It’s getting harder and harder for me to believe that the majority of Americans who work outside the home commute by car.
I understand that many small towns and suburban and rural areas have no public transit at all, and that many cities have inadequate public transit providing infrequent service to just a few neighborhoods. What I don’t understand is why so many people put up with it! Of course there are situations in which people have good reasons for living and/or working in remote areas. But there are millions more who just seem to be taking for granted that, as a grown-up, every day you get into your car. It hasn’t occurred to them to try their local public transit or to ask why there isn’t any.
What really staggers me is when I hear people who live and/or work in the very same neighborhoods I do, talking about driving to and from work–especially if they’re employed by one of the local universities whose every employee/student ID card functions as a bus pass! Seriously! You don’t need a special card; you don’t need to sign up for the transit program; as soon as you get your ID, you can hop on a bus, tap it against the card reader, and get a free ride to anywhere in Allegheny County the transit authority goes, any time buses (or light-rail trains or inclines) are running! You can use it all weekend, not just for commuting!
Pardon all the exclamation points, but I’m excited to be working for the University of Pittsburgh now. None of my previous employers offered free transit, so I’m accustomed to paying slightly over $1,000 per year for an annual bus pass giving me unlimited rides all year. It was convenient even when it was a series of monthly passes arriving by mail, even more convenient with the ConnectCard that lasted all year. It cost much less than paying cash fare for my workday commute, with the additional bonus of free rides for other travel. But it was a substantial expense each year, which I don’t have now, whee!
It took me until last week, my fourth week at the new job, to realize just how staggeringly convenient my new commute is:
- From my house, I walk two blocks to a stop where buses arrive frequently during rush hours; I never wait more than 10 minutes. Three of the five routes that stop there will let me out just across the street from my office. Another route stops one block away from work.
- After work, I cross one street. Two of the seven routes that stop there will let me out half a block away from Lydia’s preschool. If I leave on time, I get a bus almost immediately. If I leave a little late, I hit a 20-minute gap between buses…but I’ll still get to preschool in time to avoid a late fee.
- Lydia and I walk half a block to go home on a bus that comes by every 20-30 minutes. That waiting time can be a little annoying…but if we walk just 100 feet past the bus stop, there’s a yard in front of an apartment building where Lydia enjoys running up and down the grassy hill. Standing at the bottom of the hill, I can see down the street, so when the bus is coming (it’s the only route along that street), I can round her up and get to the bus stop in plenty of time. After we get off in our neighborhood, it’s just a two-block walk home.
It’s so convenient that I realized I wasn’t getting enough exercise! My old job was four blocks from my bus route, so (even after I stopped taking Nicholas to preschool via two buses each way and walking eight blocks from his school to work) I logged about a mile of walking each day–more if I went out to lunch or did any errands.
Now I’m spending my days at a desk that’s literally 20 feet from the Fifth Avenue bus lane. (It’s surprisingly quiet, thanks to three layers of glass doors.) I’ve decided that on days when I don’t do any walking at lunchtime, after work I’ll walk along the bus route until I see my bus coming. If my bus is right there when I come out of the building, I’ll get off a few blocks early and walk the rest of the way to Lydia’s school.
This is so much more convenient than parking the car! In fact, I haven’t yet figured out where I could ditch my car if I drove to work. This is a neighborhood of scarce, expensive parking, much of which is reserved for the use of specific drivers or groups. I deeply resent paying for parking, but the nearest on-street spaces where I could park all day at no charge are probably more than a mile away. That really motivates me to take the bus.
There were two times in my life when I worked in buildings that had their own spacious parking lots right outside. All right, yes, that was convenient. But if I wanted to build a little walk into my day, for fitness or fresh air? I could try parking in another building’s lot, but I wasn’t supposed to do that and might have gotten towed if the other business had noticed. I could have parked on the street in the nearest suburban residential area and walked from there, I guess. (Does anybody do that? My impression was that it Just Wasn’t Done.)
In my opinion, driving is work, but riding is free time. I like looking out the window, watching the progress of the seasons and the construction projects. I love reading to myself when I’m alone or reading aloud to Lydia. Traveling with my kids on a bus allows me to interact with them much more than when I’m driving the car and Lydia has to sit in the back seat facing the opposite direction.
What about the lack of privacy? Well, if your commute is your singing time, or if you commute with someone and want to have private conversations, I can understand why public transit would crimp your style. But for anything else… It’s not like you have visual privacy in a car; people in other cars can see you, and people in buses and other tall vehicles can see all of you, so keep your pants on! If you want to hear music or an audiobook, you can use headphones on public transit. I find the experience of driving more lonely than pleasantly private.
It didn’t take me long to get used to sharing space with people I don’t know. I’ve hardly ever been bothered by anyone on a bus. It’s annoying when a bus is so crowded that I have to ride standing up and I get elbowed in the kidneys or scraped by backpacks, but that doesn’t make me nearly so angry and frustrated as driving in a traffic jam.
What about our stuff? I do like to use the car for shopping trips when I’m buying a lot of things or something heavy or awkward. For the daily commute, though, I’ve found that having to carry all my stuff motivates me to bring only what I need. Actually, I still have room in my purse and my bookbag for some things that come in handy when I need them but that I don’t use every day, like bandages. Lydia doesn’t need to have a whole bag of toys for a 20-minute ride! One chapter book is enough for me to entertain her, if we aren’t just talking or gazing out the windows.
Really cold or wet weather makes standing at a bus stop uncomfortable. The thing is, though, that bad weather also makes driving more difficult. Given the choice between walking a couple blocks on ice and standing a few minutes in the cold and then riding in a very safe vehicle, or scraping all the snow off my car and then driving on a hair-raising journey with reduced traction and visibility, I’ll take the bus!
These are some of the reasons I love my commute. I know that I’m privileged to live and work in places that are connected by public transit–but this isn’t a random, unearned privilege. Daniel and I chose to buy a home in a neighborhood with good transit access, even though other neighborhoods have lower housing costs and some suburbs have lower taxes. When I was job-searching, being able to commute by transit was one of my criteria.
If you’re changing homes or jobs, I hope that public transit will be a priority for you, too. If you’re staying in the same place, I hope you’ll take advantage of whatever transit is available to you and do what you can to support having more of it. Public transit is good for the environment and helps people work their way out of poverty.
But if you can walk or bike to the places you go every day, that’s even better!
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