By Sue Moynagh
This is a car- driving society, and non- drivers seem few and far between, but we are here and I would like to tell you what it is like to make your way in Worcester without a car. First I would like to explain that there are various reasons why people don’t drive. Many choose not to own a car because they are too expensive to own and operate. Some prefer not to drive because they respect the environment. Walking for them provides health benefits and does not pollute. Many of these individuals also own bicycles for longer distances. Some people cannot drive a car for health reasons. It is hard to drive if you cannot see clearly or if your body cannot react fast enough to maneuver a vehicle through heavy traffic. And yes, there are people who would like to be driving but have lost their licenses. So how do we get around? I would like to relate my own experiences to show how challenging it is when you don’t drive.
Urban layout is much different than when I was a youngster. Then, everything was pretty much within walking distance. Now, with suburban and exurban sprawl, nothing is localized anymore. Most people look confused when I say I don’t drive a car. They can’t believe that in this day and age, some people have to rely on other forms of transportation. If you don’t drive, they ask, how do you function? Well, if you don’t drive, you have several options: take the bus, take a cab, ask for rides or walk.
It is not always easy being a non- driver in Worcester. It can be challenging but also rewarding to plan your daily activities to be efficient and effective without a car. Drivers also have to schedule shopping trips, work, medical and business visits, and social functions, but they also get more done than non- drivers do. I would say that a driver can do all of my weekly errands in one day or maybe two. My first step is to list what I have to accomplish during the week. I need to shop for food, pet supplies and household items. I may have a medical appointment that week or a number of meetings scheduled that I must attend. When I worked, and I hope to soon, these necessary chores usually had to wait for weekends or evening hours. Then you have to know what the weather is going to be like in the next few days. Major storms mean fewer days in which to get things done. Most important of all, I have to determine how will I get to these places? Do I need to ask for a ride? Check bus schedules?
Just as a driver tries to fit as many errands in during one drive, I have to get as much done during one day’s excursion. If I have a Weight Watcher’s Meeting on Thursday morning, I can walk to the Worcester shop (it takes approximately 50 minutes). Then I can shop at Walmart or take the bus to Blackstone Shoppes to get to PetSmart for pet supplies. If necessary, I can walk or take the bus down Greenwood Street to the Plaza. There I can do banking, shop for clothes and food, and stop in the bakery. If the purchases are light, I can walk home (one and a half hours). If I buy a lot of canned goods, I take the bus. The same goes for medical visits. If I go to the optometrist downtown, I try to arrange the time to fit in any business that has to be taken care of, such as banking or prescription pickup. Sometimes I catch the bus to Auburn mall, do some shopping, and then catch the bus home. This has to be carefully timed and orchestrated. If you miss the bus, there may be a long wait. If it was the last bus, you either walk or call a cab.
Bus service has improved somewhat in the past few years. Most bus drivers are friendly and courteous, although one or two could use an attitude change. There is even a way to track buses en route with your smart phone or telephone. If you call 508-296-TRAK (8725), and give the operator the name or number of the bus stop, you can find out when the bus will arrive. Buses are usually on time or close to schedule, unless the weather is very bad or there is a bus that breaks down and has to be replaced. There are issues with bus service, usually involving schedules and transfers.
Schedules for some routes change about three times a year. Sometimes the route itself changes as it did a few years ago, when the number 4 bus no longer stopped at Crompton Park, but rather continued to the Plaza at the end of Greenwood Street. Then it changed again, to go to Walmart and then to the Blackstone Shoppes in Millbury. Great for me, but many people who were not aware of the change went for an extra ride, and most were very angry about this waste of their time. Transfers can be a problem, however, because some buses only run once an hour. If you can’t make the transfer, there is an hour wait, not fun if you have frozen foods in your shopping bag and the temperature is 90˚. The long wait between buses is not fun if you have to stand in rain, snow or wind and there is no shelter. Most drivers are aware of their stops, even if signs are missing, but on occasion, the bus driver has gone by. Sometimes stops are eliminated altogether. For instance, the Green Street bus stops near Ash Street were eliminated, so now I have to walk either to Kelley Square or near Temple Street. This is no big deal when I catch the bus empty- handed, but a nightmare when I have twenty to thirty pounds of groceries in my bags and have extra blocks to walk, plus the Harrison Street hill. This occurs about two or three times a week. I swear my arms are getting longer from lugging those bags.
Recently, there was a meeting discussing bus service times. Service ends early for some routes, and those who have to get to jobs or return home late at night are having difficulty dealing with keeping work. There are also concerns with the new bus Hub near Union Station. How will this affect the few businesses downtown? It is more convenient for people taking the out of town buses or trains, but what about downtown workers? I know I have had to pass up good job opportunities because there was no bus service at nights or on weekends.
I very seldom ask people for rides, but I will accept a ride if offered at night or I have a lot of heavy items to carry. I am very grateful to those who take the time to give me a ride. I try to offer money for gasoline, or I may treat them to a coffee or even a meal to say thank you. Most of these people are kind and gracious, even offering to help me with my bags. However, some people feel that they have a right to interfere in your personal business because they are doing you a favor. I have had to put up with rude and intrusive comments and questions during rides because I felt at the mercy of these people. I have had to endure “advice” about my ratty hair, my weight problem, my education choices, my home life, and best of all, the inevitable, “did it ever occur to you to learn how to drive so that you don’t have to bother people for rides?” How do you tell someone to mind their own business when you’re halfway to another town with a carrier occupied by a howling, terrified animal who has to get to the vet? You shut up and feel your blood pressure go up. Now I take cabs to get to the vet.
Cab service in Worcester is great, but I seldom take cabs because of income limitations. Cabs are an option if I have to be somewhere very early in the morning before buses run, or if I have too many heavy items to carry home. And of course, vet trips are easier in a taxi.
I saved the best for last: walking. I love to walk. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have been fighting the battle of the bulge for a number of years now, and I often walk just for exercise. There are numerous challenges for the pedestrian. There are safety issues, of course, and you have to be aware of your surroundings, especially in the evening. Weather is a big factor. Walking on a nice spring or fall day can be relaxing and delightful, but summer heat and winter ice can be dangerous. Winter snow is beautiful, but trying to stay on sidewalks when one homeowner shovels and the other doesn’t can be a pain. I hate walking in the streets, especially when it is slippery. Some areas are seldom if ever shoveled, such as the McKeon Road extension leading to Walmart, or around the Green Street bridge. But that is not the worse problem for walkers
Many drivers, for some reason, have given up stopping at intersections for red lights. I cannot even count the number of near- misses I have had when some idiot refused to stop at a crosswalk. I know drivers will protest that pedestrians often jump from out of nowhere in front of their moving vehicle, forcing them to slam on the brakes. I do not excuse the pedestrian’s behavior, but my concern is with people who are actually trying to cross streets according to the law. I am frustrated when the light shows “walk” and I have to wait for a line of cars to go by me.
There are ways to get around Worcester, and surrounding towns, without driving a car. It takes creativity and careful planning for the non- driver, but it can be done. I hope those who work in city planning or transportation remember that we are a presence in the city. If Worcester wants to be “pedestrian friendly,” these people have to make sure our needs for safety, ease and efficiency in movement are met, so that we can continue to live, enjoy and get around this city.