Cold Comfort

When President Obama joked recently about school closings in Washington, D.C., compared to Chicago - which hasn't closed schools since 1999 ? he could have just as easily been talking about transit.

While the mail is delivered through rain, sleet, snow, heat of day or dark of night, that could also apply to public transit. This point was never hit home to me more than over the last few weeks.

On the day I visited this month's cover story, I knew it was cold (-10 F), but since the schools weren?t closed, I didn't think much of it. (For the record, it was between -20 F and -30 F when they closed schools the week before.) And boy did I freeze when I walked from the Madison Metro Transit offices on our tour of the system. But what I loved was the fact that at every place we stopped at, there was at least one person, if not several, waiting for the next bus to come. And the buses were filled to the brim with riders.

Now before anyone talks about how much colder it is where they live, this isn't ordinary temperatures for the Madison area. Take whatever your average coldest temperature is and drop it by about -20 F or so. This kind of cold isn?t something people see often, and it had closed schools and businesses, but transit kept going.

And better yet, the transit system didn?t even consider closing. It was thinking about what would happen to its riders if they did close.

I?ve been to transit systems when it was literally 106 F in the shade, during snowstorms, downpours, fog thick enough that you couldn?t see two cars ahead of you, and in each location, the transit system just chugged along. Another day at the office.

As we look at the economic state the country is slogging through, we need to realize that transit is not just a service, it?s an essential service. It is the lifeblood of so many states, cities, towns and counties that those on the outside don't even think of it anymore. Everyone knows what time the mail is delivered to their house, so much so that I know I check the mail at that time even if I didn?t hear the mailman arrive - and I bet a lot of you reading this do that, too. You expect the mail to be there and only think about it when your mailbox is empty.

Transit is the same way. As long as the buses and trains are running and on time, most riders don?t give transit a second thought. It has always been there and always will be. It's when the bus or train is missing that people start to get upset.

As we all struggle through these hard economic times, we need to remember that neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow nor heat of day nor dark of night nor terrible cold nor hurricane winds nor power outages nor massive crowds will keep transit from the completion of its appointed routes.