The People vs. Public Transportation

Editor: Tef Poe is an artist from St. Louis City. Through powerful imagery and complicated honesty, he has earned a reputation as one of the best rappers telling the story of St. Louis, which is about much more than one place. Poe has been featured in music publications such as XXL and Urb Magazine. His next project War Machine 2 is slated to be released June 5th and followed up by a full-length with DJ Burn One entitled Cheer For The Villain. Follow him on twitter @tefpoe

Every week in I'm Just A Rapper, Tef discusses modern life, hip-hop, and the deep connection between them.

There was once a chapter in my life that deeply relied on public transportation, and I am still known to catch the MetroLink from time to time without shame.

When I first started rapping I relied on the Metro bus to get me back and forth to the studio. For a brief spell in my life I would buy an all-day train ticket and sleep on the MetroLink during the day when I had no place to technically call home. I truly appreciate the St. Louis public transportation system. I've caught the bus to shows and rode the Metro Link to hip-hop battles. I often used my time to on the bus to clear my head and memorize my lyrics. The public transportation system has played a huge role in my musical career.

Things have changed for me on a few levels these days and I often reflect back to those hunger years. The Metro bus helped me shape the worldview I instilled in my music. I would ride the bus and venture into portions of this city I had previously never seen. The public transportation system me has shown me a version of St. Louis many will never see. Fist fights, knife fights, robbery, gambling, gunshots, you name it I've witnessed it or experienced it thanks to public transportation.

I don't care to go too deeply into this story, but I was assaulted by a group of guys with box cutters at the Central West End MetroLink station. I ran home with blood all over my shirt and discovered I had been cut by one of the box cutters. I tell my friends all the time, "When you drove by the bus stop in your car, I was probably right there standing with some of the craziest people in the world." I depended on the bus to get me back and forth to work.

But I believe public transportation can be valuable. The conversations people have on the bus about the things currently going on in today's world are amazing. I and many other people have always said there is no bus line the country like the Grand bus. Riding it is like having an open invitation to the crazy people party bus. The Natural Bridge bus is its own living reality television show.

When you're running late and a person runs the bus down and holds the driver for you, they are suddenly humanized. When the bus driver shows you a little compassion by giving you directions when you're lost, your heads nods with gratitude. A subtle reminder dawns upon you, and we suddenly remember everyone isn't heartless. Riding Metro has put my life in danger but it also helped save my life. Metro is very unique transit system, which strives off of buses and transits trains carrying St. Louisans to work, sporting events, summer concerts and weekend parties.

In the summertime the heat can be troublesome as you wait for the bus or train, but it's still bearable. However, in the wintertime catching any form of Metro is flat-out torture if you're a regular rider. As a regular rider using MetroLink for survival I was kind of annoyed on the days the train would be filled to capacity from Cardinals and Blues fans heading back and forth to the downtown area.

Metro, however, loves these people and they rightfully should because all parties help keep the system alive. Since the start of the column I've been searching for subject that relates directly to St. Louisans without going too deep into politics or music minutiae only a handful of people would understand.

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DeWarren Smith
DeWarren Smith

I remember the first time I rode the bus. I was living in Richmond Heights working at the Galleria Mall. In South Bend IN, where I from, the system was so much easier. I actually had the nerve to step on the bus here in StL and thought it would take me CLOSE to home, but NO it started out for the first few blocks going the way I wanted and then the next thing I knew I was far from where I started further from where I wanted to be and had to call a ride. I still love public transpo though especially the metro link for Cards games. 

Brad Hicks
Brad Hicks

I'm an increasingly elderly white retiree on a small, fixed income. I depend on MetroLink and I agree with almost every single word of this. (My experience has been different in one small way: in a decade of riding trains and buses in this town, I've never been the victim of violence, and only been threatened once. But then, I'm also a faintly scary looking nearly 300 pound bald guy.)

I especially relate to his complaint about the sporting-event-only riders. There is no misery like being usually able to depend on making a certain transfer every night at 10, at the Civic Center station where everybody and I mean everybody who passes into or through downtown has to transfer, only to miss the last train out because either the Blues or the Cardinals or some tween-sensation pop concert has just gotten out, having to stand there, even if it's freezing drizzle, because the train you couldn't even get to because the bus hit a traffic jam has long gone and the next two trains are going to ship full. I can't blame Metro for that one; like you say, they need those people's money, and I'll add that it wouldn't make sense to design a system to handle peak loads like that if it would run 99% empty the rest of the time. But it's really, really frustrating.

I share the frustration about the fare increases, too, but seriously, I doubt there's anything Metro can do about that. I hear the same complaints about the price of gasoline from my friends who drive. Sadly, except for CEOs and Wall Street financiers, nobody in America's wages or pensions have kept up with inflation, not in decades, and there isn't anything Metro can do about that.

I'll say this for Metro St. Louis, even if Google deserves more credit than they do, they helped: the MetroLink and MetroBus system is a heck of a lot less frustrating now that almost everybody can get a low-end smartphone for free. Google Maps' integration with the Metro system is complete, and it's usually accurate, and it makes a huge difference. If you've got an Android phone in your pocket or purse (or, to a lesser extent, an iPhone, the mass-transit interface on its Maps app isn't as good) you can stand anywhere in the Metro area, ask for transit directions to anywhere else, and get good transfer-by-transfer and stop-by-stop directions. Those of you who've never tried it, try it some time!

But, I've got to say this: I've ridden the buses and trains in a lot of towns, and one thing is painfully clear to me: there is a huge difference between towns where the people who run the mass transit system are also riders themselves, versus towns where the people who run the mass transit system are people who drive. And we are clearly the latter.

It is driving me mad how much Metro depends on large buses that only run every 40 minutes or once an hour, when every transit expert in the world has found the same thing, that everybody who uses mass transit everywhere in the world judges their transit system almost entirely off of how often the buses run. If Metro would absorb the slightly higher labor costs and run smaller buses every 20 to 30 minutes, maybe they wouldn't have such a hard time getting tax increases passed!

But just as importantly, Metro St. Louis's management has a vision in their head of what the mass transit system is for. On my most cynical days, I describe it as a system that is designed to deliver low-cost domestic help to mansions in Ladue. Buses travel in a straight line with few stops through any majority-white area, then slow down to wiggle through majority-black areas in order to pick up any black woman who could conceivably have a job and deliver her to a job that doesn't pay enough for her to afford a car, at some mall or at some call center. If you aren't a 20-something or 30ish black woman trying to get to and from a call center or mall job on the first or second shift, you run into awkwardness at best: the system is just plain not designed for you.

Metro St. Louis's route designs assume that nobody wants to use the system for shopping or entertainment; they drop you off a long, hot (or cold) walk from any mall or cinema or theater, and some of the biggest concert venues, like Family Arena, can't be gotten to at all. Metro St. Louis's route designs assume that you are in bed by midnight; nobody works third shift, or attends any event that runs past 11pm, in the mind of whoever designed these routes. Metro St. Louis's management seems to take it for granted that nobody works Sundays, either, as if this were still the 1950s or something and we still had strong "blue laws." And, of course, whoever's fault it is, it's nothing less than intolerable that at no time of day or night can you get anywhere in St. Charles county, anywhere in Jefferson county, or anywhere that isn't within walking distance of a train station in Madison or St. Clair counties.

If Metro St. Louis's CEO and all of his or her direct reports were to spend one year traveling exclusively by mass transit, if they were to have to depend on their own transit system not just for their commute but for shopping and shows and socializing with friends? By the end of that year, we'd have an entirely different, much better transit system, one that met everybody's needs a lot better. Because, right now? I don't think they have any idea how frustrating their system is to use.

Itchy Jeans
Itchy Jeans

Ten years ago this would have been a Hall of Fame worthy letter to the editor, amazing comment and insight!

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