Sunday, December 12, 2010

A love-hate relationship with public transportation

Loving it in Boston: For most of my adult life, I didn't have a car. Living in Boston, I didn't need one. Public transportation was inexpensive, plentiful and frequent, while crazy drivers, lack of parking and exhorbitantly high auto insurance rates made having a car in Boston a big pain.

When I needed a vehicle for travel, I rented one; to do grocery shopping, I usually hailed a gypsy cab. (Gypsy cabs were cars driven by retired men who picked up people in their own vehicles and charged less than regular cabs. Most folks in Boston ignored the illegality of the practice: merchants knew that they increased business, and regular cab companies knew they generally made shorter trips then the regular cabs wanted to make, and often into neighborhoods the regular cabs didn't want to frequent. The police, I think, didn't want to crack down on old men who were just trying to make a little more income).

I finally bought a car after getting married, but even then, I continued to use public transportation (or walking) to get around most of the time. I especially loved taking public transportation to and from work, because it always provided me a relaxed chance to read, think, write, or even sleep.

Liking it in Tacoma: One of my struggles in moving to Tacoma was that the public transportation system isn't as extensive or efficient. Still, during my first year, I found a job that allowed me to take public transportation to work, which I could catch a few blocks from my home.

In my second year, that changed: due to the economy, Pierce Transit had to reduce service. After that, the nearest bus stop was a 40-minute walk from my home, and the nearest stop to my job was a 15-minute walk away. Hubby would drop me at the bus stop, and I'd walk the final leg.

Hating it in Seatac: A few months ago, I got a new job in Seatac, a city between Tacoma and Seattle where the SeaTac (for Seattle-Tacoma) Airport is located. I started driving to work, which takes about 45 minutes. However, my conscience about using so much gas bothered me, and on a few occasions when I attended conferences in Seattle and took the bus instead of driving, I remembered how enjoyable taking public transportation could be.

Well, I got my chance to take public transpotation to work. My car broke down a few weeks ago, and it's taking some time to save the money needed for the repairs. Here's what I've had to do:

-- Hubby drives me to the nearest bus stop. Time: 10 minutes.
-- I take two buses to get to downtown Tacoma. Time: 40 minutes.
-- I tranfer to a bus to the SeaTac airport. Time: 45 minutes when the traffic is flowing; as much as 1-1/4 hour when it's not.
-- A coworker picks me up from the airport and drives us to work. Time: 5 minutes.

That's an hour and 40 minute commute each way, if the traffic is good.

Note the last step. If I were to take public transportation regularly, I couldn't always depend on a coworker. So I looked into what it would take for me to get from the airport to my job. I tried all the configurations possible on Sound Transit's trip planner: fastest way, fewest transfers, least walking.

The answer was the same each time: one train ride, followed by two buses, taking one hour. For what is, by car, a 5 minute drive. And if there are any delays? Forget it!

This would add two hours to my already 3-1/2 hour commute. Walking is not an option: the journey from the airport would probably take me about 30-40 minutes, and involves some steep hills. I have a bad knee, and after a few days, I'd barely be able to walk at all.

I also looked into van pools, of which there are several that go from Tacoma to Seatac. But most of those are TSA employees who work staggered shifts at the airport, so they depart Tacoma at times such as 6 am, 11 am, and 2 pm. Nothing is available for someone who works a 9-5 job.

So what does this mean? Well, it means I need to get my car fixed! Public transportation just isn't an option: I can't impose on my coworkers forever, and a daily 5+ hour commute would mean I'd never get to see my daughter. Not to mention, I sometimes have out-of-office meetings during the day that I need a car to get to.

I have heard the arguments against expanding public transportation. Jeff Jacoby, a columnist with the Boston Globe, made them regularly, arguing that Americans love their cars and hate public transportation. I agree with the first claim, not the second. I don't think most Americans would give up cars altogether, but I think many people hate the rush hour drive to and from work. If public transportation is efficient and convenient, I think many people would choose that option. But as my example shows, for many people it's either not available, or so unwieldy it might as well not be.*


* And please note that moving closer to one's job, or taking a job closer to one's home, is not always possible either.

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