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Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004 11:20 pm

Taking the public out of transit


My four months of struggle with Springfield's public-transportation system makes me sure that people who don't have cars here are victims of discrimination. Like most residents of my native Kazakhstan, I have never driven in my life. When I came here, I was sure that public transit would be better than it was at home. This is the United States, after all -- not a Third World nation! But it looks as if I was very wrong.

I don't know who designedthe schedule and routes of Springfield Mass Transit District, but I am pretty sure this person had an abnormally creative mind. It is not enough to find the best matching time and simply take a bus. No, you must comprehend all the mysterious stars, dots, and squares. These little symbols can mean that the bus travels an opposite way on a given route. For example, Bus No. 3 goes downtown in the mornings and only back in the afternoon. But the word "noon" has a different meaning for SMTD: The No. 3 turns around at 1:30 p.m., even though the direction arrows in the map have the explanation "a.m." and "p.m." How to guess that "p.m." for this bus starts at 1:30 only?

And exactly how does one figure out the right time to pick up a bus? Sure, there are several hints in the schedule -- the time of the bus's departure from downtown or the time of its arrival at the final stop -- but it is not really helpful. To be sure that they'll catch a bus, people must wait near the road for 10 or 15 minutes and sometimes even longer.

The person who devised the schedule must assume that residents without cars love to kill time and have plenty to spare. That's why, I guess, in Springfield you are forced to stop downtown and take another bus if you want to get from north to south or another direction. It takes a couple of hours to get to a place by changing buses, as opposed to 20 or 25 minutes by car. No, the buses aren't that slow, but you have to wait for each bus, and they run once per hour most of the time.

And exactly where does one wait for a bus? The main stop at Fifth Street and Capitol Avenue has a shelter, but most other bus stops have only little signs -- and they can't shelter even a tiny bird. I guess the people at SMTD think that we all enjoy waiting in the rain and snow and under a hot summer sun. But if you look into any bus, you will see mostly retired people, the handicapped, and schoolchildren. Are these people who really need to be struggling against the forces of nature?

Even if you're prepared to put up with all of the idiosyncrasies of the transit system, for a good part of the day you can't. I still wonder who decided that every user of public transportation in Springfield must stay at home after 6 p.m.? If all public events were over by this time, such requirement might make some sense, but many interesting meetings, concerts, and plays start after 6 p.m. when most people leave work. Why should people without cars be forced to stay at home or use an expensive taxi service? On weekends, the problem is worse: Many routes don't operate on Saturday, and there is no way to get anywhere by bus on Sunday. Why?

I have never thought that I would miss the old, sometimes dirty, and packed passenger buses in my home city. Yes, they are uncomfortable, but there were always several waiting at every bus stop. If you walked too slowly and missed one, you only needed to wait between one and 20 minutes to get onto the next one on the same route.

My husband sighs wearily: Here I go again with the bus schedule. This piece of paper, he says, often turns his evening into a nightmare. Typically we struggle for at least 30 minutes as I plan my next day's trip.

"You'd better get a driver's license soon," he says.

He's right. What else I can do?

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