I am doing a series of portraits and photographic studies for The Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) and The Capital Area Transits System (CATS). The first morning of shooting started early. My brain was still a little cloudy from only about half its usual dose of caffeine. But, time and the bus waits for no man.
In all the years I have lived in Baton Rouge, I don’t think I had ever ridden on a city bus. Maybe once for a charter to a football game or something and I had taken a spin on the downtown trollies, but this was my first real morning on the bus. I should say that I like mass transit. I like being a passenger and I like the idea that you don’t have to pour endless amounts of money into purchasing, maintaining, insuring and fueling a personal automobile. But, like most Americans who can afford it (and don’t live in a place with a subway system) I don’t ride the bus.
Abstractly, I understood the importance that the bus system played in the lives of people who could not afford a car or who were unable to drive for some reason. But, today was the first time I had an up-close experience with its inescapable value. Put bluntly, there are many people who could not live a normal life without a working bus system. This is not liberal propaganda aimed at socializing the roads. This is simply a fact.
It should also be said that there is no typical bus rider. The majority are African-American but that is by no means the whole of the ridership. I saw people going to and from work wearing hospital scrubs and security guard uniforms. There were young and old. There were mentally ill people. There were old folks going out to get groceries. There was even an employee of the Louisiana Arts and Science Museum who rode the bus for reasons I didn’t query.
The buses are a little threadbare but they are clean and all the staff was friendly. There was even a bit of camaraderie of the sort that develops impromptu among any group of random people thrown together in similar circumstances.
In all the debate that has been raging on the opinion page of the local newspaper it is easy to forget that the bus system serves a vital purpose. People decry it on ideological grounds because it runs a deficit. I don’t pretend to know the numbers but I can only imagine that it would deal a serious blow to our economy if all the people that ride the bus were no longer able to get to work. It would also eat away some little part of our humanity if the elderly were trapped in their homes and the mentally ill worsened because they could not make their doctors appointments.
It is not really my place to judge on such matters but I think that before anyone rails against the fiscal irresponsibility of the bus system they should ride one of the early morning routes and see just what CATS does and what population they serve. That is the least that those of us who are fortunate enough to have the means to afford a car can do before we go cutting services to those who can least handle the blow. And everyone likes being driven around.