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You can learn a lot from riding the bus

Lately, I am among the tens of thousands of Western New Yorkers who rely daily on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. Being a Metro Bus/Rail rider has reinforced my belief that public transportation is an essential service for the survival of our area's poor, in particular the working poor.

There are many reasons people use public transportation. What I have seen when I ride the bus or subway are senior citizens, the young, the physically and mentally impaired and hard-working people who depend on the NFTA's bus and rail service as a vital lifeline for getting them to and from work, school and shopping that would otherwise be inaccessible.

In this modern age, we tend to take having a car for granted. I know I have. However, with rising gas prices and auto insurance, let alone the price tag of buying a new or used car, it's easy to see how many in our area might be unable to afford a car, even while holding down a job or even two.

I recently looked at the 2010 edition of AAA's "Your Driving Costs" report and found that the average cost to own and operate a car has risen 4.8 percent to 56.6 cents per mile, or $8,487 per year, based on 15,000 miles of annual driving. Compare that to a monthly Metro Bus/Rail pass that costs $64 -- or $768 a year -- and you can see why owning a car is not an option for many Western New Yorkers.

Ranked after Detroit and Cleveland, Buffalo is the third-poorest large city in the United States. The poverty rate in Buffalo is 28.8 percent. Given that so many people in this city are living at or below the poverty line, it's not surprising that nearly a third of Buffalo's population has no access to a vehicle, according to the latest U.S. Census data. This is a huge problem for the working poor.

In his 2004 book, "The Working Poor," David Shipler argues that the lack of access to a car is an important factor that makes finding and keeping a job difficult. Margy Waller, an expert on low-wage work and transportation issues, points out the disparity between those who have use of an automobile and those who don't: "People with a car are more likely to work, work more hours and have a higher level of income."

Complicating matters for our area's working poor is the fact that the NFTA at the end of October instituted a major restructuring of its Metro routes and schedules. With the new bus schedule, some Metro riders are late to work in the morning or have to leave work early in order to catch a bus home. Other workers saw their bus routes disappear altogether, leaving them without an option.

I've met a lot of riders on the bus recently who, as a result of these NFTA changes, now need to transfer multiple times to reach work. One man said he wakes very early in the morning to take three buses to get to work. Another person who works Saturdays now has to pay for a taxi to get to his employer because the NFTA eliminated Saturday bus service on that route.

During this holiday season, as you drive past people waiting in the cold at a bus stop, take a moment in your warm car and think about the daily commute of those less fortunate than you. Ownership, in this case car ownership, is the latest evidence of an ever-growing divide between the haves and have-nots in our society. That's what I have learned riding the bus.

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