« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Ride the bus... just because

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Many years ago when I was working in Ithaca, New York, I got an unusual assignment and met an unusual man. A producer from CBS radio in New York City called our newsroom. They were trying to arrange an interview with a retired Cornell University professor for one of their network broadcasts. My assignment: bring the professor to our studios, set up two-way communications, and monitor the interview. They’d pay me network producer’s piece-rate, about $200. Easy money.

The retired professor was eccentric. I asked if he’d drive to our studios, which were about 10-minutes away from his house. No, he explained, he didn’t own a car. Could I pick him up? Or send a taxi? No. He didn’t ride in single-passenger cars. He considered them immoral. I’d never heard someone make the argument before. He contended that the pollution and environmental damage caused by one person driving somewhere is a car was disproportional to him getting from one place to another. He would take the bus. (I decided not to ask about the morality of him being the only person on the bus.) The elderly professor climbed down from a city bus about a block away from our studios and did his network-radio interview as planned.

Ithaca’s bus system is a lot like Wausau’s. Routes gather at a downtown hub where people change busses and complete their trips. The only people who use the bus are people who have to. Once someone has access to a car, they’d ride the bus… never. If anything, Ithaca’s bus system may have had slightly more passengers than Wausau’s because it was a college town. I remember a student saying once, “losers take the bus.”

The Wausau Daily Herald published an editorial last week that accurately described Wausau’s public transit.  http://tinyurl.com/kqdq4wf   The only people who use it are those who don’t have a car.  And, then, even though it doesn’t operate at regular hours, or on weekends, or frequently enough, or where most people want to go (like Rib Mountain), urge us to ride it.  

I’m a supporter of public transit – where practical. I commuted on the train to New York when I worked there. It was the correct alternative to driving, given parking, traffic, cost of gas, etc. When my family lived in Brooklyn, we didn’t have a car. We didn’t need one. The bus outside our apartment took us shopping and to grandma’s house. We’d take the subway when we needed to go to Manhattan or wanted to go to Coney Island. One or twice a year we’d drive to the Catskills – we’d rent a car, or borrow my grandparents.  Public transit went where we wanted to go, when we wanted to go there… so we used it. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t.

I know there’s no way to compare public transit in New York, Chicago, and Boston with Wausau and Ithaca. I don’t know what the solutions are to the downward spiral of Wausau’s bus network. The winning idea hasn’t been heard yet. There are two things that I’m certain of:  I’m never going to ride the bus “just because”, and running almost-always empty busses is a waste of limited taxpayer dollars.

Chris Conley