Monday, November 11, 2013

Transit Meltdown- Carless Rating #3: 63rd and May Avenue

The last 5 days have been full of trials for Beth and me; mostly stemming from not having an automobile. All were met with success, but that’s not to say having a car wouldn’t have made our weekend much more convenient. What is becoming abundantly clear in this experiment is the need for improved access to amenities in our daily lives, as well as improved infrastructure for accessing said amenities.

Sometimes you can prepare for a carless trip across town and have all the details ironed out; but the chaotic entropy of the universe oozes all over your plans and forces you to be able to change plans at a moment’s notice. One thing we needed desperately to make our apartment feel more like a home was a good mattress. Up until now we’ve been using a very nice air mattress I borrowed from one of my very gracious co-workers that replaced our camping mattress we were able to fit in our luggage that we brought from Georgia. We haven’t been getting very good sleep, and it has been affecting our energy levels throughout the days. So, Thursday, Beth decided would be “Mattress Day”.

I got off work an hour early since I worked an extra hour earlier in the week, and we were going to catch the bus, Line 7, out to 63rd Street and May to go to Big Lots and purchase a mattress. Well, we ended up missing the bus we had planned to take at 4:15, but that shouldn’t have been an issue as another bus on the 7 line was arriving at the downtown transit center at 5:00pm. Beth and I got to the bus station with our bus fare in hand at 4:45 and sat down to wait for the bus. There were several other people waiting for our bus – a diverse group of all different ages and races. 5:00pm rolls around and the bus hasn’t shown up. This isn’t too surprising, it being rush hour and all, so we all sit patiently. 5:15 comes and goes, and everyone is getting beginning to get anxious or downright annoyed. It’s now 5:25 and the bus still isn’t there. I think one woman summed up the feeling of everyone, however uncouthly, with her frustrated exclamation, “God Damn it! I got things to be!” It was a funny moment amidst an air of growing frustration.

Finally, at 5:30, a bus whose marquee read “Going Home” pulls into the station, immediately followed by a bus with “Number 7” on the marquee. The driver of the “Going Home” bus was actually the number 7 bus that didn’t show up at 5:00, and had somehow fallen a half-hour behind schedule. She had no reason to have the “Going Home” marquee indicated, but none of the people waiting had any patience for her incompetency and boarded the second number 7 bus which could not pull into the station fully, half hanging out in the road, due to this very late bus. This was very frustrating, and clearly represented a dangerous liability for the Metro Transit system as people boarding a bus in a street are at risk for being hit by other vehicles.

Finally we get on the bus and on our way to the 63rd and May. Everyone on the bus was enjoying our bus driver’s animated frustration and humor regarding the driver of the previous bus, and we all had a very pleasant ride being able to bond over a common crisis.

After about a 30-minute ride Beth and I dismounted the bus at the bus stop in front of the Big Lots. This bus stop, sadly, is typical for Oklahoma bus stops. A lone bench, with three 2x4s for a seat and an advertisement for a back, sitting on a grassy shoulder with no sidewalk is just about the bare minimum a transit system can provide for its riders. What’s interesting is that COTPA (Central Oklahoma Transit and Parking Authority) doesn’t actually provide the majority of the bus stops in the city. That is contracted out to an advertisement company that owns billboards in the city. The company seems to think that they are doing the city a service by providing these benches for bus stops, but it’s clear what the real motivation is. The bus benches are miniature billboards. The owners have an incentive to make the benches as unusable as possible so as to not obscure the signs on the backing. There is rarely any shelter and often no access for the disabled. It is a sad state of affairs that must be fixed if COTPA plans to have transit system worth anything. I can think of no better way to bolster the transit system and increase ridership than by improving the conditions of bus stops around this city.

Beth and I found a mattress we liked and purchased it. Big Lots will deliver furniture for a flat rate of $60, and will also hold furniture at their store for you to pick up later, which makes purchasing furniture without a car very manageable. The staff was very helpful and friendly. Also in the shopping center is an Akin’s Health Food store where Beth was able to get chocolate soy milk, which you can’t get anywhere in the downtown area, not even Native Roots!

After eating a fast-food dinner while we waited for the bus, our adventure began again. We caught the line 7 bus heading back to downtown, and it was the last bus of the night. It was the same driver we had coming out to Big Lots and she was still talking to people on the bus about how much the previous bus driver had thrown off the route schedule. Many people were upset about how their plans for the evening were disrupted because of these issues. It just goes to show how important it is for a transit system to be well-monitored and staffed with competent, responsible drivers. The ripple effect of this one driver’s inability to be on schedule and follow protocol affected hundreds of Oklahoma City citizens.

The way that it affected us was particularly bad. Because this was the last bus of the night, it was not en route to return to the downtown transit center, but was heading south on Pennsylvania Avenue back to the bus depot. We only found this out as we boarded the bus. The driver was able to take us as far as 10th Street and Penn, which we accepted because it was a much shorter distance to travel than where we presently were. 10th and Penn is about 1.5 miles away from our apartment, and is a quickly growing neighborhood. As we came to find out, however, it is still very rough around the edges and was legitimately scary to walk through after dark. I would not recommend anyone do this. We stayed on the well-lit 10th Street all the way to Classen, turned south, and then east on 5th Street back to our apartment. It was cold, somewhat frightening, and an overall pain in the ass that could have all been avoided had the one bus driver not ruined it for everyone.

Thursday night was an adventure that I won’t soon forget, and I’m very glad I had my brave and beautiful wife to go through it with, but I think it might be better to plan for trips of this length to be weekend activities that we can accomplish before nightfall.

The distance to Big Lots from our home is about 7 miles, which took around 30 minutes on the bus, which scores an outright F on our scale, but we only had to walk about a mile and a half in total, which would be a B. Given the fact that we had not planned on walking any substantial distance at all, I’m giving this a D.

The pedestrian and transit infrastructure on this journey varied in different locations. For the evening I don’t think I can give the transit system anything higher than a D. We did get where we were going, but we did not get back from where we were going, and the bus stop was down-right depressing. At Big Lots there were very few elements of walkability. The walk from 10th and Penn was very walkable though, with sidewalks the entire way home. Regardless, I don’t feel comfortable giving anything higher than a D for this journey.

In terms of transportation options to and around 63rd and May Avenue, the transit system failed to function correctly, there is a significant lack of pedestrian infrastructure, and there are no bike lanes. This location is only convenient to reach by motor vehicle. Again, I’m going to go with a D, because the transit system doesn’t always suck.

The land use choices in the 63rd and May area are not terrible, if a bit corporate. As a retail hub there is a wealth of things to choose from, though the region may be suffering a decline. It’s hard to say whether the few vacancies in the numerous strip malls are the beginning of a trend or a temporary thing. While there are better areas to shop in the city, there were many people at the various stores. I’ll give it a C.

The atmosphere of this whole evening ebbed from a downright disaster, to a pleasant shopping experience, to a fearful trek home. It was definitely stimulating, but to encounter major inconvenience that puts you in a place where you’re fearful for your well-being is not an acceptable outcome of a car-less journey. The only real redeeming atmosphere was the helpful Big Lots staff. I’m going to give this a D.

So that’s four Ds and one C for a score of 9 out of a possible 25. I think this trip could have scored much higher if the transit system were better controlled. That said, there is a great need for improvements in the pedestrian infrastructure on 63rd and May. The number one thing that I see that needs to change is that the busses should finish their routes back at the transit center downtown before heading to the depot for the night so as not to strand downtowners in dangerous areas. 

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