You’re f*cked

I once sat at a restaurant, by myself, in the corner at about 9:30. The restaurant was going to close in about half an hour. As I finished my meal, a waitress hobbled around wiping tables. She was at least 65 years old. She was hunched over, shaking, struggling to walk and sported the gray hair you’d only see on the most stereotypical grandmother ever. I sat there and watched her and wondered, “Why is she working?” “I do not want to live in a country where we tell people at that age and status they have to go pick napkins off a floor.” That woman was working, no doubt, because she had to pay something. Maybe medicines, a medical bill, a prior bill from year’s past. Maybe she just had no other income and did not have enough money to pay for heat. Or maybe she just wanted to work, that’s entirely possible. But she didn’t seem like she was enjoying herself. No, she was totally fucked.

I ordered a pizza a year or so ago and the delivery driver was old enough to be my grandfather. I wilted at the door. “Why is that man working. Lord know’s he old enough to have probably fought in a war. Or two. Maybe.” Whatever his reason, he was working for the paltry handouts of a couple bucks a pizza for something. I’m sure it wasn’t the desire to drive his crummy car around town slinging pizzas to people. That guy was totally fucked.

The other day I decided to do something I hadn’t done before: I rode the bus. An IndyGo bus, no doubt. I keep a 10-trip pass in my wallet in case my bike crumbles to pieces and I’m royally stuck somewhere. I hadn’t used it for months, so I decided to check it out. My experience with the bus was fine — it was more technically advanced than I expected, announcing locations and the like. The driver seemed nice enough and it didn’t take that long to get where I was going (once it showed up), bike and all.

But that’s not what I want to write about. No, the problem I saw was the people that were riding the bus.

I hopped on the route 14 bus Downtown after I ate lunch Saturday. The folks waiting around for the bus were generally pleasant and friendly. One lady asked me what I thought of the bike trails around town as she saw my bike and helmet, one guy commented that the wind was the worst this season.

When I got on the bus, we approached a stop near Fountain Square where a woman almost missed it. She was walking around a corner and waving her hands at the driver, who just so happened to catch a glimpse in his mirror and stopped a few feet past the stop just as he was about to roll away. The woman was unnaturally short, struggled to walk and was probably in her upper 50’s or in her 60’s.

I don’t know what that woman did for a living, but her clothes were visibly in poor quality with tears and patches (not the stylish kind, mind you). She may not even have a living. And then it hit me: that woman is totally fucked.

She’s not “old”, but she’s far enough along. She can barely walk, who knows why. She obviously can’t afford clothes, let alone a car. When she got on the bus, she thanked the driver for waiting. She was out of breath, stuttering, shy and embarrassed, and had an audible speech difficulty. She may have other mental problems, too. So when people say, “What we need is jobs!” No, we don’t. I don’t believe that anymore.

That woman is emphatically fucked. “She should go back to school and get a desk job!” You say. Really? How’s she supposed to do that? You think she has the mental capacity anymore to handle school? How on earth is she even supposed to pay for it — no bank is going to give her a student loan at her age. Ask yourself this: “Would you hire her?”

No. No you would not. She can’t speak well, so even operating a phone is probably an issue. She can barely move, she’s not “smart”, she can’t get around town easily and is tied to the whims of a deplorable bus system that’s barely scraping by, which puts her at risk of being constantly late. She is, without a doubt, 100% royally fucked. Her life is, and probably has been for a long time, shitty. She exists in this world and struggles from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to bed. If she even has a bed.

Then tonight, after meeting with a friend to discuss some business at the Starbucks on Indiana Ave., I was biking back through Downtown near the Statehouse on Capitol. A slew of busses stop along there. As I biked along, a bus had just parked up the street. A guy was sitting on the bench and got up the moment the bus pulled around the corner. He was older, probably in his 50’s. He had a white beard and thinning gray hair on his head. He wasn’t totally out of shape, but he wasn’t able to move too quickly. The bus driver, assuming all the passengers were on and off, started to roll away. This man, now “running” as fast as he could, was yelling at the top of his lungs, “Stop! Stop! Wait! Wait!” The driver, obviously, couldn’t hear him, and he was too far away for him to be visible in the dark in the driver’s mirror. The bus rolled on and the man became physically irate. He was stomping, cursing and screaming at the bus. He kept yelling until he almost sounded like he was about to cry.

That bus wasn’t coming back for another hour at least. He had just been robbed of an hour of his life. What’s worse is that as I stopped at a light, I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sure the driver just simply couldn’t see you.” He turned to me and said, “All I wanted to do was get to my daughter’s play.” When I asked further, he said his daughter was performing in a play this evening about St. Valentine. He wanted to be there to watch her and that bus was his only hope to get there. He was robbed of a moment that any good parent would absolutely be there for. His daughter was subsequently robbed of having her dad (or maybe step dad, who knows), there, too. Who knows why that guy doesn’t have a license or a car. Maybe he got a DUI and did some terrible thing that you can point at to say, “See! It’s his own fault!” Or maybe the guy has a bum eye either from birth or a work accident and can’t pass a vision test. Maybe he has a sincere mental inability to read or ever learn to read and he can’t take the driver’s exam (there is no oral exam, by the way. You must be able to read to pass. Otherwise, you’re just blindly filling in bubbles.)

Whatever the reason, that guy is totally fucked. His daughter is, too, in no doubt many cases.

That’s just two random people I’ve encountered over the last few days. It occurs to me that most people are royally fucked from the get-go.

A kid goes to a shitty school because the school can’t afford to pay teachers a competitive salary, so the best and brightest go elsewhere. A guy gets hurt at his job and can’t walk or move his arms much afterwards, limiting his abilities and covering him with medical debt. A woman is born and raised with a mind that just doesn’t function as well as yours or most of the population. They’re all fucked.

So, it occurs to me now, that saying “Get a job”, “Go back to school”, or “Work harder” isn’t just wrong, it’s downright insulting.

I wrote a story at another site a while back that I’m semi-starting, about the homeless people that sit Downtown. It’s well worth a read if you haven’t seen it. It changed my opinion on a lot of things about them.

Are there people that could go to school, but don’t? Are there people that screwed up in their life in a way that was completely within their control? Are there people who are just lazy and want a free ride? Absolutely. But I sincerely believe those people are in the minority — a very small minority of probably 1-2%, if the drug test results of Florida’s unemployment program is any indication. Which means that the vast majority of this country is just fucked and they keep getting it handed to them every day by people who were lucky enough in the evolutionary chain to get just the right genes, just the right kind of brain power, just the right kind of body. They had just the right kind of situation that they found a way to get through school and/or get a really good job.

Jobs are not the answer. We have plenty of jobs. When employers say, “I can’t find people to do this job.” They’re right. They can’t. Because the pool of people who would ever be capable of such a job isn’t just “the whole country”. It’s a very small chunk of people.

I think we have to recognize that some people are just handed a steaming pile of crap at birth and they are never going anywhere. And most people don’t even recognize it. In a lot of cases, people flat refuse to accept even the notion that some people are just not very good at anything, and they never will be. So, society says, “Work harder, waitress at Cracker Barrel! Enjoy your job, now bring me my coffee!”

The safety net serves a purpose — welfare, food stamps, etc. They absolutely serve a purpose, especially for children, to at least give them some fighting chance. But I think there’s another net, a “cushiony net”, if you will, that exists around other services: like clean air and water, food regulations that don’t call pizza a vegetable, transit options that work better than a “bus an hour that if missed through nearly no fault of your own robs you of important moments in your own daughter’s life.” It includes schools with an army of tutors (which, by the way, would be my #1 recommendation for schools based on my own observations teaching and tutoring. Why education schools don’t send an army of upcoming grads into schools to tutor day and night is beyond me).

It includes the ability to not perpetually be one paycheck away from default because a system is in place to help the banks help you, or being one slip on the ice or a trip down the stairs away from a medical bill that sends you into financial oblivion. I don’t care who you are, you can’t make $20,000 a year and afford to simultaneously pay rent that’s never lower than $500 a month, water/electric/gas at $200 a month, afford decent food that’s not Velveeta cheese and Ramen, and still manage to save for a rainy day, health insurance and your retirement years. You can’t even begin to do that well unless you make at least $40,000 a year and you know it. And that’s $40,000 Indiana dollars. God forbid you have the audacity to be born someplace like California or New York or Boston, you lazy bastard, being born where you were at the age of 0.

Most people in this world are completely fucked. And we’re all turning against each other, bickering about birth control for women of all things, while the whole place goes to hell.

It’s time to stop fucking people over.

An Open Letter to IndyGo

I finished writing this letter recently, which I will mail to IndyGo President Michael Terry tomorrow:

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An Open Letter to IndyGo President Michael Terry
February 10, 2012

Dear Mr. Terry,

My name is Justin Harter and I’m a resident of Indianapolis. I’ve lived here since 2005 and I have never ridden an IndyGo bus. I know a lot of people in this city, many around my age of 20-35 years old. They have never ridden a bus, either. The ones that have ridden a bus no longer do.

It’s not because I or other people don’t want to — my goodness, people want to take a bus. It’s not some hippy youngster thing, it’s a matter of convenience, savings, and the ability to have a less stressful commute. The environmental impact is just a small part of the reason for wanting to ride a bus.

But I’ve never ridden a bus before because a myriad of reasons. Reasons I’m sure you’re used to hearing: other passengers are disruptive, the busses are slow or late, I don’t know if it’s safe, etc. But rather than complain about those things, I wanted to share some ideas for solutions. I recently sold my car, instead favoring my bicycle for commuting and traveling around town. My neighborhood, located on the east side near Southeastern Ave. and Raymond Street is conveniently served by Route 14-Prospect. I work two days a week as a teacher at Ben Davis University High School, which is served by Route 8-Washington Street. Other times, I work from home.

Even though I haven’t ridden an IndyGo bus before, I don’t because of one very important reason: I don’t have time to wait for a bus and risk it not showing up or being egregiously late. I teach a class; my students have reliable bus service that gets them to school and on time. If I don’t show up on time, my class is unattended and that’s an obvious problem. I can’t just call in and say, “I’ll be there in 20 more minutes.” I could easily bike up to Irvington and take the Route 8 bus to give me a straight shot across town. But that route takes over 80 minutes, which is 10 minutes longer than if I just rode my bike the 12.5 miles from my house. That doesn’t bother me so much, what bothers me is the idea that the bus might be really late.

I don’t know what the accuracy of busses hitting their stops at the proposed times are — which would be useful to know. If the number if 90%+, I’d be touting that number on my website, Twitter feed, etc. to shatter my perception.

I had read in a news article in the Indianapolis Star a couple years ago that said IndyGo busses would seen be outfitted with GPS tracking. Has that happened? According to IndyGo.net, that has. But are they hooked into any public system or website? The ability to see where the bus is on its route from my computer or smartphone, particularly as a bicyclist, would be divine.

I follow the Twitter feed at @IndyGoBus. Every day, seemingly in the middle of the day, there’s a slew of busses announced on delay. Yesterday, February 9th, at around 2 in the afternoon, it was announced that IndyGo routes 38, 10 WB and EB, 39 and 18 were all running 10-20 minutes late. At that time of the day, traffic in this city can’t be much of a factor. By the start of rush hour, the number had ballooned to include Routes 24, 25, and 37. Delays in the afternoon are less problematic for commuters than morning delays, but if you’re trying to get somewhere, the current route schedule is either more of a “best guess” or woefully inaccurate. I’d rather see two sets of schedules: one for peak rush hour periods, another for non-peak periods. Schedules are already different for weekends and holidays. If a bus is consistently behind during peak periods, particularly a heavily used route like Route 8, the schedules are misleading and make it difficult for me, as a potential rider, to schedule around that. I don’t mind waiting an extra 15 minutes at my home before catching a bus that arrives every 30 or 60 minutes. I do mind waiting for a bus at the bus stop, in the cold or rain or heat, for an extra 15 minutes on top of the 10 I’d otherwise allow for minor variations in traffic flow. 25 minutes to wait for a bus at a stop when it’s supposed to be there isn’t doable unless you’re completely out of options.

I recognize that with current funding, IndyGo’s hands are tied. But a change in schedules at least sets the right expectation. So many busses consistently running 20+ minutes late indicates something worse is happening. It’s a given that at some point a bus is going to break down or a passenger is going to be in distress that causes a larger delay. But it doesn’t have to be a given that so many busses are constantly late.
Another perception among the non-bus riding community (many of which would like to ride the bus), is that it’s not safe. Statistically, that’s not true. I’m much more likely to be killed in a car accident than a bus accident. In fact, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve rarely heard of a bus being involved in a serious accident. The safety issue stems from the kind of “transit-dependent” people that ride the bus. Let’s be honest, a seemingly non-insignificant group of people riding the bus today are not tolerable to a large majority of the population. There’s nothing we can do about that short of issuing personality tests at the bus stop. Those people, whether they be loud, rude, under the influence, etc. have a right to ride the bus as much as anyone else.

Even if the stereotype and perception is horribly inaccurate, and I suspect it is for the majority or rides and routes, it’s stifling ridership. How about offering free rides to on and off-duty police officers? Officers that live near a route that can’t or don’t want to take their police cruisers home with them can get a free ride and appear on busses at random or regular times. Knowing an officer may be on or is visibly on the bus would alleviate 100% of any rider’s issue with safety. With help from IMPD, the city’s bicycle patrol officers could include IndyGo routes into their normal patrol operations. An officer leaving Downtown could Bike-and-Bus to outlying parks and trails, giving them increased presence in the community and on busses. The cameras on busses are useful, but they aren’t going to stop someone from verbally harassing a passenger on the bus.

A friend of mine who relied on IndyGo to get to work, on the Route 14 bus, was informed by an off-duty IndyGo employee that when busses run late they are instructed to skip all stops and go to the beginning or end of their route to either accelerate ahead or wait until they’re on time again. Passengers at stops who are skipped are called “collateral damage” internally at IndyGo. Whether all or part of that is true, I do not know. But what I do know is that at least once every two weeks, my friend was unable to get on a bus because it would simply drive right by. At times, my friend would walk almost out into the road, wave a flashlight or his arms or try in some fashion to signal the driver, all to no avail. All at a two-lane road with no heavy traffic or other distractions. The most egregious part? The end of Route 14 is less than half a mile away from the stop he was standing at. The bus would proceed to the end of the route and park and wait. And do nothing. For several minutes. That is completely unacceptable.

Indeed, this behavior by busses feeds the perception among potential riders, and even among those who have ridden the bus, that drivers are not courteous, drivers skip stops, drivers ignore passengers or ignore those waiting to board a bus. An even worse perception is that bus drivers are constantly seen standing outside their bus doors in outlying areas of the city. They’re talking on their phone or smoking a cigarette.
On three separate occasions over the last six months I have witnessed the Route 14 bus parked at the Raymond Street shelter, at the end of its route. I would cycle past the bus, travel 5 miles south on Emerson to the Wal-Mart in Beech Grove, pick up some items, cycle back up the road and the bus would STILL be sitting at the shelter some 20 or 30 minutes later. The driver on two occasions was sitting in the shelter, smoking, while the bus was idling, once with a passenger visibly on board. I’ve had people who ride busses tell me that bus drivers will get off the bus for a personal call or smoke break, with passengers still on the bus. That, too, is completely unacceptable. On a different occasion, a friend of mine was alone on a bus traveling through Fountain Square when the driver stopped, got off the bus, walked into a Wendy’s for lunch, ate and came back. With a passenger waiting the whole time on the bus!

Driver training, rule enforcement and visible and invisible monitoring of drivers is the only way to solve that problem. I understand that the bus drivers are unionized, that firing them is difficult, that the pay is probably low and makes retention of good drivers difficult, that drivers need breaks, too. But passengers who are paying taxes to fund their salaries deserve better. If teachers stopped teaching at the end of class to walk outside of their school buildings for a smoke break, even under teacher union rules, action would be taken. I don’t expect driver’s to be like Mr. Rogers at every stop, either, but simple eye contact and a head nod goes a long way. To keep service honest, ghost riders who are volunteers or compensated can keep service under review.

When busses do run late, what’s the feasibility of strategically parking some IndyGo busses in parts of the city to assist with delayed or full busses? This model works similar to the Hoosier Helper courtesy vans. Vans park near known trouble spots, like I-69, I-465 at I-70, I-65, etc. at specific times of the day and when trouble does come up, they’re just minutes away instead of being dispatched from a central location further away. If Route 13 encounters problems near downtown, a bus (even a smaller ParaTransit bus) located near Garfield Park, maybe parked there or at some other public location like a fire or police station, could jump in to service that route and meet up with the regular bus once it gets going again. Busses parked in certain areas could provide standby coverage for a lot of routes. For instance, a bus parked near Garfield Park could easily provide backup coverage for Routes 12, 13 and 14. A bus ready near Community East hospital could provide backup for routes 3, 8, 10, 21 and 87.

I recognize that to be a truly great service, IndyGo just needs more money. No one in the community is under the impression that IndyGo is wasting money or diverting resources to unnecessary non-bussing sources. The community recognizes that busses cost money, drivers require a salary, maintenance has to be done, and gas isn’t cheap. The recent proposal by IndyConnect includes many of the things IndyGo desperately needs. It also includes the train line between Noblesville and Indianapolis. One has to assume much of the billion dollar price tag is absorbed into the train system.

How much would it cost to just double the size of IndyGo and eliminate the trains? To get stops every 30 minutes where they’re currently at 60 and to get stops every 15 minutes where they’re currently at 30? One assumes it’s a much lower cost. Is it low enough that Marion County can afford to fund it? Is it low enough that Marion County taxes can be raised just enough on our own accord without state approval? Is it low enough that bus fares can be set to tiered pricing to cover most of the costs? Students, seniors and low-income individuals can sometimes expect a lower fare price. But even if the cost of a 30 day bus pass is $100 a month for a rider like myself that could afford it, it’s still much cheaper than owning and operating a car. Mayor Ballard famously said that they were the administration that found the money to fix the roads. He clearly supports bike and alternative transit methods. What ideas have been floated between each of you to help IndyGo to find the money to put busses on those newly fixed roads?

The laws and regulations are complex, I’m sure, and I have to assume that you and your staff have looked into virtually every imaginable grant, tax and revenue source. It’s the belief of many in the community that if IndyGo can just make the existing system ever-so-slightly better in safety and timeliness, that enough new riders will swell into the system that would place just enough political pressure to increase funding to IndyGo. A part of me strongly believes that accepting donations from the community and business partners like the Lilly Foundation would put us on the right path to a better transit network. Indy loves a good public-private partnership. Maybe IndyGo could benefit from looking at revenue deals similar to what Circle Centre Mall, the Stadium and Convention Centers and the water and gas utilities benefit from.

This city has proven with the Super Bowl that we can raise the necessary capital, we can get the right people and we can do things spectacularly when we want to. I don’t think anyone in Indianapolis except the most ardent anti-government, anti-public service believers thinks that expanding IndyGo would be a waste. The demand is here, the time is now. How much does it cost? How much will fares rise and cover costs? How quickly can we get more busses into this city? The community wants to know so the community can help, but that information isn’t being communicated to us.

I’m sure someday, probably when there’s five feet of snow on the ground, I’ll take a bus. I hope I’m surprised. I think I’ve been accurate and fair in my account of current standards, and I think I’ve proposed some useful ideas to help. I’m hopeful for a day when I can walk out to a bus stop and rest assured that in 10-15 minutes, a bus is nearby. But today, I’d settle for a bus that almost always arrives every 30 minutes and is safe, clean and timely.

Best Regards,
Justin Harter