A viable, efficient, practical public transit system

The BRT will be a first step, but we’re a long way from offering a real alternative to driving a car every day.

Last week, the city unveiled the first of the 11 Aero Bus Rapid Transit buses that will someday be carrying commuters, students, shoppers and anyone else with places to go.

My colleague, Kevin Canfield, pointed out that at one time, the city had talked about opening its first BRT line — up and down Peoria Avenue between 54th Street North to 81st Street South — this spring. Later, they talked about the opening coming in summer.

Now they say it’ll probably be in November. The city says that was always their actual deadline, but they got a little eager about crossing the finish line early and then unanticipated troubles with rights of way slowed things down.

It’s an ironic situation because speed is the big selling point for BRT. The “R” stands for rapid.

Intervals for existing bus service can be 45 minutes, which transit planners say isn’t competitive for people who have places to be and alternatives in how to get there. BRT should cut the interval to 15 to 20 minutes seven days a week, which mass transit planners hope will bring a new circle of customers to the bus stop — people who could drive but would prefer not to.

The Peoria Avenue BRT connects 1 in 7 Tulsans to 20% of the city’s jobs. A second BRT line — up and down 11th and 21st streets — is planned for the future. Both are funded by the Vision tax renewal approved by Tulsa voters in 2016.

The BRT vision is that it will make bus transportation a viable middle-class option on two key routes. If that works, Tulsa Transit might get the political support it needs to expand that sort of service to the rest of the city. Suddenly, we’re a city like New York and Seattle where bus service is a thing.

Former City Councilor Blake Ewing was a leading champion of the idea and the permanent transit tax to support transit. He deserves a little public credit.

I’ve been the BRT’s target audience — that person who could drive but prefers not to.

In 1998, a city councilor didn’t like Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority’s plans to build a transfer station in his district. He took on the entire agency with language that rubbed me the wrong way.

At one point, the city councilor called the bus system a “social service agency” with few riders.

“The city of Tulsa has never, ever been a good mass transit city,” he said. “We are a prairie city.”

Presumably, that last comment meant we would rather ride around in Conestoga wagons than get on a bus.

Although it wasn’t a word many people used at the time, the whole debate sprung from privilege, which bothered me.

But, I had to admit, I didn’t know the truth or falseness of anything else he said about the bus service. I’d never been on a bus.

So I started riding.

It was cheap, dependable and convenient.

If I started riding the bus as a passive form of political protest, I kept doing it because it beat driving to work.

I lived three blocks from a bus stop, and, at the time, three routes ran through that part of town. I could generally catch a bus within five minutes of walking out my door whenever I left.

I rode the bus practically every day for the better part of three years, and I can still remember the advantages.

Riding the bus was:

Easy.

Inexpensive, especially if you figure the price of parking downtown.

Convenient; the bus terminal was two blocks from my office.

A good chance to read; I finally mastered “Moby-Dick” on the 115 and then worked my way through about 80 of the 100 novels listed as the most important of the 20th century.

A guarantee that I’d never have to drive on ice or snow again.

An effective governor on my established pattern (then) of working 10-hour days; I had to leave my desk in time to catch the last bus home.

Comfortable; buses are air conditioned in the summer and warm in the winter.

Fascinating slices of life; many mornings I quit reading and just listened to the conversations going on around me.

Green; my carbon footprint went way down.

Except on days when it snowed — when the bus was packed with middle-class downtown workers — I figured I was the only one there who had a working car back in his garage. The bus rarely stopped between downtown and Brookside. Most of the people were headed to public housing complexes or the Walmart on the far end of the line. There was one guy I saw on the bus a lot whose guide dog sat under the seat while they rode.

I drove my car so little that the tires went square from standing in the garage too long. I eventually gave the car away and never missed it.

I quit riding the bus in 2001 because I moved. My new house was so close to work that I could walk to work, which is even cheaper, more convenient and greener than riding the bus. My reading time dropped considerably, however.

A few months ago, I moved again — back outside the convenient walking perimeter. I specified to my Realtor that my new home had to be within three blocks of a bus stop, and it is.

I rode the bus for about a month and a half immediately after I moved in. My only complaint was that if I missed the 6:48 bus, the next one didn’t show up for 45 minutes.

Maybe because there aren’t three lines dividing up the service, the 221 is pretty crowded in the morning. There were days I’d end up standing at least most of the way into downtown.

After awhile, you recognize the regulars on the bus. There was one guy who always read the Tulsa World with a big smile on his face and got off just after Lewis Avenue. There was a kind 20-something couple who liked to chat with strangers and offer transfer suggestions to newcomers. He parked cars in a downtown garage. I’m not sure what she did. They used to drive but couldn’t afford to keep their car.

If there were any people on the bus who had car keys in their pockets other than me, they were well disguised.

One day it rained, and I drove to work. It was still raining the next day, and I drove again. Bus-riding hadn’t become enough of habit again that it could survive May’s flood. The next thing I knew, my bus pass had expired in my wallet. Shame on me.

I’ll be back on board soon though. I’ve got a few books I want to read.

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