Fort Collins did it right with MAX, our foray into serious, bigger-city public transportation, even though I had doubts when I first heard of the $87 million deluxe light-rail-like bus line.
I returned this weekend from an inadvertent global tour of public transit systems, sampling and comparing people-movers within our shores and beyond. The three city names aren’t particularly relevant, but take a guess based on their trademark menu items: bubble and squeak, paella and cheesesteak. You’ll find out in a minute if you’re right.
By the way, I’m not bragging about the kind of leisure travel taken by those with idle time and cash. This was work travel with goals to consume every waking hour, and local destinations to reach in a hurry.
In City 1, my colleagues and I jostled for standing room among more passengers than the trains and shuttles could support. We realized why the cattle-in-a-cattle-car cliché will always be with us.
In City 2, we sampled every form of ground transfer shy of rickshaw, including train, subway, bus, taxi and even Uber, the smartphone-based app that connects wannabe passengers with Average Joes (or average Josés) who own a car and have bills to pay. You can’t help but think twice as you press “Request Uber” on your phone and, 10 minutes later, an unmarked four-door Ibiza pulls up to the curb. As we piled in, my grandmother’s caution would echo between my ears: “What if you end up face down in a ditch?”
An interesting tidbit. One of our Uber arrangements fell apart when the local police scared off the driver. As in many cities around the globe, the cab companies, aided by local authorities, are up in arms about driver-entrepreneurs invading their turf.
In City 3, the challenge was neither crowds nor sketchy anonymous drivers, but nerve-shredding subway noise. What can compare to steel wheels scraping steel track a few feet from your eardrums in a perfect sonic echo chamber? Maybe fingers on a chalkboard but with the volume cranked to 11.
A week after leaving Colorado, I returned and found myself riding MAX, and remembering my skepticism when word of the project first spread. Before long, I’d thought at the time, College Avenue will be a parking lot from Harmony Road to Old Town (and same for Interstate 25 from Colorado Springs to Wellington), and our best mass-transit solution is a bus? Don’t we already have buses? Where are the elevated trains and Plexiglas pneumatic tubes you see on Futurama, slurping us from point to point like deposit slips at the drive-up bank teller?
But MAX planners did it right. The 12 stops are strategically placed and accessible. The fees are reasonable and conveniently paid through modern kiosks. The combination of MAX-only lanes and mixed-traffic lanes do a remarkable job of expediting the commute. And best from my jaded view, the coaches are as comfortable and quiet as we can expect from public conveyance.
So hop on those sleek green and grey bullets barreling north and south through town, and not just because it’s good for reducing congestion and environmental damage. Do it because it’s a better way to get around than what the whole world can offer, or at least what London, Barcelona and Philadelphia can offer.