One of the first things we did when we moved back to my quasi-rural hometown of Durango, Colo., this summer was ride the “trolley.” It’s actually a bus that is made to look like an old street car, complete with wood benches for passengers, but it’s mass transit, and it’s free, and it gets you from one side of town to the other regardless of what it’s called.
Any fears that my town had been completely gentrified were wiped out as soon as I boarded. The crew was a motley one, bearing no resemblance to the ultra-fit, upscale, artificially beautiful stereotype that many associate with high-end Colorado towns. Near the front of the bus, a family of what must have been tourists watched the cartoons playing on the video monitor. They were joined by a skateboard-toting, swaggering teenager, a woman who crossed over to the bus stop from the liquor store (and smelled as if she’d spent the night there) and an elderly woman returning from a grocery expedition. The only demographic that seemed absent was the one that can afford the hyper-inflated real estate prices in this town. That seemed strange to me.
You see, I have a thing for mass transit, but it has nothing to do with reducing my carbon footprint or saving the earth or holding off peak oil for a couple more years. I do not ride the bus so that I can self-righteously jeer at the gas-guzzling jerks driving their SUVs to the trailhead (Okay, maybe a little). I ride the bus because it’s one of the only places these days where one can get a real sense of community. It’s a rolling, writhing little pod of humanity sliding past all those car-confined folks on the outside.
I first got hooked on mass transit in Berlin, Germany, where a short walk and a few bucks earns you entrance into a massive web of trains, buses and trams that reach into every corner of the city. It was a great way to get around, but also a good way to get to know the city and the eclectic mix of residents: suited beer-sipping bankers sat next to veiled Turkish girls next to spiked and pierced women with spiked and pierced dogs. I often rode the S-Bahn just to ride it and, like Joseph Roth, a Berlin newspaper columnist back in the 1920s wrote, I’d return “full of many sad and beautiful impressions, and when I navigate a little bit of the city, I feel as proud as if I had circumnavigated the globe.” The American West isn’t exactly Europe, but there are more opportunities to have a mass-transit, Roth-like experience than you might expect, even in rural areas. Just a few examples:
• The resort towns of Aspen, Vail and Telluride, Colo. all have buses that ferry down-valley workers to the up-valley restaurants, hotels and mega-mansions.
• Salt Lake City has a city-wide light rail system (built with socialist federal dollars!) along with a commuter rail that shuttles between cities on the Wasatch Front.
• Auto-centric (auto-erotic?) Phoenix now has light rail with much higher than expected -- and still increasing -- ridership.
• Denver’s longtime bus system was supplemented by a popular light rail which continues to be expanded. Once downtrodden neighborhoods near rail stops have been transformed and, yes, gentrified.
• Bozeman has a groovy bus system that eases some of those nasty winter commutes.
• Even Farmington, NM, seeped as it is in the oil and gas industry, has a cheap, relatively extensive public transit system that, according to its own figures, carries some 11,000 riders per month.
• The New Mexico RailRunner (my personal favorite), which runs between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, is great for commuters and Burqueños who want to spend a night on the town in Santa Fe.
As wonderful as all these services are, one question always comes back to me as I ride the buses or the rails in the West: Where are the people who lobbied for and, through their taxes, pay for these services? It’s an unscientific observation, for sure, but the ridership in Western mass transit certainly seems to be lacking the upper socioeconomic echelons. In Boulder, where I was a regular on the buses during the last year, it’s telling that one of the upper-end neighborhoods in that upper-end town had no bus service to it. The result is a daily Volvo/Audi/Saab/SUV traffic cluster-f*** at the town’s most popular trailheads while the carless relaxed on the bus in the relatively low-priced parts of town.
In other words, Western mass transit seems mostly to be the domain of those who use it out of necessity -- because they don’t own a car or because they can’t afford the cost of gas to drive to their workplace up-valley -- rather than because it’s green or just a good thing to do. It shouldn’t be that way. By turning their noses up at mass transit, the wealthy risk not only catching chronic road rage, but are also missing out on an important act of communion with their fellow folks. Even if they don’t have to ride the bus, they should, for the same reason they might hang out at a public park or in a coffee shop.
On the bus, interaction of some sort is guaranteed, whether we partake in a conversation or eavesdrop on one or simply give that cute guy/gal in the neighboring bench a lingering look.
Maybe that lingering look is the key to broaden the ridership’s demographic. The BVG, operator of Berlin’s Bahns and buses, has its own “missed connections” section on its website. It’s a lively spot, with several connections posted each day. Every post tells a story, some warm, some heartbreaking. Take his one, titled “I found you beautiful:”
You (female, brunette, brown wool cap, nose piercing, striped fleece jacket, black boots) rode with me (male, blond, blue parka, gray scarf) in the M41. We stood side by side and I gazed at you often. You gave me looks, too. If I wasn't imagining things, it would be nice if you would contact me so that we can go mini golfing sometime.
Mini-golfing! Who could resist such romance? Now that’s the type of marketing that will get people -- even rich ones -- on the bus.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colo., and his Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.
Images of Salt Lake City's TRAX light rail and the Santa Fe Railyard, which was reborn and revamped thanks to the RailRunner commuter train, courtesy of the author. "Meine Augenblicke," Berlin's public transit "missed connections," image from BVG.de.