Tag Archives: wayfinding

Come On and Take a Free Ride

Sometimes when our transit system gets bogged down and people are made to wait for an unreasonable length of time, the vehicle that shows up next has a no-charge policy. This courtesy, or apology, is expressed by the driver folding up a transfer ticket and shoving it halfway into the token slot. Such an act is not only a way of blocking payment but, in another sense, it is a tiny white flag displayed at the front of the bus – a sign of surrender to the angry waiting mobs, briefcases and lunch bags in hand. I think it is nice; a way of asking forgiveness and giving a free ride to the bus-weary.

Whenever this gesture occurs, as it did recently, I am reminded of the massive transit strike that embattled SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) about 14 years ago. It lasted more than 40 days (like the flood) and it stranded people, strained relationships across the entire political spectrum and stained the reputation of regional transit, which people were annoyed with from the get-go. It was a pivotal moment for everyone, mostly for SEPTA. When mediation finally ended the stand-off, SEPTA offered free rides on the entire system for a couple of days.

This was nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at the possibilities: regional rail, elevated line, subway, trolleys, a high-speed rail line, trackless trolleys, buses and jitneys. SEPTA is one of just two U.S. transit companies that provide all of the five major transit conveyances, the other is Boston’s MBTA. SEPTA’s reach is within five counties in Pennsylvania and it connects to two neighbor-states.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity but had only one day to explore and chose to go to a place we had never been before, a far-flung town to the west: West Chester, Pa. It is about thirty miles from Philadelphia and only nine miles from the Delaware state line. We wanted to ride as many different vehicles through usually rate-changing zones as we could, experiencing new territories that we would have no other reason to explore. We mapped out our route and as Peter Pan might announce, “Away we go!”

Our first leg was on a familiar bus route that took us a couple of miles to a transfer-station stop, one of several hubs where buses and sometimes trains unite. There, we boarded a number 124 bus headed for the King of Prussia Mall, a 30-minute ride on expressway, county roads and a state route which deposited us behind the behemoth mall at its transit center – basically, a parking lot turn-around – to await our next leg. This was a totally unexpected jitney-style bus, number 92, the type you get shuttled about in when you pick up/drop off a rental car at an airport. Being in the city, the only time you see buses this small is when they belong to private residential towers or retirement homes. It felt like a private coach and we had a nice conversation with the driver.

Let’s just say, at this point, that there can be a big difference between drivers of city transit and drivers of suburban transit, in terms of chattiness. I am always friendly with city transit employees, but many people are not. And, since the city drivers need full concentration to maneuver through relentless traffic, they will likely not pay much attention to the throngs on their buses. But put a driver out in the sticks with a small bus and very few passengers and, suddenly, you have a new best friend or, rather, a country store on wheels. It can be refreshing or annoying depending on your state of mind. At least it was different, and it was experience we were seeking.

The mini-bus took us to our destination in about an hour’s time, we walked and explored the foreign territory and then, when ready, we hopped back on the next shuttle bus for our return. But this time we went only as far as the town of Paoli, about midway through the bus route. This landed us at the regional rail station and we hopped a train, riding through the renowned Main Line – famous for the horsey set of bluebloods that settled as landowners, the rail lines having been built to service them and to create new housing.

We stayed on the train, passing through all the communities – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, each with its own college or university – and continuing through into the outer rings of city neighborhoods, each successive one shrinking in terms of its open space. Although, at some point, the open space started to reappear in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods where houses had been removed like bad teeth or had burned to the ground. After twenty-some miles and about 50 minutes, we disembarked in downtown Philadelphia and spent some time there before catching our last leg, our bus home, landing us one block from our house.

If someone else had wanted to sample all the different track-based possibilities, that would have been fun to organize. But the fact is, we have used almost all of them many times and for many purposes. This wasn’t exactly PeeWee’s Big Adventure, but it was another taste of public transportation. This self-designed day trip took us to new places and allowed us to see old places from different angles. There is, for me, excitement in finding my way without a car, using a miraculous infrastructure of systems – the placeness of public conveyance. It’s what we did the first time we all visited Europe and found the self-satisfaction of wayfinding. Either there or here, there is exhilaration in reading maps and schedules and traveling your way through them. Discovery is part of the deal.

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Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Philly-centric, Random

A New York State of Find

Maybe it is a fact of life in the city – every person is in it to win it, to coin an overused phrase. Something about population density, and compression of spirit as well as space: too little for too many, everyone grabbing and pushing and protective of what they have. It has always seemed to me that once people spread out physically and psychically that there follows a more relaxed attitude – allowing someone to not only breathe but to be more willing to share the air. And this expansion does not mean ¼-acre lots in the suburbs, because there have been extremely intense battles over property boundaries and other lines drawn on those subdivided plots, too.

At the other extreme is how genuinely helpful people can be who live in places of great distances, where towns are 50-100 miles apart. Anyone who has crisscrossed the west and southwest and has had vehicle breakdowns knows that folks in vast landscapes are aware that aiding a stranger is a necessity, a tit-for-tat act of karmic insurance for the inevitability of their own mechanical failure and fate. Helping is a way of existence and survival in a sparsely populated place. Without the generosity of fellow travelers, we would all end up like the bleached bones in a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is a very different mindset of shared, rather than proprietary, neutral space, but also a more empathetic understanding of the inherent dangers and a willingness to pool resources in a spot where there are so few at hand.

Admittedly, all this generalizing does not preclude there being greedy bastards out west and generous spirits in East Coast cities. But it can color one’s thinking and expectations about places. So, imagine our surprise when we recently encountered three acts of kindness in one twenty-four hour period in upstate New York. This isn’t meant to cast any aspersions on New York state, but it is and was a surprising triad of events, perhaps another ploy to make us fall even deeper for this region. Part of this happy experience is the unexpectedness of it, which, as we have said, can be a component of arslocii. In this instance, though, it is a placeness achieved through human connection, of people extending themselves for the purpose of aiding you in achieving your goals; no questions asked – like really good parents. Only they are strangers.

The day began with a dead tail light as we were headed out to cover some distance. Luckily, there was a Ford dealership near the Thruway in a spot not too far from where we were, and not too much out of our way. Three things: their service department was open on Saturday morning, which this was; their parts department (also open) had our particular bulb; and the three or four mechanics on duty seemed underwhelmed by the volume of repairs. We were shuttled into the Quick Lane, which must be like the fast lane for when your car isn’t moving. The tail light cover was removed, one of us went to the parts counter and purchased the bulb, and the new one was installed and working in about two minutes’ time. Quick Lane. Then: No charge. Really? Their reply was, simply, for us to enjoy our day. Come to think of it, about the West – I was once swindled by greedy bastards in Arizona for some shock absorbers my car didn’t need. Here I am, 100 miles from New York City where, by centrifugal force alone, unsavory New Yorkers could be easily flung into my path. But, no: quick, courteous service … and no charge. That was the beginning of the day. I could have settled for just that.

Now that our Google maps were completely worthless because we were no longer starting out at the beginning or even from the same direction, we improvised to try to reconnect with our route. And, naturally, without directions in sequence (and their directions always lacking any kind of context), our distances were completely worthless. And, then, even right turns and left turns became meaningless and confusing, because we were not starting at point A, and we knew in our hearts that we were without any ability to locate point C. So, we stopped to ask for help – at an ambulance company. Emergency services would know how to find every place, we assumed, no matter how rural. The ambulance driver had no idea where this place was we were going to, to our chagrin. But he did have a very fancy GPS device that he spoke the address into and, presto, we had directions from this point that was not on our Google maps. His kindness was that he didn’t have to do that for us, but he could and he did.

Back on the road with Google maps once we connected with our destination, we were on our way again. No problem now, smooth sailing. Except for one thing – a frickin’ detour through Newburgh. And the worst part of this was that either we were experiencing deja vu, or we had been caught up in this same detour a couple of years before. We remembered it all: the turns, the landmarks, the overload of traffic being rerouted, and also the fact that the detour signs disappear without getting you back to the road you really wanted in the first place. And, suddenly, just like the last time we were there, we were utterly lost. For a while we thought we could recover from this but it grew gradually apparent, as we found ourselves on rural roads once again, that we didn’t have a clue where we were (thanks again, Google Maps – I mean, if a detour has been ongoing for a few years, wouldn’t you think they might have mapped that, too?). The space between things was expanding and we had to yell “uncle!” once again. This time it was a very unbusy car-repair or tire shop in the center of what seemed to us as nowhere.

Since it was a very male kind of establishment, the male of our party went inside. It was an even more unbusy place than the Ford service had been, with a few folks sitting in the back talking – about their lack of business, presumably – although it seemed almost conspiratorial, questionable, strange even. Directions were asked and a woman who was among the group jumped up and said, “It’s too confusing if I tell you, just follow me.” Astonishing, yes. Even more astonishing is that we drove behind her for at least 15 miles before she honked and pointed to our desired route as she turned off the highway. Awesome! Talk about going above and beyond. And you would especially not expect that kind of help from a place that in all appearances seemed like either a front for some illegal off-track betting ring, or a group that was discussing how to get rid of the body. And just like that, a fifteen mile escort to a recognizable road.

What a day! It was filled with good Samaritans and their kind acts of turning a sense of being out of place into placeness.

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