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Help out bus riders in cold weatherEdit

By CHRIS POTTER, City Paper, original article from January, 2006

As an almost-daily bus rider, I’ve noticed that in recent months, the Port Authority has launched a wide-ranging PR campaign. Buses are now graced with little pro-transit jingles, for example. I’ve even seen Port Authority ads at Steelers games.

I don’t begrudge these efforts -- much. But it’s worth making the following observation: There’s nothing worse than being told how great riding the bus is -- when the bus telling you so won’t stop to pick you up.

Now you’re just being insulting, Mr. Bus Driver. You need to stop.

There we stand on the East Busway, watching for the EBA (East Busway -- All Stops) to collect us, hoping the driver arrives before the spring thaw. Then, in the distance, we see … the 68D. We mutter into our scarves as it blasts past us. Like many of the commuter “express” routes serving the suburbs, it’s only half-full.

The goodwill the Port Authority hopes to earn with its PR campaign? It gets dashed every time I’m left chewing on the exhaust of a bus like the 68D. There are empty seats in there, and a dozen people standing right next to me! And it’s 14 degrees out, not counting the wind!

Worst of all is the “drop-off only” stop. Somebody on the “express” needs to get off, and so at last, the bus graces our stop with its presence. The commuter jumps out -- but before we can even gaze fish-eyed at the cozy warmth inside, the doors close behind and the bus pulls away, leaving us to freeze. It’s like something out of The Grapes of Wrath.

“Wherever there’s a guy fumbling with his transfer because his hands are numb, look for me, Ma -- and I’ll be there.”

It’s not the driver’s fault. It’s a matter of policy.

“One advantage we get from the East Busway, and the other busways, is the ability to offer express commuter routes to the suburbs,” says Port Authority spokesperson Bob Grove. “They can bypass the traffic, and that’s how we sell the service. If you have those buses stopping at every busway stop, you’re really starting to degrade the time savings they can accomplish.” That could depress ridership by making riders late for work.

Here’s the thing, though: Screw those people. Mass transit is all about accommodating others: I’ll ignore your disturbing personal habits (twitching, loud cell-phone conversation, turning the page of your magazine before I’m done reading it over your shoulder, etc.), if you take 30 seconds to rescue me from this frigid bus stop. In the long run, doing so will help even you, the suburban commuter: Having more riders means your route is less likely to fall victim to a service cut.

It’s not like Grove is made out of ice. “I can understand how people might feel,” he acknowledges. “I’m a regular bus rider myself, and I know -- when it’s cold, it can be pretty tough. It wouldn’t be right to make people wait for 15 or 20 minutes while they watched the buses going by. But with the frequency that the EBA goes by, that doesn’t happen.”

A lot of us, though, have to walk several blocks to our stops to begin with, and those of us who use the busway find scant shelter when we arrive. In such circumstances, given a wintry blast of wind, frostbite can strike in just a few minutes.

Right now, Grove concedes, the Port Authority has no policy to pick riders up even in the most arctic weather. “What temperature would we use as the cut-off?” he asks.

My answer would be, “Whatever temperature makes me personally uncomfortable.” But the Port Authority could easily follow the lead of the National Weather Service, which issues weather alerts like wind-chill warnings “when the wind chill is life-threatening.” The policy should be that, when such a warning is issued, drivers along the busways should pick up anyone waiting at the station -- whether the stop is scheduled or not.

Barring such a change, we’ll have to accept the cold consolation of Grove’s explanation for the policies they have today. “We’ve got to accommodate all these different groups of people -- the ones coming in from Wilkinsburg, the ones from far out in the suburbs. I’d just ask people to try putting themselves in our shoes.”

I, for one, would be happy to do so. Especially if those shoes happened to be on a 68D.

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