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Riders speak in 'The Bus Project'

April 06, 2011

When Teresa Miró came to Tempe to pursue a graduate degree in intermedia two years ago, she noticed one big difference between the Phoenix metro area and her native Madrid – the lack of public transportation.

"I didn't know how to drive at the time, and I had to take public transportation," she said.

What she discovered, when she began riding the buses in the Phoenix area, was that she couldn't get everywhere on a bus, that there was limited weekend service in some parts of the Valley, and that some bus stops lacked even an awning to provide shade.

In short, she faced some obstacles if she were to depend upon the bus. Miró's partner at the time had a car, so she took driving lessons, and got her license – but, she said, "I don't like driving very much. Back in Spain I did not feel the need of driving at all."

After her initial experience riding the buses in the Phoenix area, she decided to see how other regular riders felt about the metro transportation system, and thus was born "The Bus Project."

With a copy of the bus transit book as her inspiration, Miró, a student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, created a 24-page booklet that is part storybook and part commentary on public transportation. And Miró emphasizes the word "public."

"The concept of 'The Public' is usually so faceless, normative and bland, that we often lose sight of the people who are a part of it," she said. But those who ride the bus are people with "faces, feelings and voices, personal histories and social networks, job obligations and family needs," Miró wrote in her booklet.

In "The Bus Project," some of those bus riders tell their stories about how they interact with – and are ruled, in a sense – by public transportation.

"Understanding how riders interact with the urban landscape cannot be reduced to 'People ride buses,'" Miró said. "Using the bus means actively and critically engaging with an array of material and abstract entities: boarding a vehicle; paying a fare; reading a schedule' scrutinizing a map; following a route, or two or three; tracking time; seeking shelter from the sun or the rain; speaking to, or avoiding, other passengers."

The first edition of "The Bus Project" introduces 10 bus riders. Miró hopes to interview many more, and publish more editions and more copies, as her finances permit.

She is not singling out the Phoenix Metro area for criticism, she said, because many newer American cities are built around the car culture.

"The idea for the project was born by the frustration that I felt trying to move through the Valley without a car, using a system whose dysfunction and idiosyncrasies seem endemic to most urban areas in the American Southwest."

To find subjects, Miró went to bus shelters and rode buses, looking for people who were willing to talk to her. She started by taking notes in Spanish, her native language, and English, but found it was time-consuming to translate them, so she started recording them.

"That was more convenient," Miro said, "because with a sound recorder, I would not lose as much information from what they said. With the sound recorder their voice is completely theirs. I don't interpret what they say on my notebook, I just translate what I hear from the recordings."

Some stories, she added, are incomplete because her subjects had to get off the bus before she finished talking to them.

Miró photographs each of her subjects, and then draws pictures from the photographs. Only first names are used, since some of the riders may not want their pictures out in the streets for different reasons.

For the first edition of "The Bus Project," Miró presents the stories of Maria, Edgar, Jason, Arturo, Gail, Molly, Hector, Magdelena, Harry and Patricia.

Each has a different – yet similar – story: taking the bus entails long rides, long waits, limited weekend and evening service, and higher prices for tickets purchased on boarding the bus.

Maria, for example, takes two buses to go to her job, with a total ride of an hour each way.

"During the weekends I wait for the bus for 30 to 45 minutes, and there is not even a bus shelter here (her transfer point)," she said. "If it is really hot or raining you have to stay anyway because you can't afford to lose the bus."

Jason, who is blind, and moved to the Phoenix area from Chicago, settled in Mesa because he could afford a house there. "And now I'm stuck in a jam, because buses in Mesa don't run on Sunday, and they only run once an hour on Saturday."

Gail takes the bus to work – an hour each way – because she doesn't have a car.

"To maintain my car would cost me 40 percent of my salary, and I can't afford it," she said. "I have lived without a car for five years now. I'm from Philadelphia, so I'm really a bus person."

Miró said she discovered in her research that there's a difference in the way riders of light-rail and the bus are perceived. "Taking the light rail is cool, but taking the bus is not," she said.

And taking light rail is easier, in many ways. "You can buy tickets right at the stations, and each stop has a shelter," Miró said. "At some bus stops there's not even a bench."

"The Bus Project" is not a policy statement, nor does it have research data, but in publishing it, Miró hopes to "bring attention to a system that works poorly from a human and social point of view," and to point out that "public transportation needs to be a real option to car transportation. Otherwise, it is not sustainable, from a social and
environmental point of view."

"The Bus Project" contains real maps of the Valley bus routes, and is not, Miró said, a satire on the bus system. But there is a touch of irony in the list of weather tips copied from the Transit Book.

"That specific page is a bit of a satire. They ask you to wear a hat during summer time but some shelters, like the one in that page, don't even have a shelter. That sounded like a joke to me, knowing that those completely uncovered but stops exist. It is also their responsibility to protect the shelters from the sun."