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  • Am I Crazy? Nope, just a blissful bus commuter

    By Beth Gorman, Senior Program Manager, Pima County Department of Environmental Quality
    “You what?  “You take the bus to work? Are you crazy? Don’t you have a car?” 

    As I looked at the expression of disbelief on her face, I wondered if there would ever be a way to explain that I am sane and how much my life has been enriched by riding public transit.  Where do I start?

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    The journey first began when I made the conscious choice to live where I could be relatively close to work and shopping. Makes sense, right? Then I discovered that there was a bus route that went downtown where I work and only required a walk of about eight minutes! So, I could leave my car at home (I do have a car!), avoid all those added miles, and save on gasoline, tires, maintenance costs and insurance. Plus, my place of employment offers a discount on monthly bus passes and I wouldn’t need to pay for parking. The reduction in vehicle wear and tear combined with the money and air pollution savings clinched the deal. Little did I know what other benefits would come my way.

    Take the walk to and from my home…. Besides the great daily exercise (studies show transit users obtain more exercise than non-users), I get to meet my neighbors! Yes, I know it sounds strange, but I really didn’t know that many of them. The ones adjacent to our property, sure, we knew each other’s names and chatted occasionally, but now I know so many more of the people (and their dogs) who live along my path to the bus stop. I never would have met them if I had been in my car. On the way home in the evening, I meet several dogs, with their humans, who are so happy to be out and about that they just have to come over to me to share their joy and get a sniff and a nice pat or two. Visiting with people’s dogs is a great way to meet the owners and learn about things going on in the neighborhood or just enjoy a beautiful sunset together. 

    Speaking of sunsets, during my walk I have been a witness to the beauty around me that I would miss if I  had been in my car, worried about the car in front turning without using their blinker or the one behind me driving too closely to my bumper.  There is a certain time of the year when, on my way home, the sun is low enough in the sky to turn the mountains a pinkish-watermelon color. When combined with the blue sky and salmon clouds, it is a breath-taking Maxfield Parish painting come alive.  Sometimes I just have to stop in my tracks (not as easily done in a car) and watch the mountains change colors and the shadows grow with the sinking sun – a reminder of why I have never wanted to move away from Tucson. 

    Part of my walk takes me by the local hang out of a pair of Vermillion Flycatchers. People come from all around the world to southern Arizona to bird-watch and I get to experience the brilliantly colored bird on my way home. I have also been fortunate enough to have seen many different species of hawks and even an owl in the park across the street from the bus stop. Numerous published studies show that observing nature can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and improve our mood, in addition to many other benefits.  
    Courtesy of Sun Tran
    And before we move away from the subject of the benefits of being in and observing our natural surroundings, I’d like to tell you about a dog I see every morning in the park across the street from the bus stop. She loves to play catch – not unusual – but what she seems to enjoy more than anything else is jumping up to catch the ball thrown by her human. Even when the ball toss does not require a leap, she makes sure it does. It just tickles me to see how quickly she moves towards that airborne ball, all the while anticipating the steps she will need to be able to gracefully fly up as much as five feet in the air to catch the ball in her mouth and return it for another throw. And she works other miracles, too. This dog is so amusing to watch that I have even gotten the high school kids who share the bus stop with me to move their noses away from the phone and crack an appreciative smile. Needless to say none of this enjoyment of the world around me would be so readily available if I was commuting to work in my car. 

    I remember the first time I tried using the bus. Fortunately, the driver was very helpful as I fumbled with the bus pass to gain admittance to my chauffeur-driven ride to work. I was able to find a seat and began to nervously look around. I had heard rumors that most of the people on the bus had tuberculosis or were axe murderers. As I looked around, I saw Moms or Dads taking their kids to day care or school, students going to classes, some people who appeared to be a bit down on their luck, professionally dressed people heading to work, individuals with limited visual or ambulatory abilities and others reading or listening to music, or just staring out the window enjoying the stress-free trip. There have been some rowdy individuals on the bus over the years, but that is rare and the route I take has been overwhelmingly conflict free.  No axes ever wielded by any of my fellow travelers! It is truly a microcosm of our community on wheels.  
    Mt. Lemmon hikers
    But the amazing part of this story is how the quality of my life has been so enhanced from the people I met on the bus. Remember that I tend to take the bus at the same time every day and have seen some of the same people day after day, year after year. It starts with a smile or nod of the head and then progresses to a hello. And before you know it you are holding a conversation with someone who was a complete stranger not long ago. Imagine the variety of experiences all these different people have had and what you can learn from them. 

    Being on the more outgoing side of the spectrum, I have made dozens of friends on the bus. I helped a fellow rider study for her Pharmacy license exam; learned about bird watching from an ornithologist; met two other women who live within ½ mile from me and also work downtown; encountered a writer who lived in a cave doing research and now works as a substitute teacher; and met employees from the University who have very interesting jobs – one is a Zooarchaeologist who specializes in the study of animal bones. As you can imagine, the conversations we’ve had have been fascinating. And then there are the two brothers through whom I (and other bus riders) “experienced” the trials and tribulations of growing up during high school, even attended a play they were in with fellow bus riders, and now one of them is a cashier at our local grocery store who, years later, greets me with a big smile when I am in his line! Can you even put a price on the true value of these types of experiences? 

    Sun Tran info sheetWe first began by “saving seats” when possible so we could sit together and share stories at the end of the day. No charge for the stress-relieving counsel that we offered! We checked in on each other to be sure all was well when there was an unexpected absence. The “bus-buddy” friendships became so deep over time that we began meeting outside of the bus for birthdays and other occasions. The bird expert arranged hikes and trips to local birding hotspots to teach us proper techniques for spotting the feathered jewels. So much fun and, even with our diverse backgrounds and ages, we got along so well that – are you ready? – we went on a trip to Costa Rica together!  It was fantastic and our friendships continue decades later. As a matter of fact, this weekend we are celebrating my birthday by bird watching at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson. Numerous life-enhancing experiences - all from the decision to save money and try to lessen my impact on the planet by leaving my car at home. 

    An attorney for the Public Defender’s office, a recently acquired bus buddy, voiced an observation that I respect when I told him about my idea for this article. He said, “Riding the bus has allowed me to become more open and compassionate to those who may be struggling in life and has honed my ability to have conversations with a broad range of individuals with less judgement and trepidation. We are all humans sharing this world and just trying to get from one place to another.”  

    I feel the same way and am grateful in so many ways that I made the not so crazy choice to drive less and smile more. 

    Note: This article also appeared in the January issue of Green Living Magazine.

    Photos: (Top) Courtesy of Sun Tran. (Middle) Beth has made a lot of good friends from her bus travels. Pictured on a recent hike are, from left, Carrie Lowery (retired, Pima County); Karen Nickey, retired, City of Tucson; Nicole Fyffe, County Administrator's Office; Joanne Hershenhorn, retired, Flood Control, now with Tucson Water; and Beth Gorman. (Bottom) Info from Sun Tran.
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