Our theme for the month of February is “color.”

There’s one bus that’s not like the others. It runs more often, in its own bus lane, to its own designated platforms, like a VIP. It has the best seat-carpet. I live and work along its route, in a straight shot of South Division, so I’ve been riding it for more than a year now.

The Rapid’s Silver Line runs more like a train, not merely a bus but “bus rapid transit.” Passengers hop on and off through automatic doors with tickets they’re supposed to validate beforehand on the platforms.

But only occasionally are fare enforcement officers aboard. They wear these grey jumpsuits with a walkie-talkie clipped to the belt. They hold a black brick of an electronic device to scan certain types of fare cards and tally riders at each stop. Some days they’re neighborly, barely asking and letting most anyone pass. Some days they’re intent and impatient, especially with certain riders or certain excuses.

But I felt dumb when no one was there to check me, watching my ten-ride passes deplete. I started skipping it to stretch them out a little more. The few times I got caught, I claimed the machine was broken, or I flashed my card real quick and hoped the officer didn’t clarify with me. I’ve never even gotten close to getting kicked off the bus, but I’m usually dressed for work and quick and apologetic with the officer. Not everyone can afford to be.

This summer I made a note whenever officers rode to see if there was any pattern to their shifts. Long story short, they showed up for about a quarter of my rides. I got away with fare evading for about half my rides. I DMed the Rapid’s Twitter to just directly ask how officers are scheduled, and someone responded that they’re randomized by computer.

So, the Rapid’s system weighs the cost of hiring officers vs. the expected fares gained by the intimidation of the gamble and arrives at an enforcement rate around twenty-five percent.

Or whatever. Everything changed when they introduced the prepaid, reloadable “Wave” fare cards. I connected the app to my bank to auto-refill. When I tap it at the platform, it makes a cute little dinging sound.

Since, I’ve been scanning it consistently. It’s much more expensive to be a good citizen, but it feels cheaper now, since I don’t see rides deplete my cards one by one. Really though, I need to think of the inconsistently-enforced fares like a tax, paying for infrastructure I care about.

In a city metropolitan enough to need a bus system, but too suburban to make it reliable, the Silver Line feels aspirational. Its priority in the lane and at the left turn could grow to demonstrate priority of all busses over cars. But the Silver Line is alone. And for now, the perception is that the Rapid is for people without the privilege or wealth of other options. This spiraling logic ends up shaping whole cities into reflections of (certain classes of) its peoples’ priorities. Public transportation isn’t valuable if/when/because it isn’t valued. People don’t ride the bus because “people” don’t ride the bus. How could I choose to ride it? Especially when I own a car!

Maybe this was a subconscious reason I didn’t want to pay a fare I could easily afford; maybe I thought the bus should feel graced by the presence of someone with other options.

Because it’s true: riding to work requires briefly losing control and privacy in the tender dark morning, then again when I’m leaving an open-concept office for the first time in eight hours. No private metal capsule with windows rolled up and radio blasting. As I wake up mostly on the way to work, being shuttled with strangers is an invasion, but it can also be a relief. As Carolyn already expressed so well, surrendering control like this can be comforting, but it’s also a posture Americans have special trouble with.

I’d love to claim any of the righteous reasons I might use to defend the bus: environmentalism, patience, solidarity with my surroundings… but the truth is I just like it better. My friend Emma once said that riding the bus makes the going-home its own event. She rode Carolyn’s #6 to and from Calvin each day, taking the chance to listen to something or read and transition home. I’ll pay for that treat, or pay to give up the chore of driving myself.

One morning in October, my most regular fare enforcement ffficer rode with me but stopped before checking my Wave card. He just pointed at me from the front and said, “Hey, you good.”

I yelled back, “Oh you trust me?” He just responded, “I know my fans.”

Quickly though, he added, “But don’t be surprised when there’s spot checks.”

4 Comments

  1. Katie Van Zanen

    Thanks, Cotter. I’m a public transportation stan for many reasons, but perhaps I like it best for the rhythm it builds into my life. I’ve had students who take the bus from one part of campus to a far off dorm tell me that they like it because it makes them feel like they’re going home.

    Reply
    • Cotter Koopman

      Definitely—it’s funny how comforting limitations and rhythms like that can be

      Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    “Silver Lining”–I see what you did there.

    There are definitely positives and negatives to riding a bus. You choose to focus mainly on the positives, though you do give the negatives a brief space. That’s a nice touch.

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    I love that you’re talking to the officer! Of course I do.

    Reply

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