MM Does The Link

My uneventful (that's a good thing) bus adventure
Farewell, 408 -- The Link diesels on down Church Street.

Farewell, 408 – The Link diesels on down Church Street.

I’ll admit – I’m not a regular rider of those purple buses that circle downtown Ann Arbor. In fact, this summer when I thought, “Hey – I’ll ride The Link!” I was revealed to be an idiot, unaware that the fleet went on haitus as soon as UM students dispersed. (Even though AATA posted signs to that effect at each stop. When you aren’t looking, you don’t see.)

Now, like the students, The Link is back. So when I set off for a chat with Ken Nisbet of UM’s Office of Technology Transfer, which sits above the Starbucks on South University, I decided to grab a free ride.

Free is nice. Waiting, not so much – or so I thought. The closest stop to my home was on Ashley near Washington, right next to Sweetwaters. I’d looked online before leaving, but the schedule (oriented sideways, as though someone just scanned in a brochure) didn’t give specific times for that spot, so I guessed.

It turns out that part of the beauty of waiting for a bus is that you’re stationary, and have nothing to do but look and see what’s happening around you. It gives you an excuse to stop, stand, and watch, without passersby thinking, “Uh oh – I spot a crazy lady.”

Not that anything momentous happened. Students working on their laptops at Sweetwaters. A woman pushing a stroller cradling a sleeping baby, slowing down to peer in the window of the Mitchell Gold furniture store. A couple of suits striding on their way to Somewhere Important, Bluetooth enabled.

And a mailman! My stop was a few feet from one of those army-green mailboxes that serve as drop stations for carriers, and the guy who does that route – let’s call him Frank – was picking up another batch of letters to deliver.

Retro mailman graffiti on the drop box at Ashley and Washington.

Retro mailman graffiti on the drop box at Ashley and Washington.

I made some inane comment about all the crap affixed, painted and scrawled (“NEATO”) on the rusted metal. “Yeah, they used to paint them every once in a while,” Frank said, referring to higher-ups at USPS. “I think they finally threw in towel.”

Then he smiled. “They did leave me a nice mailman, though.” The “they” in this case meant a graffiti artist, and when he closed the door to the mailbox, indeed, there was a lovely retro image of a mail carrier, sharply dressed, even wearing an official-looking cap. True, someone had scratched “GAY” on the cap, but that just added to the whole weird-yet-fitting incongruity.

And then my bus arrived.

I was the only passenger. The driver attributed this to the time of day. “Right now, in the middle of the day, people are mostly at lunch,” she said.

Still, it’s like sitting in an empty movie theatre – you really would like some company. And you’d like to refute the fairly common anecdotal claim that the city is blowing money driving around empty buses all day.

So I was glad to see two more people at the next stop, the Ann Ashley parking structure, and from there riders got on and off at almost every stop. Everyone was engrossed in their own thing – iPod plugs in their ears, books to read, companions to chat with. I watched out the window: Construction workers milling around in the closed-off section of Liberty; a banner hung over the door of the soon-to-open Chipotle Mexican Grill at State, “Burrito-fication In Progress”; several near-misses as cars squirted past oblivious pedestrians.

I’d worried about the time, but it was a quick ride, despite the frequent stops. And it’s not that far – a longish walk. At stop J on Church Street, just north of South U, I said good-bye to the driver and disembarked.

I don’t ride the bus often enough. When I do, I’m reminded of why I should. It’s easy to talk about the abstract concept of community, but what does that mean? In part, it means building a set of shared experiences. I see you dropping your kid off at school, then again at the grocery, then again on the bus – and from that, we form a relationship of sorts. We might get to know each other better, or not. But we’ve forged one link among many that, in aggregate, make this our community.

It’s those links – those shared observations, like noticing stencil art on a mailbox, or griping about how not enough people ride the bus, or whatever – that form the foundation from which we can do great things. Because for all the talk about alt-transit projects, density, bike lanes, gas prices, blah-de-blah – it’s really these little things, these discrete links and relationships, that have the power to change our culture.

Riding the bus doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it could be.


  1. By Dave Askins
    September 16, 2008 at 8:08 pm | permalink

    Re: “shared observations”

    A few weeks ago, this could have been a shared observation that might have relieved some of the frustration with the sideways oriented online schedule: “Hey, honey, let’s observe the [numbered push pins] that I made for Ed Vielmetti’s Link map!”

  2. September 16, 2008 at 8:32 pm | permalink

    Mary -

    I think you get more community in the bus when you ride the same route every day; there’s a batch of folks on the #5 who I can count on being on the 5:18 or the 5:33 from downtown.

    As to the signage on the Link signs, yes, they are inscrutable. The map that I redid is here:

    which replaces letters with numbers. Your “Y” stop is nominally there at about 11 minutes after the quarter hour, and you get to “J” at 7 after the quarter hour, so it’s an 11 minute ride. Plus or minus.