Friday, May 25, 2018
Transportation

New perspective is gained without my car

In the past week, I've come to the conclusion that cars really are quite desirable — comfortable, air-conditioned, capable of taking you exactly where you want to go in not much time — but not absolutely, 100 percent necessary.

Last Sunday evening, I parked my car, a car I really like — a Volkswagen Jetta with a full range of electronic conveniences, an interior as inviting as a living room, a responsive, super-efficient, diesel engine — and left it in the driveway every morning as I pedaled off to work.

I got to appointments that way, too, or on the county's transit system, THE Bus — or, because the stops were sometimes a ways away from my destination, on foot.

I did this in one of the most exclusively car-oriented landscapes in this entire, car-oriented nation, a region with scant public transportation and a reputation for being lethal to pedestrians and bike riders.

What inspired this experiment, this stunt? Why did I voluntarily join the ranks of what planners call "the transportation disadvantaged"?

Along with my sons' departure for summer camp, giving me a break from shuttling them around, it was recent improvements that have made the roads a little less lethal and the public transit system less scant.

At the beginning of the month, the county put into service two new buses bought for a negligible price because the original buyer, Palm Beach County, decided it didn't need them. Without adding any new drivers and at minimal cost to the county (figuring in state and federal grants), it cut the wait between stops from a discouraging two hours to a much more reasonable 75 minutes.

Still, when you travel by bus, you accept that it's the boss. It determines where you can go and when. You check its schedule before you make your own.

For example, when I agreed to meet County Commission candidate Ramon Gutierrez on Monday, I suggested Deli World in Brooksville only partly because I had a taste for its crisp, hefty, foot-long Yankee Cuban sandwich.

Its location, at U.S. 98 and W Jefferson Street, meant it was reasonably close to a bus stop at Tom Varn Park, where there's an 11:20 a.m. stop — which, in turn, dictated that we meet 10 minutes later.

After hearing Gutierrez's economic development ideas and reminiscing about the great Cuban restaurant he once ran, and after telling him I wished he'd relaunch it because the county needs good places to eat more than it needs aspiring politicians, I caught a ride with a co-worker who happened to show up at Deli World — in a car, yes, but not in my car — to the main library in downtown Brooksville.

There, I bought an 18-pack of bus tokens for $15, a solid discount from the standard fare of $1.25 per ride, not to mention the cost of my weekly tank of fuel, and walked across the street to catch the 1 p.m. westbound bus to my office, where I arrived in 10 minutes.

Not perfectly convenient, but not bad at all. And there were perks: clean, air-conditioned buses, friendly drivers, passengers with stories.

Getting around by car, and doing more and more reporting over the phone and online, I sometimes come home at the end of the day realizing I haven't had a single face-to-face conversation outside the office.

Riding the bus last week, as well as one trip the week before, I met people like Reba Myers, 53, who said she has a serious health problem, "advanced-stage fibromyalgia or something."

She depends on THE Bus to get to doctor's appointments, she said, because unlike her personal idol and namesake, Reba McEntire, she doesn't have a lot of options.

"She's older than me. She can sing a lot better. And she can get a limo whenever she wants."

Alex Dissell's mild autism qualifies him for a reduced-price fare, but isn't stopping him from taking classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College in pursuit of an eventual bachelor's degree and a job as a schoolteacher.

Dissell, 23, who lives off Mariner Boulevard in Spring Hill, said he expects the new stop at the PHCC Spring Hill campus off U.S. 19 will create a big bump in student ridership.

"It's enormously helpful," he said.

On a different day, outside the Brooksville Walmart, driver Mario Dolce lowered the ramp for the wheelchair driven by John Wimbaugh, 60.

"Hey, Cuz, how you doing?" Dolce asked him.

Wimbaugh — a handsome, high-cheekboned man with a trim mustache and a purple fedora — said he lives in an assisted living facility in downtown Brooksville. His trip to the store had been quick, but getting home would require either a transfer near Mariner Boulevard or staying aboard for a long loop around Spring Hill.

"I ain't seen Mario in a while," he said. "I think I'll just stay on the bus and ride."

Commuting by bike was as solitary as driving, but offered another way to connect with the county. You notice things.

Like sidewalks. The building of new ones along resurfaced highways in Hernando has a lot of people complaining about government waste. And though I didn't use these last week, a harrowing trip to an appointment in Spring Hill convinced me that building more sidewalks on busy roads is a great idea.

After several close calls on Spring Hill Drive, I was very thankful to be able to trade the roadway for the bumpier, slower, much safer ride on the sidewalk.

What else did I notice? Standing, rippling water in lakes that have been dry for ages; the stunning restoration job done by the congregation at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall on Mitchell Avenue; the genuine, not-quite-realized beauty of downtown Brooksville, where I stopped one morning to take notes.

I could continue, but I know most of you are tired of my preaching about the joys of bike riding and, for the moment at least, I'm a little tired of getting around that way — tired of showing up at interviews sweaty, tired of worrying about thunderstorms, tired of the big chunks that commuting took out of my days, tired of wandering through the office when my stomach starts grumbling, asking co-workers if they feel like lunch and, if so, if they mind driving.

Because there's one other thing I proved to myself last week: Those of us who have cars are really lucky.

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