Thursday, November 09, 2006

Public Transit

Yesterday at my health club, I was soaking in the hot pool and chatting with a woman I've gotten to know slightly, since we're often there at the same time. It turns out that she's originally from New York, so we had one of those expat-New-Yorker conversations: Where we lived in the city, what we miss, that kind of thing.

We agreed that we both miss efficient public transit.

This is a big issue for me and Gary; his eyesight isn't quite good enough for him to drive, and Reno's bus system, not to put too fine a point on it, sucks. He makes do with walking -- he's a champion walker who thinks nothing of hiking four miles home from the movie theater -- getting rides from me, and occasional use of the bus system. But we still miss the NYC subways, and when we go to San Francisco, we always get misty-eyed and nostalgic when we ride MUNI or BART.

Back East, I spent a lot of time on various forms of public transportation, especially New Jersey Transit buses. Growing up in northern New Jersey, I'd take the bus into the city to visit my father and stepmother; after college, I took the same bus to commute back and forth to work every day. During college, I'd take New Jersey Transit trains or buses to get home during breaks. For several years in my early twenties, I was living in Englewood but dating a guy who lived in Princeton, which meant that almost every weekend, I was on New Jersey Transit again. When I lived in New York, of course I took the subway several times a day. When I was in grad school in Connecticut and Gary was living in Jersey City, I took Metro North every weekend to visit him. Later, when we lived together in Jersey City, we used the PATH train to get into New York, and I took the PATH to Hoboken when I was teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology. (There was also a ferry from Jersey City to the World Financial Center; many mornings, Gary began his commute with a boat ride.)

Most of these bus and train systems were very reliable. NJ Transit commuter buses were also quite comfortable, especially since most of the time, I got a seat. I've gotten a lot of reading, studying, and grading done on public transit. I enjoy driving (which I only learned to do when we moved to Reno), but I miss that feeling of leaning back, closing my eyes after a long day, and letting someone else navigate. Even though I now have the world's easiest commute -- ten minutes from home to campus -- I sometimes think wistfully of all those hours on buses and trains.

And I miss the people. On public transit, you saw all kinds of folks: rich and poor, young and old, prosperous and struggling. On public transit you could hear snippets of life stories, give comfort to or receive comfort from strangers, see interactions that would pierce your heart and leave you pondering for weeks. I still think about some of the people I've seen on buses or trains. I still wonder how some of those stories turned out. Cars are very convenient, but they're also isolating, self-enclosed bubbles.

So yesterday I was talking about all this with the lady at the health club. She sometimes rides the Reno bus, and she agreed with me that getting to see all kinds of people is one of the great pleasures of public transit. And I suddenly realized, with a jolt, that I volunteer at the hospital partly to make up for what I lost when I started driving. I go to the hospital to get that amazing cross-section of humanity, to get out of my self-enclosed bubble.

The ER as mass-transit methadone. Who knew?


  1. I have always used public transport to get to work. I shudder to think of how much I have spent on books to read (when you're on a 90 minute each way trip you can get through one book a day easily, if you're reading trash)

    Now, of course, I spend the time writing - modern technology because I cannot read my handwriting at the best of times, never mind if I've been hand writing on a bus or train.

  2. Hi, Martyn! I got my first laptop computer, when I was in graduate school, largely so I could work on my dissertation during the three-hour train rides between New Haven and New York. That first laptop ran MS/DOS on a monochrome monitor. Now I have an ultralight Sony VAIO (2.75 pounds) that's simply glorious for writing on planes.

    Unfortunately, I don't travel nearly as much as I used to!

  3. Adrian11:41 AM

    There are more connections between public transit and medical stuff, though I had been thinking more about chronic stuff than about emergency medicine. Friends of mine live in a city with good public transit. They're European -- they've *always* lived in cities with good public transit. They take it for granted. It's just the way cities are supposed to be. It's obvious. They say they've never learned to drive because one has joint problems and the other has eye problems. They don't see their physical problems, or their inability to drive, as disabling.

    Where they live, their problems really are *not* disabling. They can do what they want, when they want, if they don't leave the city (and they don't want to leave the city. It's a great city.) In the Detroit area, where I grew up, a lot of people drove (or continued to drive) despite various impairments that would have stopped them from driving if they'd had other options for independent living.

    I live in another city, where the public transit is much less useful. My life would be sharply limited if I relied on transit for everything. That's why I continue to drive, even though it's bad for my hand pain, bad for my migraines, and bad for my peace of mind. I am not disabled only by my physical problems. I am disabled by the combination of physical problems and lack of transit. Living alone casts the issue in sharper relief, as with so many issues.


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