It all started with such promise when my wife and I dipped our toes into the world of suburban public transit:
Bus-train-bus. No driving, no parking headaches for a change.
8:53 AM Dec 9th, 2009
Then, those high hopes sunk a bit a day later:
Two strikes, PACE! Way to suck again jackasses.
6:40 PM Dec 10th, 2009
And lately it's been downright hostile:
Dear PACE transit - in case you forgot, you still suck. Expect more letters or hire better drivers. Your choice, jerks.
6:34 PM Jan 7th
Dear PACE transit - in case you forgot, you still suck.
6:40 PM Jan 13th
Why the hostility? Because after a month of riding consistiently, PACE is failing me constantly as a rider. In that month, I've been left at the station several times, been taken miles from home in the middle of a snowstorm because a driver didn't know how to change their route number (and didn't tip off riders to the fact that the bus wouldn't be traveling the route indicated on the bus) and had to wait an average of a half hour most nights for my route to come back around.
I'll stop here to say that my wife, who rides the same train each day, does not have these problems. Her PACE buses run like clockwork and she has nothing but nice things to say. So, for some people, even in my own house, PACE is great. For me, they provide nothing but headaches.
My issue revolves around the fact that it's hard enough to get to and from the Loop when you live in the suburbs. Parking is at a premium (Naperville's lot woes are well documented) and travel times are unpredictable and maddening. The simple, sustainable answer is to take public transportation, but given how unreliable PACE has been for me, I have no desire to do the "right" thing and would much prefer the option that consistently gets me home in a few minutes.
When you read the schedule for the feeder route that services my block, you notice two things. One, you have between 2 and 4 minutes to hop on the bus once your train gets in (no problem, I'm a spry 31). Two, depending on when you arrive in the burbs, you'll take one of three different bus routes (and they overlap). So, you need to keep track of multiple, overlapping routes and you have to hope your driver doesn't try to drag race the train out of the station.
This is the heart of the issue for me. It makes sense to take public transportation into the city, and the best, fastest option for that is the train. Great. I'm in.
In order to get you to the station, you can drive or you can save a few bucks and take a bus from the end of your block. Awesome, even better - I like saving gas and money.
When you get home, make sure you hit your timing right, because while the route schedule lets you know you only have a few minutes to get on a bus, chances are it won't be there and probably won't arrive for a half hour or more. Oh, and when it does arrive, make sure you ask if that's the actual route, because sometimes it isn't and you end up miles away.
None of this makes me want to ride PACE again or rely on it for my transportation needs. I know it's the smart play for the environment, for local traffic and for my wallet. However, I have no desire to stand around, wasting time, when for a few dollars a day, I can have a parking spot of my very own.
So, in the chicken vs. egg debate of why suburbanites don't use public transportation, I'd like to add another option beyond lazy, car-loving and snobby people with a misplaced sense of entitlement. Let's add shitty service that no one wants to count on because it's unreliable.
I will admit on the odd days that I've hopped off the train and found a bus waiting, it was a wonderful experience. However, those days are the exception and not the rule. So, as a presently disgruntled PACE rider, what do I suggest (instead of simply bitching, which is much more fun)?
1.) Pick a schedule and stick with it. Run buses at half hour intervals from 4:30 to 7 p.m. for the feeder routes. Forget the lie that the buses leave every 20 minutes (as trains arrive) because that just pisses riders off. Run a bus every half hour - no muss, no fuss.
2.) Hire drivers who can at least operate the equipment. The CTA has their share of sub-par drivers, but I've never gotten on the wrong bus because the sign was too difficult to change. (To my knowledge, these are the same basic buses.) I need two things from my driver - leave on time, have the right route displayed. Folksy, small town charm optional.
3.) Simplify the routes. Yes, I know it's more cost effective to run combined routes, but that's no help when the bus I'm waiting on isn't arriving. Do I wait on my bus, assuming it's on its way or do I go looking for the combined feeder because it is now past an arbitrary time? If this costs too much, back routes off to 45 minute intervals (because that's what is actually arriving anyways).
4.) (Optional) Enable the GPS routes like the CTA does. Know what's more obnoxious than a bus that's 30 minutes late? Looking up every 2 minutes to see if just maybe that's your bus at the end of the block (it never is).
Will it increase ridership? Who knows, but it would certainly get me to give PACE a second look. If the choice is between $80 a month and a little more suburban traffic because I'm a selfish jerk or standing around waiting for buses that arrive at random out of the ether, well, that's not much of a choice at all, is it?
(Image from PaceBus.com)