We are walking to the bus stop when it begins to rain. Big, cold drops smear my notes in my notebook. Don Ferree Jr. huddles underneath his umbrella and quickens his pace.
Don speed-walks down side streets with no sidewalks on the first leg of his mass transit journey from Burke High School to midtown. He hops over quickly forming puddles as he helps us answer a fascinating question:
What’s it really like to live and work in Omaha without the use of a car?
“This is definitely a bigger commitment than giving up sweets for Lent,” the school guidance counselor says, half-smiling and half-grimacing as the rain continues to fall.
It used to be so simple for Don to get to this meeting at 32nd and Cuming. He would hop into his Dodge in the Burke parking lot, click on his windshield wipers, jump on the Interstate and, in 20 minutes, pull up to the district headquarters, the TAC building. Piece of cake!
Today, it will not be so simple by design. Today, Don Ferree Jr. is taking the bus from Burke to the TAC building because he gave up cars for Lent.
He hasn’t been inside a car — not his car, or his wife’s car, or anyone’s car — in more than a month. He has spent hours planning his bus schedules. He has waited for buses, gotten lost on buses, missed buses, sprinted after buses, walked many miles to find buses and, in one case, skipped the bus and jogged for many, many miles in his street clothes.
He is learning the huge frustrations and also the hidden joys of taking the bus inside our car-centric city.
“There are all these situations I hadn’t thought of,” he says of getting around Omaha via bus. “There are all these difficulties for people I didn’t truly understand.”
Let’s start with today. It’s a relatively simple ride, Don says. But it is still a 15-minute walk followed by a bus ride followed by a transfer to a second bus to get to the TAC building.
How long will it take? Don isn’t exactly sure, even though he has studied his paper bus maps and consulted Google Maps. He has decided to leave Burke two whole hours before his meeting at TAC, so as to not be late.
“My life is kind of tethered to these,” he says, holding up his collection of bus maps.
But, as we finish our rainy walk and wait at a bus stop near 114th and Dodge, Don tells me that this journey is nothing.
Once in March, he had to figure out how to make it from his home near 108th and Fort to deep inside Bellevue. He ended up taking three buses and then walking 5 miles. The journey took him four hours, one way. Then, an hour or so later, he had to come back.
And that wasn’t the wildest ride. That occurred when Don wanted to attend his niece’s performance of “Mamma Mia!” in Papillion. The play occurred on a weekend night, a big hassle because Omaha bus schedules thin out at night.
Don eventually designed a route that involved four transfers and then a 2-mile walk to his house — a bus doesn’t stop any nearer than that to his house at night. But then, worried about the lack of time between the transfers — a little terrified that he would miss one and then have to wait a whole hour for another — Don simply began to jog.
Don ran cross-country in college. He’s a serious runner with the knee surgeries to prove it. He ran 1 mile, 2 miles, 3. He ran all the way from Papillion-La Vista High School to 72nd and Dodge, a 7-mile jaunt. There he caught a bus, then another bus, before getting off and wearily trudging the final 2 miles home near midnight.
Don’s insane jog-and-ride accidentally identifies some of the weaknesses in our bus system — weaknesses that Curt Simon, Metro’s director, can easily ID, too.
Omaha buses don’t travel west of Westroads on any major thoroughfare save for West Center Road at night or on Sundays.
Don wonders: How would a Burke student without a car take a part-time job in west Omaha?
Simon said both low ridership and the way we chose to build west Omaha make bus routes tougher. Think about West Maple Road, he says. Think about this fact: There’s nary a sidewalk out there.
“So if I drop you off in front of Baker’s, I’m dropping you off on a state highway with no sidewalks, where you have to traverse a drainage ditch and a giant parking lot,” Simon says. “There are clearly challenges to providing quality transit in areas like that.”
Buses do not travel much into the Omaha suburbs, to places like Bellevue and Papillion. That’s because Metro’s authority ends at the city limit line, Simon says. Metro has agreements to run only a few rush hour buses to both cities. (There’s a bill in the Legislature that aims to strengthen Metro’s regional bus authority.)
And, to Don, the entire system feels caught in a sort of Catch-22: There are hardly any people on this afternoon bus, he points out as we ride the 14 bus toward Westroads, where we will transfer to the 4 bus. If people don’t ride, there is no real incentive to add bus routes, he says. But if bus routes aren’t added, many people will probably continue to never ride.
“You know that game of parachute you played when you were young?” he asks. “Everyone has to sit under the parachute to get it lifted up into the air.”
Simon sees Don’s point.
“It is,” he says when I ask if it’s daunting to get around all parts of the city in a bus. “Ideally you wouldn’t need to know our schedule. A bus would just come every 10 or 15 minutes. ... I get asked why we can’t be more like Minneapolis. They spend $150 per capita on transit. We spend $36.”
Simon laughs. “We can be!”
Honestly, Don is not complaining. He took this project upon himself, after all. He wanted to give up something big for Lent. And he wanted to try to truly understand what it means to be car-less in Omaha, not by choice but because you simply can’t afford a car.
And, the truth is, he says, the experience has been better than he ever would have guessed. The fellow riders are almost uniformly nice. The bus drivers are almost uniformly helpful when he gets a little lost. The buses are far cleaner and nicer than he expected.
What he has learned — what Simon says a lot of new riders learn — is that the experience of riding the bus in Omaha is actually much more positive than we assume before we ever step aboard.
Don has also run into old students, and met strangers who are becoming new friends. He’s a social guy, and the bus, it turns out, can be a social place.
The other day he spoke to a disabled man who told him a story about how a recent malfunction in the bus’ ticketing machine had cost him a 40-cent refund.
A quarter, a dime and a nickel. No big deal, right? Except that to the man it meant he couldn’t ride the bus home. He couldn’t ride the bus home because he didn’t have 40 cents to spare.
“The idea of $0.40 being the barrier seemed like an implausible scenario from a third world country! Nope,” Ferree wrote on Facebook. “That is happening right here in Omaha. A month ago, this would have been impossible to imagine.”
Maybe best of all, Don has time to think on the bus. He has time to call old friends and talk to them. When he gets somewhere early, he explores the neighborhood, tries a new coffee shop, simply walks around and looks up at the sky.
That’s the strange thing about a car, he says. We’re always in such a hurry to get wherever we are going, he says, but it makes us forget that enjoying the journey is always part of the point, or should be.
We are almost finished with today’s journey, having successfully transferred to our second bus. Now we’re barreling down Cuming Street toward the TAC building. We are way early, and Don is designing himself a new route that allows him to grab an early dinner at California Taco before his meeting.
Before he gets off, he says he isn’t sure how much he will ride the bus once Lent ends. But he will most assuredly remember this month for the rest of his life. That $55 bus pass, he thinks, was money incredibly well-spent.
“Honestly, this has been an amazing experience,” he says. “It has challenged me. And it has opened my eyes.”