Why I Ride the Bus : The Barlew Blog

David Barlew Architects is a Chattanooga-based architecture firm founded in 1978 by David Barlew, Sr. Our diverse practice has experience in the design and renovation of mixed-use developments, schools, offices, commercial centers and medical facilities. Local projects designed by David Barlew Architects in the past 5 years include Renaissance Square, a two story, mixed-use building completed in 2008 on Martin Luther King Boulevard by The 28th Legislative District Community Development Corporation; the Temporary Twelve-Bed Intensive Care Unit at Erlanger Hospital; Sing It Or Wing It, a karaoke bar and restaurant in downtown Chattanooga (interior design by Christi Homar); and the Auditorium Building Renovation and Addition at Cleveland State Community College for the Tennessee Board of Regents. David Barlew Architects has also volunteered time for the Brainerd Road Corridor Master Plan, a nearly three year long community-led initiative to improve the Brainerd Community of Chattanooga.

David Barlew Architects, Inc. is a member of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Why I Ride the Bus

by David Barlew, Jr. on 03/05/14

When I moved to the Brainerd area of Chattanooga several years ago, I knew that one of the city's bus routes ran through the center of the neighborhood a few blocks from our house. I knew the buses were there, but I didn't know anything else. I didn't know the number of the route or the cost of the fare. I didn't know the location of the nearest stop, and I didn't know the first thing about the buses' schedules. And, why would I? Chalk it up to middle class privilege, but, like most everyone else in Chattanooga, I owned a car, and any knowledge about Chattanooga's public transit was just not required. In this city, driving a car, clearly, is the de facto way of getting around. And, that is precisely what I did.

So established is Chattanooga's driving culture that I know people think it's strange that I, a college-educated, middle class professional---an Architect!---would ride the bus. The bus. When people say the words, the syllables coming out of their mouths drip with disapproval and---even more so---revulsion. Bus. Around here, the word comes with an implied "ugh" right behind, a coda to signify one's disgust. The bus? Why would anyone ride the bus?


By writing this post, I'm hoping to answer precisely that question. After several years of periodically using public transportation in Chattanooga, I want to explain why I made what amounts to a countercultural decision to get on CARTA from time to time, and I'm hoping it will encourage others in Chattanooga to consider the bus as a viable transportation option.



To and from work each day, I drove myself in my own car. I didn't think much about it. In fact, I continued to drive my car exclusively until 2010, when my vehicular habits were suddenly changed by an event several hundred miles to the South.


Beginning in April of that year, horrible pictures of dirty and dying animals, stained beaches, and filthy brown water caused by the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill entered the news. Following those initial reports were stories of inundated, ruined marshlands, and distraught, unemployed shrimpers. It was awful.


I decided then that I didn't want to be part of this anymore, and by this I meant the American love affair with oil. I didn't want to be part of the oil-soaked birds, the washed-up dolphins, and the ruined coastal communities. I didn't want to be part of the dirty beaches, planes dropping dispersants, and dying sea life. Having seen all of the horrible images, I decided that I would try to reduce my gasoline consumption.



For as long as I can remember, I have always been an advocate for public transportation; to me, it has always seemed like an attractive, logical, and cost-effective option for moving people from place to place.


I am impressed by public transportation's potential efficiency. Public transportation has the ability to move large numbers of people with a very low ratio of material per person. Public transportation requires less metal, rubber, plastic, and glass on a per person basis to move a given number of people. Public transportation also reduces the need for parking lots, parking garages, and extra lanes on the highway, all of which free up land and space for higher uses, such as businesses, housing, parks, and natural areas.


All of that said, it took something dramatic to shake me from simply being a passive supporter of public transportation to being an active user of public transportation. To paraphrase Gandhi, I needed to be the change I wished to see in the world.


The transition from talking the talk to walking... err, riding the ride isn't easy. There is a big knowledge curve to wind one's way through. As I said at the beginning of the post, I knew nothing about Chattanooga's buses a few years ago. I was starting from scratch, and learning about the different routes and schedules requires some effort.


Even after you learn all of the logistics of the bus route and schedule, you have to screw up the gumption to get on the bus for the first time. No, really. You don't think about it until the time comes, but there are so many little anxieties about the bus. Who will be on the bus? Taking transit in Chattanooga, after all, is not culturally normative; who will these bus riders be? How many people will be on the bus? Will it be a pleasant commute? What if I drop my six quarters like a klutz and everyone is sitting there irritated and looking at me because I'm holding up traffic?


But, if those poor pelicans down at the Gulf could withstand being coated head-to-toe in petroleum, surely I could overcome some minor anxieties about the unknown to try Chattanooga's public transportation for the first time.


And, that is what I did.


Beginning in May of 2010, I started riding the bus on the number four route a few times per week. I still drive, yes, but much less than before. Over time, the trips taken by bus---and not taken by car---really begin to show up on the odometer. I actually drove my car so little during 2011, 2012, and 2013 that my car only required one oil change per year based on mileage! Riding the bus has turned out to a good way to save wear & tear on my car and save money in the process. More importantly, riding the bus has allowed me to use far less gasoline, which was my impetus for riding the bus to begin with. Goal accomplished.





Riding the bus in Chattanooga has also turned out to be very easy. CARTA offers a number of features that make riding the bus easy and convenient, the best of which is the Bus Tracker software. Available on the CARTA website at http://www.carta-bus.org/, Bus Tracker allows riders to see real time information about the buses' locations and projected arrival times. Bus Tracker is extremely helpful, and it takes the guess work out of using public transportation. Rather than waiting down at the bus stop for a bus that may or may not be coming, riders can see precisely when their bus is going to arrive; riders can continue doing whatever it is that they're doing until it's time to go to the bus stop.

I find the tabulation of bus arrival times to be the most helpful. I can continue to work at my desk with this window open down in the corner of my monitor. I then know when to leave at just the right moment.

The Bus Tracker software also has a map feature. The map is customizable; by checking different boxes, a rider can modify the map's content to display different routes with the locations of the buses along that route. The map above shows Route 4 and its buses.

The CARTA website works great on mobile devices.

And, the Bus Tracker software works well on smart phones, too. With so much rider information available at one's fingertips, riding the bus becomes just as easy as hopping behind the wheel.




Unfortunately, many Chattanooga area residents lack convenient access to the city's public transit. Much of the housing stock and many of the businesses are located in areas not served by public transportation. I have heard before that less than one quarter of Chattanooga's residents live and work in locations accessible by public transportation, which goes a long way towards explaining this city's dominant car culture.


This isn't to say that expanding access to transportation is impossible. In the early Twentieth Century, streetcars serviced areas like Belvoir, Missionary Ridge, and Signal Mountain. Later in the century, buses serviced Signal Mountain, East Ridge, and Red Bank. I see no reason why these systems couldn't happen and work again.


I ascribe to the "build it and they will come" point of view. In recent decades, Chattanooga has completely revitalized its once neglected downtown. New buildings have been constructed, new businesses have opened, and new residents have moved in. Where once whole blocks had been dead after five P.M., life now animates the central city's streets at nearly all hours of the day. In recent years, Chattanooga has revamped its downtown library with great success. The library's fourth floor, for example, now regularly hosts exciting community events, and the library has again become a place Chattanoogans want to be. In the past twenty four months, Glass Street has begun coming back to life, and the East Chattanooga community is now one of the most talked-about areas in all of Chattanooga. I see no reason why we can't do the same with our transit system. We can add new routes to open transportation choice to a greater segment of the Chattanooga population, and we can improve the existing routes to encourage greater ridership. In short, we can turn the "Why do you ride the bus?" of today into the "Why don't you ride the bus?" of tomorrow.


Until then, if you have the opportunity to ride the bus, please give it a try. You might just like it. The pelicans in the Gulf and your car's odometer will thank you.



Written by David Barlew, Jr.


All photographs by David Barlew, Jr.


Permission to use screenshots of Bus Tracker software in use granted by CARTA on 6 July 2012.

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