Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Is Our Country Traveling At The Speed Of A Local Bus?

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Bus or bike - take your pick in Dijon, FR

A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. – Samuel Johnson

How long does it take you to get to work?  Twenty minutes? An hour?  Do you curse the idiots in the cars around you as you inch down the highway or have to wait another light cycle to get the green arrow?  What if it took you five hours to get to work each day?

That’s the prospect my son’s girlfriend, Laurie, is facing.  She lost her ride to work when her co-worker took a new job.  Laurie is not part of the 1% . . . unless you are thinking of the bottom 1%.  And so her only alternative to get to the office where she cleans at night is to rely on the almost non-existent public transportation system here in St. Louis.  But she’d face this same problem in most parts of this country outside of the largest cities.

When she called the bus company to find out how to get from her end of town to her job (only 15-20 minutes by car) they gave her a chain of bus connections that would have her traveling 5 hours one way!  She did more research and was able to cobble together a route that would only be 2 hours each way, but it has her waiting for a transfer at 11:30 at night in a dangerous part of town.  Today the driver at one of her connections departed two minutes early instead of at the appointed time, so she missed that connection and would have had to wait almost an hour for another bus, thereby missing her next connection.  I drove across town to pick her up and get her to the next stop.

Such is the state of public transportation in America.  Here in the vast Midwest, Americans are addicted to their cars.  They don’t stop to think about those without.  This young woman would like to finish a college degree, but the costs are prohibitive.  She is working to try to save money, but she can’t find a full-time position.  Because she works only part-time right now and earns just a bit over minimum wage she can’t save for a car.  Because she has to rely on a broken transportation system to get to work, she couldn’t possibly get a second job to boost her income because that would require another two hours each way.

Even the smallest travel in comfort in France
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She is spinning her wheels while the rest of this country is rolling down the highway and complaining about having to park a couple of blocks away from the baseball stadium and walk to the rest of the way.

Investing in public transportation is good in more ways than I can count:

1) It cuts down on traffic

2) It cuts down on pollution

3) It moves people to where the jobs are

4) It saves income we spend on gas and cars that we can put toward college, or a washing machine, or healthcare

5) It shows that we are a nation providing the essentials for those who aren’t lucky enough to drive around in a minivan with heated leather seats, DVD players, and satellite radio.

Are those tinted windows in our cars really just blocking out what should be a priority for us?

I love traveling in Europe because a car is always optional.  I’ve found wide bike lanes, buses, trains, sidewalks.  Everything I need to see the world with ease.  My main base, Dijon, FR (a city of 150,00-200,000) has a free little bus that takes you all around the center of the city.  It has a speedy and comfortable bus system that takes me, for about $1 per ride, almost anywhere I want to go from the lake at one end of town to the giant shopping mall at the other and all the suburbs in between, including the university where Brad does his research.  It has a national train station that can take me to Paris in about 90 minutes, or any other direction.

But the officials in Dijon decided that wasn’t enough.  They are building an electric tram line that will by next year connect all the outer suburbs and villages to the center of town by means of express routes so citizens don’t have to spend so much time riding the local bus lines.  I sit on the quiet, comfortable buses and trains and read or watch the scenery.  I dread coming home and fighting the parking lot traffic, and the oblivious jerks on the highways, and the endless stop-and-go rhythm of my day in the car-crazy United States.

The next time you pooh-pooh the idea of funding public transportation because you say you’d never use it, think of the people you don’t know who absolutely depend on it.  It’s kind of hard to climb the ladder of the American Dream if you’re stuck waiting for a bus that never runs on time.

Do you live in a city with excellent transportation or have you ever traveled to a city or country that made getting from point A to point B easy? (Portland, OR is one of my favorites.)  Do you think is should be a national priority or simply a local one?  If a good bus or metro system were available, would you give up your car?  Next stop, the comments box.

Traveling across France on a regional train
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8 comments:

AlvaradoFrazier said...

My city of about 180K has a good bus system and encourages alternative transportation. That only came about by several years of pressing the city council. There are many bike riders, out of necessity, as well as sports bike riders. I think it can be done locally with enough pressure.

I'm going to France in Sept. for a month and it's good to know about Dijon, since that may be a stop we take for a couple of days. Thanks.

Tina Fariss Barbour said...

My town of about 3,400 in Virginia started a bus system about 18 months ago. A lot of people scoffed at the idea at first, thinking there was little need for it in a small town. But it has turned out to be a success and is used more than some people thought it would be. It costs 50 cents a ride, and last summer, an anonymous donor allowed for free bus rides all summer.

I'm sorry to admit this, but I've never ridden the bus. It would be impractical for my job, because I'm a newspaper reporter and need to drive out of town on a regular basis. And I'm afraid I'm one of those people who automatically jumps in the car for every trip.

But you make excellent points about the need for public transportation, and I should explore ways that I could use ours.

I would love for there to be a national effort to create more public transportation--it would be good for people's pocketbooks, help those who don't drive (there are many adults who choose not to drive), those who can't afford a car, and the environment. But right now, I think it's more practical for it to be a local effort. It worked in my town.

Julie Farrar said...

Tina, you give another good reason for good public transportation. The seniors who can no longer drive. Many of them don't have family living close by who can get them to all their appointments, the store, etc. Without transportation, they could just become prisoners in their own homes. Or they might choose to drive even though it's dangerous for everyone on the road.

Nadine Feldman said...

Amen, Julie! The bus system in Houston was atrocious. When I could ride the bus I did, and it was pleasant, but the routes weren't good for the most part. One time I took a bus to the farmers' market but couldn't get back by bus, so I walked. Fortunately, it was only a few miles, but still...

We love Switzerland, with its great timing of trains and busses. It's so easy to get around!

Where we live now, hubby has managed to use public transportation to get to and from the Seattle airport, which is about two hours away, and I just pick him up at the park and ride. It's great! And in town, we walk or bike just about everywhere. Last week the car didn't move except on weekends. When we went house-hunting, one of our main criteria was to live a mostly car-free lifestyle.

Tele said...

Amen, Julie! I didn't learn to drive until I was 28. I couldn't afford a car/insurance/gas, and fortunately lived in Seattle (hi, Nadine!) where I could get by with the bus system. (That, and some very enabling friends.) I was a social worker at the time, and as Tina said, there were definitely times that it was impractical: hours of travel-time and multiple transfers to visit young people in jail or hospitals, or riding the bus with kids to their DSHS appointments. Places that would've taken maybe 15-20 minutes by car, but because I didn't have another option, it was do-able and I felt lucky to live in a city with public transportation.

olgagodim said...

I live in Vancouver, Canada, and I don't drive. To my shame, I've never learned. Can't say that public transportation here is excellent, but it's OK. It gets me where I want to go in reasonable amount of time. Even though I'm a journalist, like Tina, and have to ride a bus for every interview, it's working for me.

Julie Farrar said...

Postscript for Laurie's bus saga: last night TWO of the buses she was on broke down/ran out of gas and she was an hour and a half late for work, which meant she had to work late and didn't get home until 2 a.m. No young woman needs to be walking home from work or standing at bus stops after midnight.

Liv said...

Laurie's story is really appalling. You're right. No one should have to deal with that level of inconsistency.
I live in Seattle and generally take the bus to work as much as I can. It's a short commute, and I can't justify driving when the bus is relatively easy. I do notice that the number of riders increases whenever gas gets much above $4 a gallon. If the US taxed gas the way they do in Europe, the motivation to fix the public transportation system would be a lot stronger.

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