Facing barriers in transportation

By Catherine Dahlberg

If you are like me, someone not born and raised in Minnesota, then you may understand why I call it a barrier getting around in the Twin Cities.

I moved to the Twin Cities in 2015, without any knowledge of the roads around. In February, 2016, I took public transport to a training. I got lost on U of M campus. It took me almost a whole hour navigating the area before arriving at the transfer stop, only to find out that I had missed the last bus serving that station. Then I had to take an alternative route to the training. I was late for that, of course. The whole experience was terrible for me.

To describe that experience in full, I wrote this blog in an imaginative TV setting:

Facilitator: Nutty Bartlett (air host at the Community TV studio)

Complaint: VISTA Catherine (imaginative me)

Console: Metro Guide (Cortana)

NB: Welcome to today’s Community Show Box. I have invited an AmeriCorps and the Metro Transit visitor service to my studio. VISTA Catherine is a brilliant national service volunteer capable of making things possible under the least probable conditions. And Metro Guide is the automated phone system that talks in a beautiful female voice Cortana. Metro Guide in person looks like this conductor box.

Cortana (Graph: Catherine Dahlberg)

Cortana (Graph: Catherine Dahlberg)

NB: Cortana is the latest made-in-Minnesota AI application using open source programming. She is considered as intelligent as an average Minnesotan with 10 years of schooling.

(Camera hover around studio)

NB: VISTA Catherine, a little bird told me that your great volunteer experience is recently tarnished by a navigating incident. Can you tell me what happened in that incident?

VC: Thank you for asking me about that. It was absolutely terrible, horrible, and unspeakable! I followed the bus instruction from Metro Transit’s website, brought a Google Map about the transfer station, got there, but then was lost. People were too busy there. I felt panicky, isolated, and scared. I finally managed to find the bus stop for my transfer. But it turned out that my bus had left seventeen minutes earlier. Feeling completed defeated, I returned to my first arrival to take an alternative route. Following Cortana’s instruction only wasted my time and made me physically tired from walking those extra miles. I had a nasty experience asking Cortana for advice.

NB: Thank you, VISTA Catherine. I understand that you did not benefit from Minnesota’s idolized machine. To be fair in this dialogue, let’s give Cortana a turn to tell us her opinion.

MG: Welcome to the Metro Trip Planner. Please input your starting address.

NB: OK. Camera, to the audience, please.

Graph: Catherine Dahlberg

Graph: Catherine Dahlberg

NB: I guess we are going to return to VISTA Catherine to tell us barriers in using public transport.

VC: To start with, public transport is a great asset for the entire population living and working in the Twin Cities. I like taking buses and trains. However, the section in the U campus is very challenging to me, who is not familiar with Minneapolis. Cortana says that it will be an easy transit “walk 0.1 mile E to bus stop”. I walked 3 miles that night before finding the bus stop on the map.

NB: Th-rrr-ee miles? How long did it take?

VC: Oh, Cortana’s map does not even count walking time for transfers. I arrived at the train station East Bank at 5:50, and found the bus transfer at 6: 32. The limited stop service bus had left at 6: 15. So then I walked another 0.1 mile back to the train station. I was walking before the sun set, then was walking in light darkness. By the time I finally arrived at the training in Minneapolis, it was past dinner time. Cortana caused all that waste of time.

NB: I am sorry for that. Cortana is unable to understand human feelings. If she does, I am sure she will apologize for wasting your time. I have a question for VISTA Catherine. Is this the first time for you to visit the U campus?

VC: No, I have been lost a few times there. Once I tried to find a community garden in Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, then I drove across the Mississippi on this campus twice without finding it. Another time I took the Green Line then walked to a school building. I was 30 minutes late for an event. The only time that I actually found the place was when my friend and I met at her school building. At that time, she had spent 10 minutes with me on the phone doing the planning.

NB: What you are saying is that planning with a real person who knows the U campus makes it easier for you to find a place when you actual go there. Is that what I am hearing from you?

VC: Bingo. I find human advisors very helpful. My VISTA friend who is an academic whiz kid at the U knows literally every bus route. Every time I ask this friend for help, I find the best routes to get there. Cortana is no comparison to my human advisor.

NB: Wait, wait. If I remember it right, you also said that people at the U did not help you. Why do you still think getting help from people works best then?

VC: It was true that people walking on the U campus did not help me. Nobody even looked at me. It was difficult to get the student’s attention when they pass by me that fast. I did ask one or two people for help. Unfortunately they are not familiar with the bus system either.

NB: How did you feel while walking on campus?

VC: It was getting dark. My training location is literally miles away from campus. At that moment, I felt scared. Nobody was helping me. I couldn’t do it by myself. I need help.

NB: How did you overcome the difficulty?

VC: I told myself that I can’t abandon the trip. I told myself that even if being late for the event still beats going home. I persevered.

VC: Thank you for your encouragement. When I was in despair, I decided to put my brilliant mind to hard work. I considered alternatives. When the person helping me did not know where my bus stop is, I modified the question to ask her where I can find Washington Ave. She knew that. So even though she did not help me find the bus stop, she did send me in the right direction.

NB: Great. There is something positive out of the negative. The rest of your story is you finally found transfer and safely travelled there. Are you using a smartphone?

VC: Someone advised me to buy a smartphone five years ago. I rejected that idea. To be honest, I never like technology. I do not use GPS either. When I drive around, I consult a paper map to figure out the route, or stop at the gas station to ask for help.

NB: Do you plan to invest in a smartphone in 2016? Assuming this transport experience shows you how important having instant tools turns out to be…

VC: You know, I have been a non-conforming person in this society. While all of my friends signed up for social media, I responded to all those invites by saying that “I do not trust new tech, and will only use emails as a means of contact”. Then of course, my past friends never emailed again because there are plenty attractions on social media to keep them busy. Guess what, in 2014, I signed up for LinkedIn. Then in the subsequent years, I signed up for WeChat, QQ, and Facebook. I am also considering Weibo and Twitter in the next five years. When you asked me about buying a smartphone, I thought, my goodness, how far am I behind the trend?

NB: Thank you, VISTA Catherine. Camera, please open up for Minnesota’s popular AI one more time.

Graph: Catherine Dahlberg

MG: Did you know that Metro Transit has bus route information, carpool, and even Guaranteed Ride Home program? Ride with us, Metro Transit.

NB: Thank you, Cortana. Thank you VISTA Catherine. Our thanks go to our great sponsor Minnesota Arts Board. Thank you, everyone for watching this community show. Have a fun time riding with Metro!