It's a commonplace that American commuter culture overwhelmingly comprises solo riders in cars built to seat 4-7 passengers.
Still, as I biked across the Franklin Avenue Bridge at 5:20 pm today, I was struck by the two lanes of predominantly one-person cars, lined up in two Eastbound lanes, bumper to bumper across the breadth of the Mississippi River Gorge. And a couple hundred yards upstream, the same scene stretched across the I-94 bridge.
Until we have good transit options--or $4-a-gallon gas--most commuters will put up with the delays and frustrations of going solo.
Found myself humming this old Paul Simon song:
Cars are cars/ All over the world/ Cars are cars/ All over the world/ Similarly made/ Similarly sold/ In a motorcade/ Abandoned when they're old
"Cars are Cars," from
Hearts and Bones
It's always seemed like a disposable sort of song--it's my least favorite on an otherwise strong if overlooked album--but but its cheesy pop sound was part of the point about commodification and disposability.
Aside from their obvious, intended function as locations where people access a transit system, bus stops and rail stations advertise the possibility of transit to all the car drivers who pass by--though not always positively. A lonely soul in the rain,or a crowd huddled in a -20 windchill undoubtedly cause passing drivers to thank their stars for their cars.
They also serve as places of exchange (someone needs money for a ticket, or for smokes, or for a bottle), and sites for interaction among people who wouldn't otherwise look at each other, let alone strike up conversations.
Looking at them sociologically, or anthropologically--what other roles do they play?
Sheesh. From the PiPress:
The Minnesota House has given the go-ahead to spend federal stimulus dollars on roads, bridges and transit projects.
The House voted 113-19 today to authorize the state Department of Transportation to spend nearly $600 million in stimulus cash....Republican attempts to put up barriers to spending on transit projects failed. Opposition came from Republicans like Rep. Paul Kohls of Victoria, who says the federal government doesn't have the money to back stimulus spending.
Dear Rep. Kohls:
Yes, the federal government is borrowing money to stimulate the economy. They're doing that because there's this thing called a "recession" that's happening, and no one else either can or will borrow. Borrowing money to invest in productive projects like roads and transit is the whole point of "stimulus spending." It will give Minnesotans things called "jobs," and get them travel to work and school more efficiently. All of this is called "governing."
PS--the federal government also has to borrow because this thing called a "surplus" that existed as recently as 2001 became a deficit under your party's rule.
The Transit for Livable Communities blog points out that the Met Council's short term fix (good news: no fare increases or service reductions for 2009) doesn't solve the long-term need to invest in a regional transit system.
In a culture that tends to think that "long-term" means either "after the next election" or "after the next paycheck," long-term thinking is notoriously difficult. Add in budget shortfalls and a recession, and the difficulty increases by a factor of, oh, 3,000. Just ask President O as he tries to pitch his budget as a long term investment with short-term costs.
Regular riders of the Hiawatha Line yesterday around 9 am must have felt surrounded as hundreds(?) of Minneapolis South high school students--excused from their classes for a few hours--boarded at the Lake Street station, bound for Target Center to cheer on their Gallant Tigers in the quaterfinals of the girls state basketball tournament.
Led by Tayler Hill, South defeated an overmatched Blaine squad 73-34. I'm guessing the light rail ride back to South was one of the most jubilant trips to school ever.
We came home yesterday from a short jaunt UpNorth. Nice and relaxing and all. But just thinking about the return drive on such trips gets many people's hearts racing. Here's why: at 6pm near Rogers on I-94, the Cities-bound traffic was stop and go. Mostly stop. It put everyone in a supremely unhappy holiday mood.
It reminded me how grateful I am not to commute to work by car.
Sure, there are times when driving a car to work would be more convenient. But I'm convinced my blood pressure would be much higher if I regularly drove any distance on freeways like that.
A factoid from Public Transportation.org:
"The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that each American traveling in peak periods wastes an average of 62 hours a year-nearly eight full working days-stuck in traffic delays."
And then there's the wasted gas. Eight full working days idling at over $2.00 a gallon.
American productivity indeed.
Given that this week feels more and more like March, I'm feeling pleased that I haven't turned in my Metropass yet. Unlike some people, I haven't learned to thrive on self-propulsion in inclement weather.
Perhaps by the end of the week.
It's been fairly uneventful in the Tales department lately. Bus and train riders have been stereotypical Minnesotans: quiet. But also, it feels in part, like people are worn out by the winter, even though it's not been a very snowy one here.
On Tuesday last week, one day after the Red Lake shooting news, the silence seemed stunned and funereal. That certainly affected the mood all week.
There'll be a state-wide moment of silence Monday afternoon.
Will even Uthink blogs quiet down around 2 pm?
Mild sunny days, the higher post-equinox sun angle, and the absence of snow and ice on sidewalks, bikepaths and roads, have me looking forward to the time (soon to come) when I cancel my Metropass and commute to work either on foot (50 minutes) or by bike (about 18).
I guess that makes me a foul-weather friend of transit.
So last week, four of us went to Disney World. To get there, we flew.
It was a reminder that speed trumps all kinds of other factors, since air travel is expensive, crowded and uncomfortable, full of waits and invasive searches, and all kinds of other unpleasantries.
There were the check-in lines, the security lines, the boarding lines, the disembarking lines. People removed their shoes and had their underwear unceremoniously scattered on a counter while their carry-on bag was searched. Once on the plane, anybody over 5'10" had insufficient leg room (not an issue for me, but the poor guy next to me had his knees near his chin--and he wasn't even tall enough to be a point guard in the NBA). My son had intense ear pain, thanks to a cold and the pressure changes of take-off and landing. And once in Orland, we waited nearly an hour in the rental car line. At least the tiny bag of "gourmet" pretzels was good for a laugh. As was the SkyMall catalogue, stuffed with useless products--like a $60 dollar paper towel holder--for the bored business traveller with wads of disposable cash.
So is there much doubt that people would flock to high speed trains (such as between the Twin Ciies and Rochester even if trains were as unpleasant to ride as planes?
The other day, at the Metrodome stop, a garrulous fellow struck up a conversation with me. I learned that he was from Colorado, that he was working on a construction project at the U of M, and that his cowboy boots carried some sort of designer label (the concept of "Designer Cowboy Boots" hadn't occurred to me, even though many of us apparently can't live without designer water or designer underwear). The kicker (bad pun) was that these boots cost him "something like" 500 dollars. (for that price, I hope those silver toes were actually platinum).
I bit my tongue, and then almost choked on it. My shoes were thrift store specials--10 bucks. So his shoes cost about 50 times what mine did. It's an intriguing complication to easy definitions of social class-- or at least the sometimes meaningless distinction between "working class" and "professional."
He works construction, so he's working class. I do intellectual and bureaucratic work in an academic department, so I'm professional.
By all the stereotypes, I--the "professional"--should be wearing the pricey shoes, but not be so gauche as to divulge how much I paid for them. Of course, I just did divulge, to the whole world, how much--or how little-- I paid. And of course, academics are a different kind of professional, less well-paid than doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals, and often openly scornful (intentionally as well as unintentionally) of fashion.
Shoes and class--the dissertations are waiting to be written.
Several years ago, my family and I went for an outing on the Como-Harriet Streetcar, a museum piece at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis which constititutes all that remains of the Twin Cities' streetcar system that flourished (500+ miles of track, 1000 cars) in the first half of the 20th Century.
In addition to riding the streetcar, we walked through the replica of the Linden Hills station,
where as I recall, the man staffing the place referenced the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy theory (though not in those words) as part of his narrative about the disappearance of streetcars in the Twin Towns and elsewhere in the immediate post-WWII era.
The Wikipedia has a fair and balanced (NOT in the Faux News sense of that term) entry on the conspiracy theory.
In American culture, cars have become linked, seemingly inextricably, to work via the institution of the daily commute. Within the powerful ideology of American self-reliance, independence, and even the Lone Ranger, that solo drive has come to represent the epitome of the American Way. Just ask the Taxpayers' League, who attempted to discredit the Hiawatha Light Rail line even during its construction by erecting a billboard proclaiming it to be "Social Engineering"--this right at the intersection of the line with that marvel of bad highway engineering, the Crosstown. I don't think they intended that irony, but of course, adding more lanes and more roads is also "social engineering"--although at greater cost to the environment, oil reserves, and energy independence.
I haven't driven to a job on a regular basis since 1987, when I drove from Marine on St. Croix to a nursing home job on the West Side of St. Paul. Nine months of that 45-minute commute was enough to convince me that I didn't want to do it much longer.
I've been fortunate since then either to live in cities with good transit options to my work/school (Iowa City, Minneapolis) or to live within walking distance of my work (2 years in Westchestere County, New York--I'm eternally grateful that I didn't have to drive in the NYC metro area).
My wife and (and our two kids) have managed to be a one-car family for the past dozen years, although in the past year we've borrowed my in-laws' second car for a couple of extended periods: first during last spring's bus strike (I and a bus-riding friend used the borrowed car to carpool), and then again for the past month while i've needed to be able to quickly get to Iowa and Illinois for family crises.
Cars have certainly proven useful in these cases. I can't imagine any way other than a car for getting to points hundreds of miles south quickly, leaving once on short notice at 3:30 am, and several times chauffeuring my father between Moline, IL, Cedar Rapids, IA, and Minneapolis.
I truly could have biked or even walked to work (50 minutes) during the bus strike, and probably would have, but the car-pooling arrangement using my in-laws' car did help out my friend, for whom biking or walking weren't legitimate options. I admit I enjoyed the convenience of a warm car (although walking from commuter parking at the U means that driving is not much faster for me than biking or taking transit--and the costs of parking and gas were higher than my transit costs). But ordinarlly, it makes no sense for me, in terms of either time or money, to drive to work. Increased transit options, like the Northstar Commuter Rail Line, can make that the case for more and more Twin Cities residents. That won't be a threat to American culture--it will be a positive development for people and the environment.
I can't say I give the matter this kind of thought, but any thought I do give it is pragmatic rather than interpersonal: If I'm boarding the 50 heading over to the Metrodome LRT platform, I generally like to position myself for a quick exit out the back door, since that bus gets jammed with students in the late afternoon, and trying to navigate from the middle through the standing-room crowd to the door can take longer than some drivers want to stay at the stop.
I mean, other than a political climate hostile to spending money on even a relatively inexpensive, old-fashioned commuter line? --even though investing in such a line is the right thing to do.
Fast and convenient transportation between the Twin Cities airport and the Mayo Clinic makes sense--as does a way to get people up to the North Shore (and down to the Cities) with less congestion and pollution along I-35. Both would make Minnesota a true transportation innovator--they would be a genuine "Clear Skies Initiative," as well as sprawl prevention along those corridors.
Yesterday, as I waited at the Metrodome East stop, a voice came over the loudspeaker, something to the effect of "There is no smoking on Metro Transit buses, trains, or at stops. Please extinguish cigarettes." That's great as far as I'm concerned, but how do they enforce that last one? With recorded messages, I guess.
Then as I boarded the train, another voice said "Welcome aboard the most popular form of transportation in town" (or something similar). Given the number of cars on 35W and 94, the claim proved to be a bit of self-promoting hyperbole. But given the number of riders jammed onto the train, it would be impossible to argue that the train is not popular.
But add a Central Corridor line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. And the North Star commuter line. When a line becomes a system, rail popularity will really take off, and further ease car congestion and might start to limit those bad air quality days we endured last week. That, and the smoking ban at stops.
Thursday afternoon, the southbound 2 bus:
After he sat down about four seats behind me, I realized that the young man's headphones were not just loud--they were LOUD. Lots of snare and hi-hat. I found myself thinking that if my friends Bob or Tom are ever unable to drum at one of my gigs, I could have this guy stand next to me as a human drum machine. The volume would be about perfect with my acoustic guitar.
I figured that I wouldn't post much over the break, since I would be out of town for a while and using the transit system less. I didn't plan on a family crisis. After tending to and with my parents for two-and-a-half weeks down in Illinois, I've been back on the buses and train, and back to work, for the past few days.
I did have an occasion to catch a train in the Lindbergh Terminal near midnight when I returned home for a couple of days just after New Year's. It was slick to take the Hiawatha line right to my South Minneapolis neighborhood. There were quite a few folks riding--the young couple with their skis, returning from the Rockies, some holiday travellers, people (presumably) coming home from a second shift job.
One drawback of the LRT is that it runs so often.
Let me explain. Before LRT, I would typically catch a 20 bus at 6:40 or 7 AM to get to the office by 7:10 or 7:30. There were regulars on the 20 with whom I felt connected. It’s not that I spoke to many of them very often. A combination of introversion and early morning semi-consciousness usually made me content to read the paper, check my PDA, or close my eyes to the background noise of greetings and ongoing conversations (not that there would be a lot of conversation—these were Minnesotans, after all).
Still, there was quite a sense of community on the inbound 20 on weekday mornings. Riding the same bus created some cultural capital. This is a significant benefit of mass transit: it brings people together where they can make positive connections (negative connections happen too--but put all of these people in individual cars, and the chances for negative interactions are much greater than for any positive connections).
But the 20 got rerouted and renumbered, like many other lines, as part of the opening of the Hiawatha Line. Because the LRT runs about every 7 minutes during the morniing rush, and because I can catch either a 21 or a 53 on Lake St. over to the station, my departure time can now vary widely, and still get me in my ergo-seat well before the office opens at 8. I probably catch either a different bus or different train 4 out of 5 days a week. I’ve lost a small bit of community (other, more conversational riders lost more) in exchange for the big-time efficiency of the Light Rail line.
When I started riding the LRT last summer, I told friends that it felt like Minneapolis was all grown up. Standing on a train platform reminded me of being in New York, Chicago, Boston, or London. But part of that growing up involved some loss, of course. Big city transit, for me, has meant more big city anonymity, at least in this small sense. Still, the LRT is producing its own forms of cultural capital, especially among the many folks who follow more of a routine, and catch the train at the same time each day.