Until last week, I had never been gazed upon with pity by the driver of a rust-flecked, crap-colored Buick Riviera. But as I stood in the rain at a Nolensville Road bus stop, peering out from under tendrils of wet hair, I couldn't help but notice the expressions of passing motorists — those who made eye contact, anyway. Their looks said something I could only interpret as, "That poor car-deprived man," "What an idiot!" or "Quick, just keep driving." The last straw was when a hot babe in a Geo Prism actually pointed at me, waved and laughed. I then realized it was my wife.
But the joke's on them. I can say I've taken the bus during some of the most depressing weather Middle Tennessee's had to offer lately — the sneak-attack cold spell of dogwood winter, with a side order of bone-chilling drizzle — and all told, it wasn't that bad. As with everything alternative, there is a trade-off. Give up the car almighty and deliver yourself into the hands of MTA, and you are suddenly dependent on an infrastructure that was always hidden in plain sight — an interlocked organism of timetables, detours, unexpected road blocks, and ebbs and flows of traffic congestion. It's a little like watching a human body function without its skin, and occasionally, it can seem that messy.
The compensations, though, are many. First, for every day I took the bus, there was one less emissions-producing, gas-guzzling, intersection-blocking auto on the road. At a time when fuel costs about $3.59 a gallon, the $4.80 I spent each day on bus passes (which are much cheaper by the week or month) was a pretty good deal, and would have been even better if my commute were longer. Plus, the routes seemed much more convenient than they did several years ago, when someone aptly described the MTA grid as "spokes without a wheel." The big discovery, to me, was the Green Circuit, a free and easily accessible downtown bus line that circles the main tourist districts from morning to midnight — making a breeze of a lunch trip for a slice at Manny's in the Arcade.
On its website (www.nashvillemta.org), MTA now offers a route planner that will lay out your itinerary. But I got as much or more benefit from a wizardly Green Circuit driver who calculated the various traveling speeds of the other lines during rush hour, assessed where they'd be on their runs, and pointed me toward a bench in front of the Ryman where the No. 12 for Nolensville appeared like clockwork minutes later. The morning before, had I planned my connecting rides more carefully, I wouldn't have ended up walking eight blocks from Lower Broad to The Gulch in a clammy mistbath — but the walk gave me some exercise and time to think to boot.
The big loss in bus travel, of course, is independence. When a medical situation arose during the week, I unhesitatingly switched back to my car — a luxury not available to people who are dependent on buses alone. But my limited experience with MTA at least showed me it could be done, if worse came to worst. Similarly, carrying bags of groceries or takeout food by bus would be inconvenient, but it's definitely possible.
That said, there's a side of your city you'll never see unless you take the bus, mainly because you're able to look. You see what's actually written on the storefront signs you pass every day. You see people straggling in to work, and the plumes of steam from rooftop vents as they catch the morning light. You see the city stretching awake, you see it heading home to bed, and you're in the midst of all the bustle in between, without the bubble world of a car to cocoon you. As my companion said, hopping the Green Circuit for parts unknown, "This feels like we're in a city!" You can't say that for a Buick Riviera.
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