I don’t drive. Now, as I try not to venture outside of East Hill or downtown as much as possible, this doesn’t prove to be as big of an issue as it could be. However, a few times a week, due to the demands of school and work, I am forced to leave my comfort zone and venture out into the wide world that is Pensacola. And for this task I make frequent use of the fine services provided by Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT).
ECAT services thousands of passengers each day throughout the county, shuttling people back and forth from work, school, and assorted errands. For the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, and people on the lower end of the economic spectrum headed to work each day, public transportation provides an invaluable service that helps those in the community most in need of assistance.
Thus, on a recent Thursday, I stood at a bus stop on 12th Avenue waiting to head up to the University of West Florida. Waiting on a bus can be awkward because drivers tend to look at me suspiciously, presuming, I guess, that because I’m standing on a street corner I’m either a drug dealer or, with my smoldering good looks, a prostitute. These are charges that, for the record, have never been proven.
I was waiting on the Route 41, which would take me up to Pensacola State College, at which point, after a 30-minute or so wait time, I would take the Route 43 up to UWF. The bus routes can be generously described as labyrinthine. It’s difficult to get a straight shot somewhere, especially if you’re going across town. This is probably the main failing of the bus system, as people sometimes have to wait up to an hour for a bus, or take confusing routes that often take them back and forth all over town before getting them to their intended destination.
Because we don’t live in World War II-era fascist Italy, no one can make the buses run on time; however, it is possible to get a general idea of what time a bus will arrive. It’s best to err on the side of caution and give yourself a five to 10 minute leeway from the expected arrival time. Needless to say, buses aren’t the quickest way to travel, so it’s also important to have something to occupy your time on your journey, like an iPod or a book. It’s very odd to see people sitting on a bus with a blank look on their face not engaging in something to keep themselves entertained. Bus passengers sometimes have the cheerful countenance of refugees being evacuated from a war torn country. People are either headed toward a long day, or coming back from one, so the merriment is kept to a minimum.
However, despite its drawbacks, there is something comfortable about public transportation. There’s the friendly nod from the elderly man riding the same route as you, the banter of the bus driver to the passengers he sees every day, the feeling of solidarity among the passengers as everyone comes together for a brief moment as we all head to fulfill those pesky obligations that rouse us from our beds each day. A bus ride also provides the chance for you to sit still for a moment and gaze out the window upon Pensacola, to take note of the sights we often miss as we speed in our cars toward our destination while texting. Riding a bus is a chance to sit down and remind yourself that one of the big problems in this world is that everyone is in such a big hurry to get to where they’re going that it’s easy to not even look around at where we are.
In larger cities, the public transportation system is one of the most important services provided. However, in recent years, labor strife, charges of mismanagement, and a population that seems unaware or confused by the services it provides have plagued ECAT. In this still struggling economic climate, with gas prices putting the squeeze on everyone’s pocketbooks, Pensacola having a modern, efficient public transportation service is the next step in it becoming the city that Pensacola needs to be.
James Hagan doesn’t drive, swim, or skate. He is also shaky on a bicycle. He does think he’d be great on a mule, however. He is a graduate student in English Literature at UWF. Follow him on Twitter @jameskhagan or feel free to offer him a ride somewhere.