Ode to Mass Transit

When I was about four years old, I became obsessed with the VIA bus. My great-grandmother had a plush VIA character, a stuffed bus the size of a shoebox with big friendly eyes and string hair. I loved it. That probably had a lot to do with my proletariat aspirations as much as anything.

My parents indulged me, and I can still remember how it felt to get onto the bus and discover…NO SEATBELTS! People standing up while the vehicle was in motion! It was like I had entered an alternate universe where the most ironclad laws of childhood—my mother told us that if we didn’t wear our seatbelts that the police would take us away—were flagrantly disregarded. Thrilling.

The Tube

The Tube is a great place for taking clever pictures with friends.

My cousin and I rode the bus with my father from our house in Alamo Heights all the way down Broadway to the Witte Museum (approximately 1.5 miles), carrying our brown paper bags with hand-turkeys drawn on the front. I think they had snacks in them, you know, for the journey. My mom followed behind in the Jeep to bring us back home after a museum visit. It was such a lovely, public day in my young life.

When my editor at the Rivard Report sent me to cover the public meeting held by my once-idolized VIA Metropolitan Transit, I thought it would be a pretty dry story. Who could object to modern streetcars? Plenty of people, it turns out. The opposition has been vocal, and I’m up to my ribs in 20 page position papers, research documents, rebuttals, rebuttals to rebuttals.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’re passionate about something until we’re up to our ribs in the mud-lolly. These days, I am up to my ribs in mass transit mire.

So I’ve had to answer the question: what is it about public transport that I am so “for?” Not “what is your best argument ” But rather, what’s behind the logic?

Boarding the Seattle light rail.

Boarding the Seattle light rail, which happened to be scattered with feathers and sequins that day. Gay pride parade downtown. Never would have known if it hadn’t been for the shared space of the railcar.

I am for safety

No matter which way you shake it, roads are dangerous places! Especially with me and people like me driving on them. Every person opposing the streetcar should have to spend an afternoon with me in rush hour traffic. It will make you hope there’s a God and vehemently support not just public transport, but mandatory public transport.

And you know I’m not the worst one.

I am for planned routes

The only time I’m more dangerous than when I’m driving is when I’m lost driving.

In London, I rode the incredibly expensive tube for as long as it took to get oriented before switching to the iconic red, double-decker 80p buses for the sake of economy. But whenever I was going to a new part of town, I took the tube because there was no mistaking where you were heading, and where you were to disembark.

The clarity of rail, the consistency and comfort of knowing that every train stopping at this platform is going one of two clearly marked places, that put my lost or foreign heart at ease even in the most unreadable of cities.  Like London, Paris, and Rome. All of which seem to have been designed in a Yahtzee cup.

I am for transportation alternatives

Making car travel essential to getting around efficiently is the most irresponsible thing we can do as a society. There’s the bad drivers, the oil dependence, the pollution, the crowding.

More fun on the tube

More fun on the tube. I probably germed-up that handrail there.

But even within mass transit systems, there something to be said for alternatives. I lived in London for a year without a car, and utilized the full force of TFL (Transport for London).

Docklands Light Rail, the tube, trains to Gatwick, shuttles to Stanstead. You name it, I did it. I caught a lot of colds, because kids lick things on public transport. I had my bum grabbed more than once by handsy little boys. But as cruel as it could be, I was equally cruel to mass transit.

I vomited on the night bus.

I fare hopped on the Docklands Light Rail.

I sneezed in my hand and didn’t use hand sanitizer before grabbing the handrail on the tube.

Public transit is where we all pile in and hope that the person next to us is not contagious (socially or medically), and we discover how communicable the human condition can be. There are thousands of opportunities to be the best of yourself (offer the seat to the lady with the screaming infant), or the worst of your self, (turn up your iGadget so loud that other passengers can hear Marcus Mumford deafening you for life and glare at the screaming infant, as though it asked to be transported on the Typhoid Express in the middle of cold season).

I am for streetcars

The first time I used a modern streetcar to get around a city, I was alone in Munich, needing very much to get to the US Embassy (not nearly as exciting as it sounds). My train arrived in town around lunch time, and without speaking a word of German in a pre-iPhone world I was in and out of the Embassy by 2:30pm, with time to visit a hoffbrau before catching the afternoon train out. And it’s okay that I hit the hoffbrau because I wasn’t driving!  All on a modern streetcar.

VIA meeting where citizens proposed streetcar routes. It was hard to pick!

VIA meeting where citizens proposed streetcar routes. It was hard to pick from all the places we no longer wish to drive and park!

The next time I used a street car I was in Sarajevo (Post-war Bosnia. Surely San Antonio is ready to surpass the urban infrastructure of Post-war Bosnia…). I had one afternoon in which to take in the markets and bridges of the war torn Balkan capital. So I walked to a platform next to an overhead cable stretching in the right direction. I got on the steetcar, and I enjoyed an afternoon ogling mortar damage and buying bullet casings with “Bosnia” etched into the side. I say “enjoyed,” but I didn’t really like Sarajevo. It had very little to do with the city itself, and nothing to do with the streetcars. This was definitely the high point of the trip.

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