Buildings are coming down along Ninth Street to make way for an off-street transfer facility for the Springfield Mass Transit District, with an eye toward construction someday of a full-scaled transit center served by bus, taxi and Amtrak. Alas, there is a chance that Springfield, after decades of dithering, will finally get a transit hub when it no longer needs one.
I say that because by the time Springfield is on its third mayor named Langfelder, city bus service as it now exists might have joined private water wells, store clerks who can make change and articulate governors on the list of Things That Used To Be.
Buses were a big issue in Springfield in the 1960s. Service was provided by a private firm, but it was going broke. Bankruptcy would mean that little old ladies would be unable to get to their doctor appointments or school kids to class. The city council (then comprising five commissioners) agreed to replace the private bus company with the SMTD, a public bus company subsidized with a dedicated tax. The new operator’s implicit mandate was to serve the public welfare by providing rides to people who did not or could not drive – the infirm, the old, the poor, the very young.
Such people live all over the city, so serving them meant, and means, serving every part of town. The problem in a city whose population is as spread out as Springfield’s is that there are never enough riders on a given route to justify the cost of frequent service with a full-size bus; during the mid-day, a typical SMTD bus stop sees a bus go by only once every 60 minutes.
A trip to the doctor thus can take a whole afternoon. I know; I was one of that lonesome fraternity since ninth grade, when I rode the East Cook every day to school from downtown to 23rd and Cook. The system was a relic of the city’s old street car system, all routes of which converged downtown. This hub-and-spoke system makes it possible to get anywhere in town, but to get from, say, Laurel and State to the North End, you have to take one bus downtown, then get on one that is outbound on a different route. (Kind of like running for office via a competitive primary.) Hence the chaos that ensues at the downtown transfer point that the new Ninth Street facility aims to ease.
None of this happens because SMTD is badly run. It happens because Springfield is badly built, with people and jobs scattered hither and yon. If you started from scratch and tried to design a smallish city that would be perfectly unsuited to efficient public transit – you probably could get a grant from the Koch brothers for it – you couldn’t do better than Springfield.
Buses are just not the best means of providing public transport on fixed routes in a sprawly, low-demand city. But the public doesn’t have to be transported on buses. SMTD, recall, is a mass transit district, not a mass bus district. In the 1960s, some prescient observers wondered whether, instead of subsidizing a bus company, the city ought instead to have subsidized regular taxi rides for people. That would have been cheaper for the city and more convenient for the riders.
It was an idea before its time. The presence of app-assisted private transport companies like Uber (which has been operating in the capital since 2015) or Lyft makes bus-less transit more feasible. Uber and Lyft been doing deals with local public transportation agencies in places like Florida and California and Texas in which local governments subsidize rides that convey riders to a bus stop or train station. It is too soon to tell whether these small pilot projects show promise of being able to put the “mass” into the Springfield Mass Transit District and its like across the country. They are being pushed hard nonetheless, especially by those who yearn for the day when the money that now flows through public agencies (and thus through public employees) can be pocketed by private entrepreneurs.
Like all big new ideas, this one comes with big questions, some of which Bloomberg’s Joshua Brustein posed last year. “What happens to people without smartphones? How do Uber and Lyft serve disabled riders? What happens if the cities come to rely on the apps, only to have the private companies decide the partnerships are no longer a sensible business venture for them? And do public governments want to encourage the replacement of public sector jobs with the contract work that defines the sharing economy?”
In a Raunerized Illinois, the correct answers are:
1) “There aren’t any.”
2) “Who cares?”
3) “This is capitalism; instead of complaining you should be celebrating it.”
4) “Hell yes.”
You might disagree. You might be skeptical of techno-utopias. You might remember that public transit became public in the first place because private transit failed 50 years ago (in part, we must remember, because of poor regulation by the franchisers at City Hall). And you might be right.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.