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Opinion: All aboard the Campus Connector

How the 121 connects campuses. And souls.
Image by Eleanor King
The 121 Campus Connector arriving at West Bank on a Tuesday afternoon. Many students use the Campus Connector as an efficient form of transportation between classes and residential halls. The bus is a microcosm of our university: crowded, unpredictable and reliably entertaining.

I catch a brief moment of airtime as the Campus Connector barrels down the pothole-ridden transitway. I’m riding the bus to class and holding onto the railing above me for dear life. 

The driver careens around corners, tilting the bus at a near 45-degree angle. The students around me are packed together like sardines in a maroon-and-gold tin can. When we come to a sudden stop at an intersection, I collide with the girl standing next to me. 

While my armpits are sweaty and I feel close to death, I’m relatively at ease. Not only will I get to class on time today, but thanks to the rampageous bus driver, I’ll have time to spare. 

Route 121 — the Campus Connector — is the bus that takes students around the University of Minnesota. For those too burdened by finances or environmental guilt to own a car, the 121 is the inevitable mode of transit to get to the St. Paul campus. 

As an environmental science, policy and management major, I ride the Campus Connector to and from the St. Paul campus four days a week. Given there are 15 weeks of classes every semester, that’s a minimum of 120 bus rides per semester and, not counting wait times, 40 hours spent commuting. 

Despite the inconvenience, unpredictability and existential fear the bus adds to my life, it’s one of my favorite parts of the University.

It’s hard to ignore the beauty of Route 121 as it passes over the sweeping Mississippi River Valley, along the sun-drenched ruins of grain elevators in Prospect Park and through the heart of the St. Paul campus. Thanks to the oversized windows, I’ve spent many tired mornings basking in the sun as the bus rattles its way down Washington Avenue. 

Amelia Johnson is a second-year student who rides the Campus Connector to the St. Paul campus five days a week. While she usually enjoys her daily commute, she said she disapproves of other students’ behavior.

“When it’s really, really packed in the mornings, sometimes someone will be standing by a pole and there’ll be a bunch of room where they could squish in further, and they just don’t,” Johnson said.

While many could use a lesson on bus etiquette (and direct communication), Johnson’s frustrating experiences make the bus a point of connection, or contention, among students.

Where else can you and a couple of strangers give sideways looks to a guy taking up four seats (one for his backpack, one for his coat, one for his feet, and another for his butt) and make faces at the bus driver who yells, “If one more of you gets on the bus, I’m not driving”?

The on-board chaos may seem uncomfortable, but an angry bus driver can wake you up in the morning faster than a cup of coffee. While I walk over to the bus stop dreading a long day on the St. Paul campus, I’m often so excited to get off the Campus Connector that I look forward to sitting in class.

Jiale Zhang is another second-year student who, like Johnson, takes the Campus Connector every day. She often leaves for class as the bus approaches the Transitway and 23rd Avenue SE stop, which is closest to her apartment, and sprints down the sidewalk to catch it.

Her determination led her to meet George, who Zhang described as her favorite bus driver. One day when she missed the bus, she ran to the next stop, and when George recognized her he said, “You were fast!” 

From then on, Zhang and George have always said hello.

“I would like to give a shout-out to the bus driver George. He’s my best friend,” Zhang said. 

While I’m not on a first-name basis with any bus drivers, I’ve become familiar with the usual cast of characters — which ones will say “hello” back and which ones will yell at me if I don’t press the “Stop Request” button. As we’ve weathered snowstorms, engine malfunctions and road closures together, I’ve gained a sense of camaraderie with bus drivers and students alike, which is hard to come by at such a large university.

Despite our generation’s aversion to interpersonal communication, social barriers tend to crumble when we’re stuck on a multi-ton metal machine.

I’ve gotten phone numbers from strangers after impromptu conversations, listened to a group of people talk extensively about overusing marijuana and cemented friendships with other students from my classes.

Yet considering all the waiting at bus stops in freezing wind chills, all the standing stock-still as I’m stuck in the aisle between two bulging backpacks and all the exasperated sighing as the bus pulls away the second I walk up to it, my love for the Campus Connector may seem irrational.

Since I have no choice whether or not to ride the bus, I’ve accepted the discomfort and frustration as a sacrifice for the cultural experience it provides.

As I got on the Campus Connector heading back toward East Bank from the St. Paul campus one afternoon, I tried my best to ignore the nauseating perfume of the girl across the aisle and the sound of someone watching TikTok videos on full volume. Instead of clenching my fists and giving out dirty looks, I put my feet up on the chair in front of me and stared out the window. 

While worn out and slightly irritated, as the sun melts behind the Minneapolis skyline, I’m reminded of the Campus Connector’s greatest gift: after a day of non-stop classes and homework, 20 minutes where my only obligation is to stay on board.

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  • Zalupa
    Apr 4, 2024 at 2:13 pm

    Sir Huppke, your articles never disappoint. I’d be ever so happy if I was blessed with the chance to get your autograph someday. For now, I can only wish upon the northern star. This one reminds me of a corndog with a rice cake instead if a hotdog.

  • TheBus: City and County of Minneapolis
    Apr 4, 2024 at 9:58 am

    The Campus Connector has a lot of characteristics of arterial BRT. I would like to see heated shelters, raised tactile platforms, better real-time information screens, and better interval management.

  • jiale zhang
    Apr 4, 2024 at 9:44 am

    yay George!

  • Molly BAncroft
    Apr 4, 2024 at 9:30 am

    Lovely writing!

  • Sabine Fritz
    Apr 4, 2024 at 8:37 am

    I am staff at the University and used to ride the first bus out of St Paul to get to the lab where I worked on the Minneapolis campus. George is the bus driver that has been driving the first bus from St Paul for my 25 years here. He’s the best! I will wave at him wherever I see him on campus and he waves right back. I love making those connections with people.