Careening Car-Free in the Capital City

So I've accepted the challenge: I will live without my car for one week in Lansing and rely solely on the CATA bus system.

First off, full disclosure: By choice, I live within walking distance of a lot of cool stuff. When my wife and I moved here from Pittsburgh last year, we wanted to be close to Michigan State University, where Patti works full-time and I teach part-time.

We settled into a rental house that’s an easy 30-minute walk from campus. We're about the same distance from downtown East Lansing, which means lots of bars, restaurants, and tie-dye t-shirt shops are also close by.

So going car-less is easier for me than some people. Still, there's a lot going on around the city that we can't walk to.

East by Eastside

It's Friday morning and I need to grade several student essays. But the thought of sitting at the cluttered desk in my home study on this beautiful fall afternoon is depressing.

Instead I'll head down to Lansing's Eastside neighborhood, camp out at Magdalena's Tea House, and work among the pleasant smells of coffee and patchouli.

The first step is a quick visit to the CATA website. It's well-organized, intuitive and offers refreshing few generic publicity photos. The trip-planner page—where you select your start and end destinations and the Website spits out your specific bus route plan—is easy to use.

It's a bit too precise for me, though—or maybe I'm just more of a visual thinker—so I ignore the directions and opt instead to consult the overall route map of the city and figure it out on my own.

The bus I’m taking is the #1, a route that runs on Michigan Avenue and Grand River Avenue between Downtown Lansing and the Meridian Mall. If Lansing is a body, then the #1 runs right up and down its spine. You can get to the Capitol building, Oldsmobile Park, Michigan State University, the East Lansing downtown shopping district, and the Meridian Mall out in Okemos—all on the mighty #1.

I catch the bus near the intersection of Grand River and Hagadorn. During the day, the #1 bus runs every 10 minutes, so I don't bother with the schedule. After a few minutes the bus pulls up; I hop on and pay the $1.25 fare. It's crowded, but there are plenty of open seats. I grab one close to the front, next to two guys having an animated conversation about the price of gas.
"Paid $3.56 in Detroit yesterday," the first guy says.

"It was $3.89 in Okemos this morning," the other replies.

"Oh, man!"

The ride from East Lansing to Lansing’s Eastside neighborhood takes about 10 minutes. I jump off near the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Clemens, and walk the half-block to Magdalena's and get to work.

An hour later I've finished my grading and I'm well-caffeinated, so I decide to go shopping for a birthday gift for my wife. I wander into several interesting, artsy gift shops along Michigan Avenue, but nothing quite jumps out. Then I stroll into Capital City Collectibles, and there it is: a slightly used version of a party game Patti can add to her formidable party game collection.

At the counter I mention my bus article to the owner, Stephen Jahner, whose shop sits near the connection point for the #1 and several other routes.
"The buses are great for this neighborhood," he tells me. "The wait between transfers is about 15 minutes—just enough time to drop in, buy a new comic, and get on your way."
"You ride much?" I ask him.
"Sure,” he says. “Just hop on the bus and boom—you're in East Lansing."

Jahner and many of the neighboring Eastside business have ample city parking lots behind their shops, and he tells me there are even commuters who drive to the Eastside then catch the bus from there.

"We have a lot of people who use the parking system we got here, which is only like a quarter an hour. They'll park here, slap in a buck for parking, go to East Lansing to attend an event, then come back."
Makes sense. It’s a convenience for event-goers, and it boosts foot traffic for the Eastside and Capital City Collectibles.
Buses North!

The following Monday, my next mission requires me to make my way north to the Eastwood Towne Center on Lake Lansing Road, where I need to return a pair of jeans to Gap.

I again make a visit to the CATA website to chart my course then walk into East Lansing to wait for the northbound #24 at the corner of MAC and Albert, across the street from the East Lansing Marriott.

Also waiting there is Rachel Kabodian, who has just moved here from Chicago. An aspiring actor, she's taking a year in Lansing to replenish funds and build her resume, including a recent role in "Dog Sees God" at the Peppermint Creek Theatre.

"I got thrust into the bus world when my car died," she tells me. "And gas is ridiculously absurd."

I ask her how riding the bus here compares with Chicago.

"Honestly, the Lansing system is a lot more reliable,” she says. “It's clean and the bus drivers are usually nice. I haven't been late for work once."

We finish our chat as the bus pulls up, right on schedule. A few minutes later I step off at the Lake Lansing Meijer to catch the transfer that will take me on to Eastwood.

As it turns out, it's actually the same bus. The electronic number on the front of the bus flips from #24 to #16—my transfer—so I reboard. The driver gives me a nod and grins.

Eastwood Towne Center has a much different feel than Eastside Lansing, where I'd been on Friday. While the Eastside vibe is bohemian and eclectic, the Eastwood vibe is upscale and trendy, with familiar names such as Williams Sonoma, Yankee Candle, and P.F. Chang's.

There's also piped-in music at Eastwood, a reminder of the moribund suburban shopping malls of my youth, but it's actually good music (on my short walk to Gap I hear Wilco and The Shins).

Once the jeans are returned, I decide to stroll over to the Claddagh Irish Pub and grab a beer. Drinking alone in the afternoon is not my usual habit, but today, why not? The weather has turned chilly and overcast—perfect for a pint of Guinness—and, since I'm busing it, CATA is my designated driver.

Rainy Day Destinations

Now it’s Tuesday, and I need to get to MSU to teach my class.

Usually I don't mind the half-hour walk, but today it's drizzly and cold, and the thought of the warm bus is pretty appealing. I walk a few blocks and pick up the #22 at Hagadorn and Albert. It drops me off right at Bessey Hall, at the center of campus. Door to door it's about 20 minutes—10 minutes less than my walking time. And I'm dry.

At the end of class, I ask my students how many ride the bus. Half the hands in the room go up.

Nicole Cillette, a junior, offers up a few details, and her experience sounds pretty typical. She lives in one of the huge apartment complexes north of campus and takes the bus to and from class several days a week.

"Really, your only option is to bus," she tells me. “It's such a pain to park on campus, and no one wants to spend all day feeding the meters."

And there are other perks.

"Sometimes I see people on the bus that I haven't seen in awhile and we can catch up," she says. "And last semester I read an entire book on the bus, 20 pages at a time."

That evening I decide to walk home, bringing an end to my car-less week.

Looking back, I realize I've been able to go everywhere I wanted to go and do everything I wanted to do, and it's been seven days since I had to refill my gas tank, hunt for a parking space, or curse out a fellow motorist under my breath.

In a city like Lansing, buses provide different things to different people. First and foremost, of course, they provide safe, reliable transportation to people who might not have it otherwise: young kids, college students, the disabled, the elderly. These days, it's also a good option when the cost of running a car becomes an imposing and unpredictable expense.

CATA's booming ridership—a record-breaking 11.3 million rides a year and growing—means fewer cars on the road and cleaner air.

But there's a symbolic benefit as well. A thriving bus system means people are going places: to jobs, to college classes, to cultural events, to bars and restaurants and shopping plazas.

People are going places, which means Lansing is as well.

Call it Newton’s First Urban Law: A city in motion tends to stay in motion.

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Jonathan Ritz’s essays and articles have appeared in many regional and national publications. He lives in East Lansing, teaches writing at Michigan State University and can be reached here

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Jon Ritz at Magdalena's Tea House

CATA's website

The #1 route through Lansing's Eastside

Stephen Jahner at Capital City Collectibles

Nicole Cillette at MSU

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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