Sunday, July 01, 2007

Public Transit In Nowheresville

For the past 15 1/4 years or so, I've lived in downtown Chicago. In some respects, it's been stressful and difficult. In other respects, however, there have been aspects of life here in the big city that have been much better than they were in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. One of those areas pertains to public transportation.

Now, don't get me wrong. Springfield may be in the Ozarks, but it is also the third largest city in Missouri, and it does have a functional bus system, run by the City Utilities department. If you visit their website, you'll see that they even offer a nice little PDF map showing the different routes in various colors. Well, two maps, actually. One for their normal daytime schedule, and another for their limited "night" schedule which begins at 6:00 p.m.!

However, even if you're looking at the daytime schedule, you'll quickly pick up on something, and that's the fact that few if any of their buses are limited to just one street.

In Chicago, I live on Chicago Avenue, near Dearborn. If I want to go west, I walk out to the bus stop (all of 30 seconds or so from the front door of the building in which I live) and wait until the bus comes. I virtually never have to call in advance to see when the next bus will be there. Buses here run so often that I can be pretty sure that I'll almost never have to wait more than 10 or 15 minutes at the most.

There's a CTA map in order to help one keep track of all the different bus routes, but such a map isn't as essential in Chicago as it is in Springfield, because buses pretty much run along every major street (and quite a few of the minor streets) throughout the city. There are exceptions, but in general, almost all of the bus stops are clearly marked.

Springfield buses, on the other hand, almot all run in a loop,and the loops intersect with each other from time to time. If you look at the color coded map, you'll see that the total number of separate bus routes in Springfield is about 13 routes or so. From what I can see, there's cyan, navy blue, pink, magenta, red, black, maroon, light (grass) green, dark green, brown, orange, turquoise and yellow. That would be quite a few, if we were talking about subway lines which were supplemented by a gridded network of bus lines, like they have in Chicago. But we're not.

There are directional markings on the maps, and while there are some places where the bus runs in both directions on the same street, there are a lot of other places where they do not.
So you can't assume that just because a bus dropped you off at a certain intersection, there's also a bus which passes that same intersection going in the opposite direction. Occasionally that's the case, but not very often.

Not only that, but the schedule is generally so sparse that if you miss a particular bus, you may have to wait another hour for the next one to come along, which means that you pretty much need to call Springfield City Utilities in order to find out when the next bus will come (and where you should wait for it).

This is sometimes true even in the case of buses which regularly go to the downtown area near the square (where Jefferson and St. Louis intersect). Of course, that square is nowhere near being the hot spot that I remember from my childhood. Urban sprawl has taken over in Springfield, and there really is no center of town anymore. All of the really beautiful old homes are still where they always were, which is to say that they are concentrated mainly in the area which surrounds the public square within a perimeter of a couple of miles or so.

When I as a kid, my parents would take me to the Springfield public square every Christmas, where I'd gaze with wonder and delight at the animated displays in the storefront windows at the Heers Department Store. Heers was nowhere as big as a Carson Pirie Scott or Marshall Fields (recently renamed Macy's), but it was several stories high, and that was considered big when I was growing up. Sometimes I'd go to the movies at a movie theatre there in the square, or I'd stop by the candy department at Heers and pick up a big block of white chocolate to knaw on. (Why they couldn't have molded it into smaller, more easily handled pieces is beyond me. But I loved it anyway. I have had few "vices" during the course of my life, but sweets would have to be one of my vices. I've paid a price for that indulgence, in the form of recurring dental problems. But that's another blog post.)

I didn't know it when I was young, but the Springfield public square had a colorful history. Years ago, Wild Bill Hickok had shot and killed a gambler named Davis Tutt in the Springfield square, having been offended after Tutt had the audacity to defy Hickok by wearing Hickok's pocket watch in public after winning it in a card game.

The thing that caused the downfall of the Springfield public square was when the Battlefield Mall was built. Initially, we all thought it was marvelous to be able to shop at numerous stores, even when it was pouring down rain, without ever having to go outside to get from one store to another. The mall was so popular that it became a hangout for people who didn't even need to do any shopping. It wasn't until it was too late that we realized that the economic rejuvenation of the south side of Springfield had had a devastating effect on the economy in the older sections of the city. For a while there, the area around the public square became almost like a ghost town. Once proud businesses started showing serious signs of decline and decay, and many went out of business. The installation of an "outdoor mall" where once there had been parking did create an attractive park-like space, complete with a fountain and park benches, but the change hurt businesses inasmuch as people no longer had any good places to park unless they were willing to hunt down a parking garage and pay more money than they'd have paid to a city parking meters.

Consequently that section hasn't been the commercial center of Springfield for many years. Strip malls and name brand national chains have mostly taken over, and most of those newer businesses are located close to (or south of) the Battlefield Mall. (There are still only two indoor malls that I know of in Springfield: The Battlefield Mall, and the smaller North Town Mall, way up on the north side of town and very close to the city limits and Highway I-44.)

Yet, despite that fact, the transit routes in Springfield haven't been revised in order to reflect the changing commercial and demographic realities in the city. There are a lot of places in Springfield where there is literally no bus service at all. Why do people who have to live or work in those areas get treated like second-class citizens by the city of Springfield? I have no idea.

Buses are not like subway trains or elevated trains. Once train tracks have been built at great expense, those routes are generally in place for a long, long time. But changing a bus route is as simple as sitting down and redrawing the route on a map. (And maybe moving a few bus stop signs in order to reflect the route changes.) It's high time that Springfield City Utilities hired someone competent who would work to insure that residents of Springfield received adequate bus service no matter where they lived or worked.

Why don't they do that? I suspect that the answer is that public transit just isn't a very high priority in Springfield. Most of the people who rely on it are students or retired people or handicapped people who can't drive, either for physical or economic reasons or both.

The relative scarcity of people who don't have cars of their own in Springfield can be seen in the piecemeal and uncoordinated manner in which the city deals with city sidewalks. On some streets, there are public sidewalks, but often, those will go for a few blocks and then abruptly end for no apparent reason. What's the point in that?

The primary reason for a sidewalk is to enable one to walk to one's destination without getting one's feet wet or covered with mud or snow. (Sidewalks are almost a necessity for handicapped people who have no cars and who must therefore travel via wheelchair.) If one can't count on the sidewalks being there regardless of where one is going, then they might as well not be there at all.

Another issue pertains to sidewalk maintenance, particularly during the winter. A sidewalk covered in ice and/or half a foot of snow is next to useless. In Chicago, it certainly snows from time to time, but it's rare for a downtown sidewalk to go unshoveled for more than a day or two at the most. In Springfield, if it snows hard, the sidewalks are almost never shoveled by the city. If fact, they're almost never shoveled (on streets such as Glenstone, which is one of the busiest streets in Springfield) by anyone at all.

In a city such as Chicago, one can travel down almost any major street and count on the fact that there will always be a sidewalk on which to walk. True, it does get a little iffy once one gets out into the suburbs. Then one often has to deal with the same types of problems I've seen in Springfield.

It isn't a question of not having the money with which to pay for sidewalk construction and maintenance. Some of the richest suburbs, both in Chicagoland and in the Springfield area, lack proper sidewalks.

Ultimately, it's a matter of thoughtlessness. People who drive almost everywhere they go don't see proper sidewalks or proper public transit systems as a big priority, because they don't use such things often enough to care. Only on those rare occasions when such people are forced by unusual circumstances to forego the use of their cars does it occur to them that things could be done better.

In a post 9/11 world, we all ought to be doing everything possible to reduce per capita consumption of foreign oil. That means that we need to start doing things more intelligently. Urban planning (even in relatively small cities such as Springfield) needs to be reformed in such a manner as to make it feasible for people to live highly productive and active lives even if they do not choose to own automobiles.

Urban sprawl is also a serious problem in places such as Springfield, and it contributes greatly to the perception that a car is an absolute necessity when living in such cities.

Why build up, when you can build out? After all, there's an infinite supply of land, isn't there? That seems to be the mentality in Springfield.

Obviously, there is not an infinite supply of land, not even in the Ozarks. It would be a sad day indeed if residents of places such as Springfield woke up to discover that the lovely natural landscapes which had drawn so many new residents and visitors to the area had virtually disappeared. And that's an inevitability unless there's a radical change in the mindset of business people in that area.

A more compact city in which commuting distances are shortened makes for a more livable space, one in which people interact with one another more regularly because they see one another face to face whenever they happen to be walking down the same street or traveling together on the same bus.

I entitled this blog post "Public Transit in Nowheresville", in response to a recent article I was reading about various Hollywood stars and celebrities. The article pointed out that while some movie stars come from families where acting, producing or directing has been in the family for two or more generations (think Drew Barrymore, for example), there has always been room in Hollywood for people with more ordinary backgrounds. It cited Brad Pitt, who (according to the article) came from "Nowheresville".

Well, Brad went to Kickapoo High School, which is where I'd have gone if I'd lived just a little further south than I did. (I went to Parkview.) To me, Springfield wasn't "Nowheresville". It was home. But when I look at some of the stupid things which are regularly done by the people who run that city, I can understand why those people would look incompetent when seen through the eyes of folks from major cities such as Chicago.

Not that Chicago is perfect. I wouldn't wish Chicago's problems with gangs, drugs and corrupt police officers on my worst enemies. Dollar for dollar, housing in Chicago costs a lot more than it costs in Springfield. The public schools in Chicago have been so badly run, in the past, that only the poorest people have been willing to send their kids to such schools. In all the time I lived in Springfield, I was never approached by a homeless beggar asking for a donation, whereas I've lost count of the number of times that's happened to me since moving to Chicago.

In many respects, Springfield can be a great town in which to live. But I wish that the people who manage the city were not so "auto centric". I say this in part because I'm considering the possibility of moving back to my hometown, after 15 years here in Chicago, and I know that I'm probably going to face some problems and challenges on account of the fact that I have neither a driver's license nor a car. Hopefully, I'll get a good job soon --- one which I can get to easily in spite of my handicap --- and then I'll be able to save up enough money to get my own car again, along with the driver's license and insurance I'll need in order to drive it.


Jacke M. said...

Hi, Mark!

I thought you might be interested in listening to some of the podcasts of a Springfield, Missouri radio talk show host, since you are contemplating moving back to Springfield. :)

He regularly discusses things going on with City management, City Utilities and the City Council.

Here's the link:

Just click on the microphone.

I really enjoyed reading this entry.


Mark Pettigrew said...

I'm glad you enjoyed reading my post, Jacke. Thanks for the information regarding the podcast.

As for the possibility that I might move back to Springfield, that possibility no longer seems to exist. It's a long story. Suffice it to say that a person in my immediate family has a pretty pathetic record when it comes to keeping promises which have been made to me. And I don't have the money to make such a move without significant help from someone else.