Tuesday, March 19, 1996
Could this be the start of transit chic?

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Metro has added two suburban bus routes in honor of the construction mess on I-71, and - I'm just guessing here - some people living in Blue Ash and Montgomery and Indian Hill may not have done much traveling on public transportation.

We veteran bus riders would welcome them to the fold, along with any other nouveau travelers trying to escape orange barrels. Of course, there's nothing worse than trying something new in front of a bunch of other people, especially when everybody else seems to know the drill.

It's like standing in line for the first time at a deli and not knowing that you have a choice of bread or that you can skip to the cashier if you're only getting soup. Stressful.

I think I can help.

First of all, notice that there are no seat-back tray tables. This is because you are not allowed to eat on the bus. ''No smoking, eating, drinking or playing of audio equipment on board,'' according to a sign up front. So, finish your banana muffin before you climb aboard and do not expect complimentary peanuts or cocktails.

If you're catching the bus in the city, some buses are labeled ''X-tra.'' DO NOT board these buses. These buses are filled with junior high and high school students. Sallie Hilvers of Metro warns gently, ''The noise levels tend to be slightly higher.'' That's a little like saying the noise level tends to be slightly higher if you're standing directly on top of a land mine when it detonates.

Most X-tra drivers will just give geezers a friendly wave and pass on by, kind of saving you from yourself. At least that has been my experience.

By the way, no matter how friendly and obliging the driver appears to be, he or she will not make change. They can't. They're not allowed to. Case closed.

So come prepared. Inside the city, the rate is 80 cents during rush hours (6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.) It's 65 cents the rest of the time and 50 cents on weekends and holidays. The new express routes only run during rush hours and cost $1.10.

It's easy. Really, anybody can do it. And should.

Whether we will is quite another matter. It's already cheaper to ride the bus than to drive. It's just not as convenient. That is to say that we cannot leave the instant the elevator doors close behind our boss.

Also, some of us need our cars on the job. Maybe the big companies could reinstate the ancient and honorable tradition of staff cars. A terrific perk, it might even be less costly than reimbursing employees for mileage and parking. Think of the lines of communication it could open among co-workers: ''Hey, are you the one who keeps leaving Milky Way wrappers in the car? Were you born in a ditch?''

Most of us drive to work with the guilty knowledge that we are polluting the air and squandering money. Yet every time somebody polls suburbanites, asking what they want downtown, they say parking. Free parking. Nearby parking. Parking as it is guaranteed to all Americans in the Constitution.

I just don't see how we're going to have space downtown for recreational facilities and office buildings and aquariums and department stores and condominiums and apartments and movie theaters and still have room to store everybody's cars.

Next month, Metro is providing free massages to passengers on the two new routes. No kidding. Real massage therapists who will help take the kinks out of commuters' knotted necks on April 16.

I like it. This might work. What if there were big, comfortable reclining seats and places to plug in your laptop and a cappuccino bar in the back? What if you could get your hair cut and your nails done? What if there were plenty of routes from the city to jobs?

What if all the dabblers, who just rode the bus to escape the orange barrels, like it? What if suddenly it's chic? It could happen. I mean, who would have guessed that people would pay for carbonated water?

Sallie Hilvers told me they added the two new routes - 10 buses in all - thanks to federal money from a fund called Congestion Mitigation - Air Quality.

I like to think of it as Ride and Breathe.