to experience the full effect of my urban inclinations. But it also forced the issue with us. This is how I finally ditched my car for you. And this is how guilt gave way to insight.
With you I was more physically active just going through my regular day than I’d been in a long time, which was not surprising, but I discovered additional benefits. Because of you I paid attention to the weather and became mindful of how I used my time. I got to catch up on podcasts while walking to and from you and eavesdropped on conversations during the ride. I had new opportunities for new goals (like catching the 7:58) and small victories (getting a seat on the 8:08). I saw the city from a pedestrian’s perspective. I felt connected to rhythms independent of and indifferent to my own patterns, that key and amazing benefit of living in a city – the discovery that, for better or worse, the world does not revolve around any one of us. I absolutely, genuinely, exhaustedly loved you, MAX.
But just as I discovered unexpected benefits, I stumbled upon two major downsides, especially after I changed jobs a couple of months ago. My new job is a mile closer to where I live, so it now takes me exactly four minutes to drive to work every morning. With a ridiculous four-minute commute, I’m one of those people for whom it makes the most practical sense to ride the bus in Kansas City, but also one for whom it makes the least economic sense. Why? Because a four-minute commute is crazy short, and even at today’s higher gas prices, it costs only about $10 per month. And because it would cost me $50 per month to ride the bus.
You might argue that a $50 bus pass would also cover the cost of trips to places other than work, and you would be correct, except I wouldn’t take the bus to those other places. Our transportation network and the distribution of services in the city aren’t tight enough to make that feasible. Getting to a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day would mean missing almost an entire day of work. Grocery shopping would require carrying several extra pounds on the way back – or taking more than an hour every day for “quick” runs. I tried them both, and it really doesn’t work. I even considered riding MAX to an event at the Overland Park Convention Center, and I found that in order to get there by 10 a.m., I’d have to leave my house by 6:30 a.m. – just like flying to Chicago for a mid-morning meeting.
The inconvenience of it might seem like the greatest disincentive to ride the bus in Kansas City, but it isn’t the only one. When I told people I was trying to figure out how to get to Overland Park by bus, they laughed at me. (Heck, I laughed at me.) But ultimately I didn’t try it, not just because it was inconvenient, but also because I didn’t want to be seen walking in Overland Park.
The biggest downside I found in riding the bus for a year was that instead of changing people’s perceptions of public transportation as a second-rate option, I became a second-rate curiosity myself. When friends saw me waiting for the bus, they tried complicated traffic maneuvers to “rescue” me. They secretly followed me to the bus stop after work to make sure I made it ok. Of course my friends just wanted to make things easier for me, but even strangers assumed I needed help. Commuters in suits and ties turned to look at me while driving by; sometimes they slowed down and asked if everything was ok. People who barely knew me looked at me suspiciously upon learning of my transportation habits, and the professional implications were clear. (Given any “elevator speeches” while on the bus? Ride the bus to any board meetings? I didn’t think so …)
I get it. Riding the bus in a sprawling city when most of my professional peers don’t is a little crazy. I still believe it’s the right thing to do, but I now know that abandoning the car in Kansas City is not just a matter of making a little extra effort. Driving less is a choice both not supported by our infrastructure and unappealing professionally. It’s a choice that requires a tight transportation network, and perhaps more importantly, a real change in our culture.