DESIGNING a better bus system for Oklahoma City is as tricky as solving a Rubik's Cube. Perhaps some transit geniuses are out there who can do it, but most of us would give up after a few tries.
A key problem is the grid system. Blame it on the Land Ordinance of 1785, which divided lands west of the Mississippi River into 6-mile-square townships. The 36 square miles in a township were separated on maps by section lines, which became section roads. As Oklahoma City grew, the section roads became major arterial streets such as NW 23 running east-west and May Avenue running north-south.
It's a clean system but a nightmare for transit planners. In essence, the city is divided into mega blocks that are one mile square. Folks living in the middle of those mega blocks are a half mile from a section road. In older cities east of the Mississippi, arterial streets don't follow a grid pattern. Bus routes are relatively easy to design.
Here and in other Land Ordinance-affected cities, buses that run only along section lines may be inconvenient for riders living in the center of a mega block. So the routes sometimes snake through a section of land, which takes the buses farther from the main roads. A consulting firm studying Oklahoma City's transit system recommends keeping buses on the main roads and creating hubs outside of downtown to reduce transfer waiting times.
This is all part of the growing pains of a city in which relatively few people use public transit but those who do are dependent on it. City officials are grappling with route changes and the integration of a planned streetcar system that will, at least initially, serve only a fraction of the city. Every bus route change poses a hardship on those left behind but also presents an opportunity for others to use public transit.
In 2008, an Oklahoman reporter sampled the bus system to get from the west side of Edmond to his office at Britton Road and the Broadway Extension. Starting at 8:21 a.m. he rode three buses, waited for a transfer at the downtown hub and spent two hours and 10 minutes to get to work. He did the same thing in reverse in the afternoon, leaving work at 3:40 p.m. to make his transfer schedule for the trip home.
This is life in the slow lane for Oklahoma City bus riders. It's their workaday world of waiting for buses, waiting at the hub and waiting for transfers along the way. Our reporter spent 3 hours, 55 minutes getting to and from work. That's not a good recommendation for keeping the car at home and taking the bus.
It's easy to conclude that the difficulties of taking the bus are someone else's problem. Yet we expect able-bodied people to work even if they can't drive or can't afford a car. Big league cities need public transit, but this is a proverbial chicken-or-the-egg issue: Which comes first, the demand for bus services that will help fund expansion or expanded services that will help fuel demand?
The record time for solving the Rubik's Cube is less than six seconds, but most people need minutes or hours. One way to “solve” it is to take it apart and lay out the gridiron sides in the right order.
Perhaps the time has come for Oklahoma City to take apart its transit system and put things back together in a new and innovative way. It's definitely time for riders and community leaders to have a dialogue on how to solve our transit shortcomings.