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.