Public transportation slows me down

June 16, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

I had neck surgery two weeks ago and I’ll be wearing a cervical collar for another four weeks.  My cervical collar restricts my neck movements quite a bit.  Many people are surprised that it is nonetheless legal for me to drive a car even while my neck motion is so restricted. It’s not legal to drive while wearing a cervical collar in every state, although in Missouri and many other states, it is legal.

image by Seattle Municipal archives at Flickr (creative commons)

image by Seattle Municipal archives at Flickr (creative commons)

Not that I’m comfortable driving a car without the ability to rotate my neck freely. I’ve only done it twice during the past two weeks, and it was on low-traffic roads during off-peak driving periods. For the most part, I now get around by exploiting a public transportation monthly pass. Using public transportation has slowed me down quite a bit, but I’m enjoying it immensely. I’m learning the routes much better than I ever did before, and I’m seeing that it’s possible to get a lot done without a car, even in St. Louis, because we have a fair number of bus routes in the city, along with several light rail lines. What I’ve repeatedly noticed is that you can’t just get anywhere you want.  Now can you get where you want when you want to. You need to check the schedule and work with the system. Sometimes, the buses are not exactly on time. If you’re not careful, you’ll just miss a bus and then you’ll need to wait another 20 minutes for the next one. If you don’t think ahead, you’ll get rained on because you forgot to bring your umbrella. Sometimes, the places you want to go are not exactly on the bus route, and you might have to walk a mile after getting off the bus. If you have something that you need to bring along, you can’t put it in the trunk because there is no trunk. You either carry it with you or you don’t bring it at all. I find that I’m really becoming much more empathetic about other folks who must use public transportation. Yesterday, I found myself getting really frustrated when I saw a woman barely miss the bus. What if you need to take your kids somewhere and you don’t have a car? Well, you use public transportation. Last week I saw a woman with five young children pile them all onto the bus. They were all quiet and well-behaved as their mother carefully put six bus fares in the fare box. There’s also quite a few characters on public buses.  Today, I sat next to a man who was selling pirated DVDs to fellow passengers. One woman told him that she didn’t need a DVD, so he told her that he sold cosmetics too. His entire inventory of DVDs and cosmetics was in a paper bag that he carried along with him. It’s inspiring to see how often people in public buses help each other out, helping each other with the doors or with each other’s bags, or calling out to the bus driver if someone needs a little extra help.  There’s other kinds of characters too. Some of them don’t smell so good. Others talk to themselves rapidly. Some of them are extremely friendly and willing to give lots of encouragement to a stranger with a neck brace. Others sit quietly and still others look notably confused.  Many people strike up animated and entertaining conversations with fellow passengers, oftentimes with people they don’t know.   Many of the passengers are overweight, and it’s tempting to see how they will fit themselves into the smallish seats between two equally large passengers. Taking a bus is much different than driving a car. When you take a bus, you don’t have to worry about your car. You don’t have to worry about maintaining it or parking it or keeping it from being stolen.  You don’t have to worry about getting distracted and running over a young child in a crosswalk. What I most notice about taking the bus, however, is that the rhythm of life changes. I can’t have what I want exactly what I want it anymore. I can’t just get downtown in 12 minutes on a whim. Rather, it will take 10 minutes to get to the bus stop, another 20 or 30 minutes to catch a bus up to the light rail stop, and another 10 or 15 minutes to get downtown on the light rail. It really does take about four times as long for me to travel one way to my place of employment (that’s about twice as long as it takes to ride a bike there– I’ve been told that I’ll be able to ride a bike again in about a month or two). Some might think that it would be extremely frustrating to not get where you want when you want to get there, but I’m finding that these moments are golden opportunities to think about important things and not important things, and to enjoy being out in the world with a lot of decent people who don’t have fancy cars or fancy houses. There’s not a lot of bus passengers trying to impress each other with what they own because on the bus most people don’t own much. You can see it for the way they dress and you can see it from how they talk.  You won’t hear people bragging about taking a trip to some fancy vacation spot. There’s nobody trying to impress anyone else with his BMW.   You won’t hear people confusing who they are with what they own. It’s all so refreshing, relaxing, therapeutic, normal.

[epilogue:  After writing this, I realized that I should add another paragraph.   In St. Louis, public transportation serves the urban areas fairly well, but doesn’t serve the suburbs well, as a general rule.   The exception is the light rail, on which you’ll find all kinds of folks.  The bus system which I describe in this post is used mainly by people with modest means, the working poor or the poor.   I should also mention that by and large, people from the suburbs disparage public transportation.   Many of them have never used it and I have heard many people from the suburbs consider it to be a wasteful form of welfare.   Missouri State government barely provides any funding for it.    Nonetheless, as I describe in this post, public bus service serves as a lifeline for many of the people in the St. Louis area, especially those who reside in the city proper (versus the suburbs or exurbs).   St. Louis is thus not like big metropolitan areas like Chicago or SF, that take great pride in a public transportation system that is used by people from all socio-economic classes.]


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Category: American Culture, Community, Consumerism, transportation

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Back in college I lived wa-ay off campus for a year. It took about 25 minutes by bike, or about an hour by bus to traverse the 6 miles. It took really bad weather for me to choose the half mile walk, wait, ride, wait, ride, half mile walk over the door to door bike ride. Roads had to be icy, or rain had to be fierce. My wool scarf handled the cold nicely, and I had a bike poncho for ordinary rain.

    I remember the packed-like-sardines morning ride and the spookily empty late evening returns in the same huge, rattling buses.

  2. Danny says:

    Nice to see you using the Metro, Erich. I'm a big metro advocate, partly because I'm from a city that didn't have so great a public transportation system.

    Also, I agree about the great variety of people you meet. I've met some very decent, solid folks while waiting for a bus, one in particular has even grown into a friendship.

    There is a sense of community among bus/train users. Whether riding is for ecological, economic, or convenience reasons, there is a shared sense that we are all in the same boat (or train) so to speak.

  3. Erika Price says:

    I'm moving to Chicago in the fall, and I will not be bringing a car. It will present a final plunge into an increasingly car-free existence.

    I have walked to work and class for the past two years, and I have loved the exercise, quietness and practicality it has presented. I also walk to the grocery store, and bus to other nearby shopping centers. I probably use my car one or twice a week on average, sometimes on trips where I do not truly "need" the car.

    Unfortunately, in the city where I currently live, a car-free life is nearly impossible. Columbus, outside of the campus area at least, is a wasteland of suburban sprawl. Businesses are separated by miles of gray, crumbling, speeding city streets with no sidewalk in sight. Houses are packed into stuffy cul-de-sac'd regions in remote areas, miles of pavement away from shopping or schools.

    When I visit the Columbus suburbs, I often feel like I am in a bizarre space age reality, where living and shopping centers are separate enclosed little "pods" that can only be accessed by hopping into an airtight transporter and traveling for twenty minutes. The roads and grass and space between does not exist because it is impossible to traverse. The areas are unwalkable, and buses do not run into the 'burbs (even if they did, they rarely arrive and end completely by 9).

    No wonder so many people worship their cars- they are the only way to get from tucked-away place to tucked-away place. No wonder so many people are fat; no wonder so many people hate public transport. The current system is broken- I'm glad to be jumping ship to the Midwestern city with probably the best public transport.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: I've recently discovered WeCar, which can allow many people to kick their personal cars entirely to the curb. It's a great deal to quickly rent a car for $10/hour, online, no hassle, as often or as little as you need one. The cars are sprinkled about downtown areas and near college campuses. Perhaps there are other similar services out there too. What a great concept, though: community cars.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I didn't own a car till I was 23 and had to carry equipment 100 miles back and forth for work.

    Here's a take I like on the self-fulfilling nature of automotive life: Land of the Free . . . Parking

  5. Tim Hogan says:

    I didn't drive until I was 40. I lived in St. Louis for most of those years but, also spent time in the mountains of Colorado, in Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City.

    I remember telling dates that we were going out in "my $300,000 chauffeur driven GMC coach (many buses are made by GMC)." Frequently, we'd ride the "Red Bird Express" from my house in Richmond Heights down to the balpark and see a ballgame. Erich has caught the temper of the riders of public transport here in St. Louis. Some of the drivers are real characters, too.

    But, the busses have a real problem running on time, and you may literally get left out in the cold. I remember many times later in the evening waiting at the corner of Grand and Laclede for a southbound Grand bus which never showed up. I spent nearly seven years at Saint Louis University as an undergrad and law student and lived in south St. Louis during that time. The wind gets pretty wicked in the winter and it was about a two mile walk south to the intersection where I had to hoof another quarter mile to my apartment.

    I don't think the folks that run public transit in St. Louis have any real committment to providing quality service (remember, we're all 'clowns'!). And, until there's a major house cleaning at the top, we're not going to get the system we need or deserve. It's nearly impossible to get local support, much less outstate support, for public transit when the clowns that run it suffer no consequences when they fail, continuously.

    The systems which have a real committment really work, like Chicago, NYC and Boston.

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