Public and Private Transit

I generally exercise at the Athletic Centre at the university where I work. I find fitness breaks really need to be convenient, or they are quickly sidelined by this pressing need or that persistent email. Having a gym ready at hand is so very helpful. An added bonus is that my weekday runs are on a treadmill, which I understand to be easier on the knees.

On the weekends, however, I like to do an outside run. It is really a rather different experience in that I use some alternate muscles when running on the ground. Yet other important differences obtain. I have to pay more attention as I run. Traffic patterns, and sidewalk and road hazards warrant attention, as well as the especial need to negotiate people who are travelling in the same direction as me.

Last Saturday I was running down Weber Street, and crossed Franklin, at which point I usually turn left and run a couple of blocks before ducking into a cemetery, a soothing stretch in my run. As I ran toward my intersection, I saw the light go green in my favour, with a walk light to boot. I looked ahead and saw a woman in the right (turning) lane coming toward me. I have learned that you want to ensure you make eye contact in such cases. She saw me, and I kept an eye on her as I sprinted across the street. She glared at me. I suspect it was because I was slowing down her turn. Unfortunately, I understand her impatience. I experience it when I drive.

There is something about getting in a car that ratchets up my hurry-up gene. I have told colleagues that when I drive to work, I arrive with my shoulders tight, my brain a little frazzled, and my blood pressure seemingly raised. But when I catch a ride, take the bus, or walk I arrive relaxed and ready to begin (or end) the day with more equanimity. I experience myself differently in a vehicle. I am often uptight, anxious and impatient – having experienced anything and everything in my way as a hazard and/or an annoyance. In the middle of winter, when I have to wait for pedestrians, I have to remind myself that I am safely ensconced in a few thousand pounds of protection that is temperature controlled, and the poor shmuck on the street is navigating puddles, or snow-banks, or howling winds with a few layers of protection. I have to remind myself that I can afford to take a deep breath and show a little kindness.

There have been news stories this last while about sidewalk-free neighbourhoods protesting the planned implementation of walk-friendly streets. At one level, I can understand this. Walkers can be erratic, and some are even in-your-face bold. But a refusal to address the fact that most of us will one day necessarily need to be able to walk to public transport seems naïve at best, and willfully belligerent at worst. This refusal, at a deeper level, bespeaks a deliberate rejection of empathy; an unwillingness to experience the street in the shoes of people on the street; knowing what it means to be the little guy in the fight.

Drivers, it might be said, are an individual manifestation of the cult of efficiency run amok. The person before me no longer represents a relationship to be negotiated, but a problem to be solved. Of course, I am really transferring my shallowness and impatience onto other drivers, whom I only know from a glance or two (or worse yet from no glances) in my direction. For all I know, their driving might be attributed to a hard hospital visit, or a troubling performance review, or a fight with their partner, etc. But then again, such factors are really an argument in favour of a broader access to public transit – an argument, alas, which may well fall on deaf ears since many of us, I think, prefer the private character of our cars to the “public” of public transit.

I suppose both the private car and the public transit represent seemingly innocent answers to the innocent question: how do we get around? But we cannot afford to ignore that this seemingly benign question is sometimes answered in a malign modality that shape us in ways unaware. At the end of the day, cars more often than not enforce a self-enclosed subject who engages his or her surroundings via the mediating power of a car, while a walker or jogger, or such has a more intimate relationship with her or his environs.

There may be a life lesson in this. I’ll leave that to others, but I want to make the simple observation that no one can opine on this increasing question with impunity. We all have some skin in the game. I, for the sake of the environment – which includes me, look forward to the day when buses and streetcars outnumber cars on our roads. In the interim, I’ll try hard to smile at passing motorists, and patiently wave walkers across the road.

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3 thoughts on “Public and Private Transit

  1. shoreacres says:

    My gosh. My experience is so different from yours. I never feel frenzied or tense because of driving, and I certainly don’t feel isolated or harassed. People here are quite friendly drivers — there isn’t a day that I don’t let someone into traffic, or find myself extended the same courtesy. Drivers take to different lanes to avoid bicyclists, and pedestrians (apart from teenagers, of course) generally use the buttons that are provided, and wait for the light. There’s plenty of eye contact, and plenty of “thank you” waves given and received.

    I certainly do prefer my car to public transport — partly because things are so spread out, a car is a necessity. But beyond that, I never, ever would take the bus in Houston, because of the threat of mugging, robbery, or a random beating. That’s just the way it is. Before we could get Houstonians to widely adopt public transportation in the inner city, there are other issues to be addressed: issues that make me a whole lot more tense than being in a car!

    • agjorgenson says:

      I have traveled in Houston and can completely understand your perspective. I should really write another post in praise of driving, which I can quite enjoy when it involves holiday travel, or something like a drive down to our boat. I think, in my ideal world, good safer reliable public transit would make driving a luxury to be enjoyed when so desired. I should add, as well, that I have never felt in danger using public transit, and rather enjoy the opportunity to do a little reading etc. But that day may yet come for even private transit with self-driving cars!

  2. dianerivers says:

    “An individual manifestation of the cult of efficiency run amok” – yes, this is my experience, having grown up in Miami (where the drivers may be the worst in all of the U.S. ) and having spent my career mostly in Chicago (where defensive driving is a required life-saving skill). I find cars lend an anonymity to drivers that encourages aggressiveness. The jury is out for me on whether public transit is a reasonable alternative, though.

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