High gas? Go mass (transit)

The number one question I still get — quite understandably — about living without a car in Southern California is “How?” There’s no reason not to ask, really; LA and the surrounding areas all seem to demand a car just for basic existence. This isn’t a post about my response in full to that — there are a variety of reasons why I go without, not least of which is the minor but important fact that I never got around to getting a license — but I will say that I’ve often found that a lot of people’s surprise over how I get about results from an ignorance of the resources available.

That sounds very harsh but it’s not meant to be — rather, again, it’s quite understandable. If you assume cars as the baseline, and everything around you is geared towards that, then the idea of going without one seems shocking if that’s all you’ve been used to. This is a car culture, there you go. Whereas from my perspective, I can rattle off bus connections, train times and so forth like that, as well as being able to quickly search for best possible connections between places with what’s available. Combined with the fact that my bus travel is free — UCI employment means I can use my staff ID as a pass — and that the Metrolink system provides a reasonable and cheaper way to get to LA than Amtrak does, I’m usually sitting pretty. Is it perfect? Of course not, but what is? On Friday workers broke into a gas line between the Irvine and Tustin Metrolink stops and it gummed up the route for some hours — a reminder that things aren’t always guaranteed, but it’s a risk I see as no different from thinking that there won’t be some horrible accident on the freeway you’re on, say.

One of the upshots of living this way is that the cost of cars and everything associated with it — security, insurance and so forth — doesn’t trouble me at all. Gas prices less so though of course there’s fuel to factor into the cost of many things, so it’s not like I’m isolated from it (not to mention the environmental problems and much more besides). Even so, I look at gas prices with a gimlet eye because there’s no real impact on my day to day living as yet, it’s just something to observe. What intrigues me more instead is how other people are dealing with them.

Two stories over the weekend caught my interest — they’re fairly general ‘gosh isn’t this interesting’ pieces but are still telling enough. From the first:

Mass transit systems around the country are seeing standing-room-only crowds on bus lines where seats were once easy to come by. Parking lots at many bus and light rail stations are suddenly overflowing, with commuters in some towns risking a ticket or tow by parking on nearby grassy areas and in vacant lots.

“In almost every transit system I talk to, we’re seeing very high rates of growth the last few months,” said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

“It’s very clear that a significant portion of the increase in transit use is directly caused by people who are looking for alternatives to paying $3.50 a gallon for gas.”

And from the second, talking specifically about the LA area:

If there has been anything that remains quintessentially unpredictable over the years in the Southland, it’s traffic. One day it’s good, the following it’s let’s-move-to-Portland awful, then it’s back to tolerable.

But a sampling of residents, traffic reporters and technical data indicates that as gasoline prices have climbed and the economy has faltered, weekday congestion has softened in some areas over the last month. There are notable decreases in commuting times on some well-traveled freeways.

Other drivers say their commutes are still bad, but that the roads are more lightly traveled at midday and evenings — the times of day that people make discretionary trips.

It’s important to note that these are both ultimately representative of a particular situation right now rather than a permanent trend, and there are comments to this effect in both stories from people interviewed. Still, it’s obviously very interesting.

There’s a comment in the first story that I think is crucial — one fellow in Texas, a car culture state if there ever was one, described his switch from car to bus in Houston (which is even MORE of a car culture place — a British writer I know who was walking between spots in the city once was stopped by a police car because they couldn’t believe somebody would actually be walking along the street that way) this way: “Finally I was ready to trade my independence for the savings.” This attitude of car-as-independence has always fascinated me because it comes up so often from folks, with them wondering why I don’t take advantage of that aspect. As one friend says, “You can just go wherever you want to.”

I guess I’ve never felt that as a necessary aspect to life, though. Hard to say. But I also think it’s a learned behavior too, advertised, inculcated, sold — the study of the economics and marketing of cars and car culture is a well worn field, with all kinds of strange twists and turns. (One of the funniest things I’ve ever heard was in a pickup truck ad back in 1993 or so where a generic salt-of-the-earth guy says something like “Trucks have always been a spiritual thing to me.” Uh?) Outright lecturing people about the problems this has all caused — ‘this attitude is bad and here’s why’ — is too didactic for my tastes. If people are discovering alternates on their own and appreciating them for that reason, then great — I’d rather that than never considering them at all.

This past Saturday I was swinging around the LA area meeting up with folks and attending two house parties some distance apart from each other, and I got there via a combination of mass transit and carpooling — and I’ll never stint on my thanks for friends in the latter case, as there’s no question that carpooling and shared rides have been key for me when it comes to special or one-off situations not easily reached by train and/or bus. But the majority of the routes were done via OC’s bus system, LA’s, the Red Line subway, Amtrak and Metrolink — and all of this on National Train Day, which I wasn’t even aware of until I first got to Anaheim Station.

One thing I noticed on the Metrolink on the way up was that it was packed — something that is pretty rare on the weekend routes. A lot of people, a buzz of conversation — it was an honest surprise to me, I’d not seen anything like it outside of one or two holidays before. There wasn’t any discount or special thing being done for the Metrolink lines for National Train Day, instead it really just seemed that, indeed, a lot more people were taking these routes where they might have otherwise driven.

It was funny for me to realize that I’d actually enjoyed the quieter train cars in the past — I’d been selfishly looking forward to just sitting and thinking on the ride up as I so often have done. But after that I thought, “Hey, isn’t this what I’d wanted, and what I want to see happening? Enjoy it for what it is, and hope for more.” And so I looked around a bit at everyone, a little people watching here and there, and hoped that this would be a welcome sign for the future — a stronger appreciation of what’s out there, what options exist, and that this would lead to even more options being created.

Call me the eternal optimist, which I am most of the time. It’s a good place to be.

[EDIT — friend Jody noticed this piece by Carolyn See which appeared on Saturday, about going carless in LA. I met Carolyn very briefly when I was at UCLA — a good soul, and a good piece she’s written here.]


4 Responses to “High gas? Go mass (transit)”

  1. Eve McGivern Says:

    I routinely take mass transit, and buses have become standing-room only. Pittsburgh, for the size of city it is, does not have a terribly good mass transit system, in that it does not cover a wide span of the city. It is also in big financial trouble. There is a T that covers a small area of downtown, but no real subway like NYC, though I hear that’s in the works. (Pittsburgh itself, however, is not in good financial straits)

  2. Kate Says:

    Hear hear to mass transit! As a regular train commuter for work and school, there is no better time than now to try out your train or bus. I have seen a few more faces on my train, as well as my bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown NYC to Connecticut. And the Metro North train from Stratford, CT to NYC this past weekend was packed (though the New York Mets game may have had a lot to do with it.)

    I am familiar with the Port Authority of Allegheny County. It’s a decent bus system (allowing Pitt and Carnegie Mellon students ride for free is fabulous) but I also know that the service was cut significantly last year. More can and should be done.

  3. Ned Raggett Says:

    My understanding — responding to both posts — is that if the tax base for a public service becomes unstable, then things get dicey (definitely the case here in California!). The irony would be if mass transit grows in popularity during a time of economic troubles combined with increased gas prices — it would require further measures to shore things up. Would the will be there?

  4. Transitory thoughts « Ned Raggett Ponders It All Says:

    […] things in that post and I’ve thrown in a number of observations, as well as linking back to my earlier mass transit post from a month ago. As gas prices continue to climb and everyone starts wondering what’s up, […]

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