Riding Milwaukee's longest bus route
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There was a lot of speculation as to which Milwaukee bus route is the longest. Some believed it was the 80, others said the 30 and a select group of die-hard public transportators were right on the mark with Route 15.
Jackie Janz, the marketing director for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), verified that the 15 was the longest route, looping 59.8 miles. It runs from the North Shore to South Milwaukee and back again. A portion of the 15 route is one of two of the original bus routes that originated 150 years ago.
"The 15 was an important industrial route back then and it remains that way today," says Janz. "So many people rely on this route to get to work as well as to school and other important places."
The second largest, according to Janz, is the 76 which is only .2 miles shorter than the 15 at 59.6 miles. The 219, which is an Oak Creek shuttle, has the shortest route that spans a mere 4.9 miles.
According to the MCTS's Web site, approximately 140,000 people ride the bus in Brew City every weekday. (Approximately 81,000 ride on Saturdays and 53,000 ride on Sundays.) On a chilly Monday afternoon, I decided to be one of the daily 100,000-plus riders and ride the entire 15 loop.
It turns out, I am in the majority of the demographic of bus riders: 62 percent are female, about half are white and 53 percent have taken college courses or graduated from college.
At 11:55 a.m., my two sons, a friend and I boarded the 15 at Bayshore Town Center. Bus fare is $2.25 for adults and $1.10 for kids. Jokingly, I told my boys -- ages 7 and 8 -- that we were getting the most bang for our buck by riding the entire route. Also, I warned them that it was going to be a very long bus ride -- it took three hours and 10 minutes -- but luckily we came prepared with iPods and comic books.
I also informed them that there wasn't a bathroom on the bus -- this was the most daunting aspect of the ride for me -- so they should spend extra time in the little boys' room at the Bayshore Alterra where we stopped before getting on the bus.
Luckily, the bus wasn't crowded when we boarded and we could spread out. Even though the ride was over three hours long, we spent very little time talking to one another. My boys mostly looked out the window, listening to Michael Jackson and Selena Gomez and They Might Be Giants on their iPods, while I observed the passengers and jotted in my journal. I noted how the drivers wave at one another when they pass; how many people wore ear buds; and how most people pick to sit alone in a double seat but once in a while a person slides next to someone by choice and, sadly, it seems odd.
The key to riding the bus is to allow yourself to enjoy the experience. It's funny, because as a car driver, I am often annoyed by buses, but when I'm on a bus, I realize how relaxing it is to leave the driving to someone else. It's a bumpy, squeaky, rumbly ride and yet, as long as enough time is delegated to arrive at my destination on time, it's a luxury to have extra reading or writing or music listening time.
By the time the bus got from Bayshore to Shorewood, it was about half filled with passengers. Janz says MCTS does not have demographic information for the passengers of specific bus routes, but from what I could assess, the 15 is a diverse mix of ages and races, with -- not surprisingly -- more college students riding on the East Side and more workers riding on the South Side.
I enjoyed how the bus filled and emptied; emptied and filled. The four of us sat in the back and observed dozens and dozens of people get on and get off. After a while, I didn't hear the ding of the stop request bell anymore. I remembered, however, that years ago it made more of a buzzing sound.
Janz says the bus system makes people feel more connected to their community and it links neighborhood cultures. Occasionally, the bus is the setting for romantic connections, too. Janz says she knows of multiple couples who met on the bus, including a driver who met his wife while driving his route. The two were married on the bus 10 years ago.
"The bus is a great place to meet someone. The bus is a part of your community. Where else would you want to meet someone?" says Janz.
I met numerous people during my ride (but no, I did not make any romantic connections), including Eric Blalack, who picked up the bus Downtown and was on his way to visit a friend.
"I'm without a car right now," says Blalack. "But even when I have a car, I pick up the bus when I don't feel like driving."
I also met Wayne Schuman, who has rode the 15 for 15 years to and from his job at Bucyrus International."It takes me 15 minutes to get to and from work," he says. "It has worked out great for me."
Amber Kordes takes the 15 everyday to work, too. She lives in Shorewood and works at the Boys & Girls Club on the East Side. On this particular day, she was taking the bus to North Avenue and then walking down to the Alterra on Prospect.
"It can be a little fussy, but mostly, the 15 is a good route," she says.
By the time we looped back to Bayshore it was 3:10 p.m. and I was absolutely amazed that my kids didn't ask one time how much longer we had to stay on the bus. Personally, my butt was numb, my iPod was dead and I was sure I was developing that restless leg syndrome.
However, the most astounding aspect of our very long bus ride on Milwaukee's number 15 route is that we never had to get off for someone to go to the bathroom. Then again, it wouldn't have been a big deal if we did. I guess that's what transfers are for.
The 15 is great; it was by far my favorite to drive back when I was an operator at MCTS-lots of different types of people and neighborhoods, and enough time to run the route without feeling like I was trying to outrun a tornado-and most drivers know: if you get confused about which loop you're supposed to be on in the South Shore, the "little old ladies" will set you straight-seems like they knew the timetables better than the drivers! The 15 always represented -to me, personally, as a driver and transit advocate- what riding the "city bus" should be like; past, present, and future. However, the 15 isn't necessarily Milwaukee's longest bus route, although it is the longest in the Milwaukee County Transit System; the Washington County Commuter Express, (WCCE) is much longer, but it only provides one-way service (inbound to Milwaukee County in the AM, outbound to Washington County in the PM). I imagine the Waukesha County express buses are quite long as well, although I've never ridden -or driven- any of those.
That's my route! I love the 15. Too bad you didn't get to ride a new bus, they're pretty sleek.
Worth noting that the bumps and squeaks you mention are quite subdued on the new buses MCTS has.
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