Monday, September 29, 2008

Public Transportation.

I really wish I could convince every person that lives in a city with public transportation to take it. Having lived now in four cities of various sizes with public transportation systems, it's always fascinating to see the way people feel about no-car life. It only occurred to me after I started riding a bike that I could get by without a car in the last city I lived in. You have to understand - midwest cities are car-based. (The exception might be Chicago, but if you've ever had to deal with rush hour there, you'll realize that there are still a ridiculous amount of automobiles.)

I lived in Midwest city #1 until I was 18, then shifted to Midwest city #2 for college, with a break for awhile in there to live in New York, and now I've ended up in San Francisco. City #1 has a public transportation system, but honestly? I don't know a thing about it. I lived in a suburb, you see, and I'm confident that city buses didn't run out there. Or if they did, I surely didn't know about it. I had the parental taxi until I was 14 or so, then started dating a boy who was old enough to drive, then was the proud owner of a 1990 Mercury Sable when I was old enough to drive. (Her name was Mabel and I cried the day she ended up in a junkyard. For the curious, she was followed by her 1995 edition, Boris the Taurus.) Also, at this point, my parents could give me $10 and I could drive on it for a week, so I wasn't freaking out about gas prices, and at 16, I hadn't quite realized that I was hurting the environment.

Midwest city #2 has, actually, a really fabulous public transportation system. As mentioned before, I didn't know that until I got on a bike. It's a very hilly city, you see, and I think I've stated in the past that I'm not a particularly good cyclist. (Reference: five wrecks in two months; broken collar bone.) Bike racks on the front of buses are the second best thing to ever happen to me. 

The first best thing? About a year and a half or so into college, a bunch of people reached an agreement that let every student at my major public university ride the bus for free. A flash of my student ID and I didn't have to pay a cent to get wherever I wanted to go. The bus system was kind of confusing and hard to get used to, and it wasn't terribly fast or consistent, but if you learned how to make it work for you, it was a godsend. And it was, again, free.

New York, I cannot say enough about your public transportation. I miss it so much, regardless of the time I spent bitching about it when I was there. A combination of subways and buses could get me anywhere I needed to go. I lived pretty far uptown and wasn't yet on a bike, so the subway and I made good friends pretty regularly. For $76 a month, I could get off at all the wrong stops I wanted. And I firmly believe that every 21-year-old girl needs a couple of good stories in her repertoire about what she saw on the Manhattan-bound E train at 4 a.m.

San Francisco public transportation is weird. Really, really weird. There are buses. There are cable cars. Some lines have numbers and I think some have letters and then there's a subway system that appears to be run by a completely different company. I remember visiting my then-boyfriend in 2003 and he took me all over the city on this method of transportation or that, but I had no idea what the hell was going on. The Washington D.C. Metro that I mastered at the age of 8, as well as the Paris Metro at the age of 17 when I was mostly pretending to speak French  made more sense to me. (My problem with BART, for locals, is that I can't grasp the idea of anything other than flat fares. NYC: $2, wherever you're going, ever. $7.80 to go to Oakland? Weird.)

I really encourage people to take whatever public transportation they can, if for no other reason than to prove to them that it's probably way easier than they think it is. Midwest city #2 recently held a day where people could come downtown and learn how to ride the bus. There were buses set up so you could get on them and take seminars learning how everything worked. I'm not kidding. And while I think that's kind of stupid - it's a bus, people, seriously - it isn't a foreign concept to me. There's all this anxiety with people who have never been on a city bus before, and it certainly surrounds the fact that everyone but you totally looks like they know what they're doing. An incredibly brilliant friend of mine told me a story once about how she wanted to ride her bike around, but the bus pulled up and she couldn't figure out how to pull down the bike rack so she totally didn't do it. It makes me really, really sad. 

I was a part of the issue, though. I lived less than three miles from my college, and I spent most of my time driving there. Ridiculous. $228 per quarter, plus gas, plus the ridiculous toll I was taking on my car by only driving it in the city for super short distances, etc. 

The PT issue here is getting slightly easier thanks to the recent injury. Getting on a bike simply isn't happening for me, so I've got to get around somehow. It's also encouraging me to get out and walk neighborhoods more, as I have very little desire to take two buses to get somewhere, especially if the first bus is only going to take me less than a mile. Of course, in the case of getting to the hospital for my follow-up appointment, I decided it was really stupid to take one bus .8 miles to take another .8, so I just walked it. I will continue to get exercise even without a bicycle, I swear it. 

If your city is smart enough to have some form of public transportation, take a Saturday or something and check it out. Don't do it when you have somewhere to be ASAP, because you'll just panic and get all anxious about the fact that you're not in control of how fast you get there. Ride somewhere just for fun. You'll be surprised at how awesome it is, and how much you totally didn't spend in gas that day.


Eric said...

Not that most people need to concern themselves with such things, but the ferries to Larkspur, Sausalito & etc. are a particularly odd and yet awesome form of public transportation. Of course, I'd probably feel the same way about BART & Muni if they had bars on board...

New to the Bay said...

Ferries! See, there's a method of transportation I literally know nothing about. My roommate has relatives in Marin and has mentioned taking that ferry (and used to work there as well), but other than that, I have zero insight. I have a pretty serious thing for boats. We've discussed riding across the bridge and taking the ferry back, because I don't give a good damn if it's a little touristy, I think it would be a lot of fun.

I have yet to experience transportation with bars on board. That's too bad. I'm sure it would improve my experience - until everyone else started drinking.