November 22, 2014


My favorite bus
by Patrick Dobson

My favorite bus is the 25 Troost bus. For a couple of years while I worked on my dissertation, I picked up the 27 on West Pennway and took it to Troost at 27th Street. There I caught the 25 or the Troost MAX to UMKC.

The Troost buses are my favorite buses. The old and young, black, white, Hispanic and immigrant ride the Troost buses. Recent trips I made on the Troost buses were typical of my Troost experience. We had a few kids who blasted out their ears with music on their phones. Many people texted or played games on their phones. A few people, like me, read the newspaper. Everyone climbed on and off with the knowledge of unspoken and written rules of bus contact — little eye contact, hellos and goodbyes if you did make eye contact, and orderly, if sometimes slouchy reclining in the seats.

I could go on and on. The Troost buses, I find, are a democratic institutions. Rich or poor, man or woman, the buses and their drivers treat everyone the same way. They’re humane institutions, as well. People help the handicapped and those with children. Moms and dads nag whiny kids. Kids play at the feet of nagging moms and dads. And almost everyone displays patience and understanding for kids, moms and dads alike.

Fortunately, few people show open disrespect toward anyone else. Sometimes a selfish and unruly person, needful of attention, demands more from their fellow passengers than they deserve. But such incidences, I’ve found, are fleeting and not tolerated by most riders. The driver — who rules over the crowd like the president over a contentious cabinet — squelches boisterousness with heavy hand and authoritative voice. Plus, the driver has a direct line to the police in case of attack.

Unlike many people I know who just won’t ride the bus, I don’t feel the connotations of poverty and woe associated with the bus. I like the bus. I ride it to the Plaza from the Westside. I take it to the airport when I need to fly out of town. Sometimes, I ride the bus for fun. My daughter, a proven crappy driver, takes the bus everywhere from her Midtown apartment. She likes the bus. We are a bus family.

The bus gives me the opportunity to do things I don’t otherwise have the chance to do. I like paging through the ever more meager Kansas City Star while I watch people out of the corner of my eye. I read books on the bus. I get to talk to old ladies and young kids, working men and women, black, Hispanic and white. I get to improve someone’s day when I give my seat to a person looking a little tired, worn or flustered. In all, the Troost buses are busiest among all the buses I use. I like people, and the Troost bus gives me people.

When I was in my 20s, I used the Troost 25 all the time. I was a thorough going drunk who worked at a no-account pizza stand in the Town Pavilion. I shared a house at 55th and Tracy with an eccentric man who modeled his mannerisms after David Letterman and watched 700 movies a year. My car only worked sometimes but the 25 always arrived at the bus stop and delivered me downtown. I used it when it was 100 degrees and when it was 0 or below. In those days, there was no MAX that rushed along the Kansas City’s intractable line of economic and racial segregation every 10 minutes.

The 25 was a bumbler of a bus, just as Troost is a clumsy street. It formed one of the straightest lines in the city, running directly north and south from Bannister to a kink at 22nd Street and then straight again to Admiral Boulevard. Regardless of how the crow flies from southtown to downtown, Troost has an unlovely history and a difficult present. Despite the straight line, the bus was slow. People climbed on and off at every stop. Back then the 25 went from downtown to Bannister Mall. I felt sorry for those people who worked at the mall. The ride took over an hour and it was almost like getting on a cross-country bus without a restroom.

There’s a lot to complain about when it comes to Kansas City bus service. There’s not enough of it, according to me. The buses we do have don’t run frequently enough, also according to me. It’s still hard to go east and west without having to go north or south first.

An act of Congress and an interstate compact between Kansas and Missouri established the ATA in 1965 and the ATA began operations in 1969 with the tatters of disparate bus systems across the Metro. The city councils and state legislatures meant to bring the bus services of Cass, Clay, Jackson and Platte counties in Missouri and Johnson, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties in Kansas under one roof. It’s an unwieldy agency that runs 69 bus lines through Clay, Platte and Jackson counties. The ATA provides no bus service in Leavenworth and Cass counties. Johnson County split with the ATA in 1981 and formed its own bus system — if the few buses it runs every day can be called a system. The ATA is only now forming new relationships with the JO.

I’ve ridden buses in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. They have a lot of buses and they run all the time and at all hours of the night. I’ve ridden buses in Frankfurt, Berlin and Trier in Germany. Next to these cities, Kansas City doesn’t rate. All these cities have better transit services than our car-addled town. We are a tiny burg compared to those places, except for Trier — a town of 105,000 people that still has better transit than we do.

We can remember Kansas City’s erstwhile streetcar systems of the first half of the twentieth century euphorically. Then came World War II, suburbanization, and car companies. Transit didn’t die a natural death, but one in which it was strangled. American car companies bought up streetcar systems in American cities and ran them into the ground to make way for their buses. Buses allegedly allowed cities flexibility in their transit options. But a bus is not a train, and because it gave cities flexibility, they were not reliable. A bus line here or there was gone tomorrow, seemingly on a whim.

I’m not in this to praise the ATA but I do know a good bus when I see one. The Troost MAX, which the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) established in 2011, doesn’t poop along the avenue like its companion 25. The ATA sunk $30 million into new stops, an electronic tracking system that tells you when the bus will arrive at your stop, and major transit stations at 39th Street and downtown at 10th and Main. The Max is a model of efficiency and the drivers keep it that way. According to the ATA, the Troost Max had an on time record of 92 percent in 2013. And the Troost MAX is ATA’s busiest line. Almost 9,000 people board the Troost Max buses every day.

Troost, as a matter of fact, provides the most reliable bus service in the city. Troost is a symbol of the city’s racial and economic failures.

If I had a dream of a transportation system for Kansas City, it looks a lot like the one in Berlin. Anywhere you go in that city, anywhere, you are not father then 500 meters from some form of transit — undergrounds, street cars, heavy rail passenger trains, and buses. But this is Kansas City. The best we can hope for, at least in the near future, is Troost-like service to all parts of our city. It will take time and people like me, who like the bus and see advantage in it. And like people. You have to like people to leave the car at home. And democracy. That’s a fact all too easy to forget.

Dr. Patrick Dobson is the author of
Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains. His second book, Canoeing the Great Plains: A Summer on the Missouri River, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press on May 1, 2015. His history monograph, More Than a River: Using Nature for Reform in the Progressive Era is now out for peer-review with the University of Nebraska Press.