Thursday, 12 September 2013

Get On the Bus...

Hello Friends.

This appears in the September issue of Saskatoon Well-Being Magazine, which you should pick up right now as it will surely be a collector's item. Enjoy!

Hello Saskatoon,

I don't drive a car. I don't know how to and I never learned. When I tell people this, I experience the same reaction I give to people when they tell me they don't watch television or eat meat or cheese. "What do you sit and look at?!" I think, horrified. "What in hell do you put on bread when you feel sad?"

I can't explain why I didn't get a driver's license as a teenager without detailing a complex list of my neuroses (and Well Being's editor tells me I have to use those sparingly as she has many more issues planned). Basically, I couldn't master the level of multitasking required to drive well (monitoring speed, traffic, steering and looking cool) and the idea that a mistake behind the wheel could cause mayhem, destruction and death is frightening enough to keep me out of the driver's seat.

As I say, people don't take it well when they find out I don't drive. "You don't drive? Well, you should!" they say. I hate being told I should do something by people that have no authority over me. "You haven't seen that movie? You should. You don't eat organic? You should! You haven't had sex with a gymnast? Gosh, you really should." But beyond telling me I simply should know how to drive, people have what they believe to be an indisputable argument: "But how do you get anywhere?!"

Well, I walk a lot of places. Remarkably, the same legs that take me from the couch to the fridge can also propel me across bridges, up and down hills, almost anywhere. If I'm out late somewhere, I'm the first to call a cab. I have friends and lovers who drive and if they want some sweet James-company to a place that's only accessible by car, they simply must chauffeur me. Oh and there's one other thing I've relied on since I was old enough to leave the house by myself, one thing I’ve been able to find in every city I've ever lived in, one thing that's always available that not enough people appreciate: I take the bus.

Dream: Get more people on public transit.

Goal: Achievable. Unfortunately, public transit in a lot of cities suffers from apathy and misinformation from people who don't actually use it. People snort, "The bus? That doesn't go anywhere! Transit service is terrible here! I never take it!" Because people believe that to be true and stay off the buses, the buses don't have enough riders to sustain service and the service indeed suffers. In a city like Saskatoon, where most people drive, buses travel nearly everywhere in the city, albeit less frequently, and it costs three dollars a ride. In a city like Toronto, where nobody drives, buses, streetcars and subways travel everywhere in the city, very frequently, 24 hours a day and it costs three dollars and twenty cents. So it seems that if you want better bus service, you actually have to take the bus. I'm not going to tell you that you should, but I am going to tell you what's great about transitioning to transit.

Plan: Tell you, dear Reader, what makes opting to take the bus a really great choice.

It's cheaper. I know, on the face of it, that paying three dollars for a 10-minute ride to Midtown Plaza seems a little much, but consider how taking your car amortizes out over the same trip. Cars cost a crazy amount to buy and I don't know anyone who's driven the same car his entire life, so you're looking at a couple of expenditures that will cost, conservatively, $15,000 to $20,000 a pop (Is that right? How much is a car? I'm terrible at guessing the prices of things I don't own. I'd be that "One dollar! One dollar!" buttface if I was ever on The Price Is Right). Also, consider the cost of gas, not to mention insurance! My beloved very slowly struck a pole in an icy parking lot one night five years ago and still pays out the nose for it every year. His car was fine, so was the pole, but it must be a very litigious pole with a team of lawyers to justify those insurance bills. Additionally, if one uses transit regularly as a way of commuting to work, a monthly pass pays for itself. I take transit at least twice a day so the cost of my pass is negligible.

It's easy. Sitting on a bus requires absolutely nothing of a passenger. You can listen to an iPod, you can read a book, you can text your stupid friend who sends you boring non-messages like, "Hi! :)" and you think, "I guess I'll engage in this now." You can ponder life's Big Questions ("Who are we? What is our purpose? How much does a car cost?"). You can be as distracted as you like and your negligence won't kill someone. Do I have to lecture you guys about texting and driving? Honestly, how many people have to die so we can continue to send "Hi! :)" to our nearest and dearest?

It gives you time. People complain about the waste of time waiting for a bus and then the circuitous route a bus takes to get you to your destination. Plus, if there isn't a bus stop right in front of your home and right in front of where you want to go, you might have to walk a little bit. I'm so, so sorry this fate has befallen you, but there is another way to look at it. Drivers, how many times have you realized you were running late for work, jumped in the car, fought traffic the whole trip, arrived just under the wire, started your work day and felt totally overwhelmed, stressed out and unprepared to begin your work day, right from the start? Transit commuters don't suffer that as much. My commute to work is a leisurely five to 10 minutes of walking and about 10 minutes on transit. It might be a bit faster in a car, but I don't care. Those 15 minutes before a shift give me time to mentally prepare, get in the zone, anticipate what my day might look like. That 15-minute ride home gives me time to decompress, leave work at work and fantasize about what Netflix show I might like to binge-watch tonight.

It's communal. Look, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that people don't suck sometimes. People can be the worst! But I get a little scared of our tendency to isolate ourselves from the outside world. The internet allows us to connect and communicate with people we've never met, one can create an entire work and social life from the comfort of their mom's basement, but like teenage boys that grow beards, just because we can do it, doesn't mean we should. I think there is something healthy and affirming about being with people, even if it's just physical proximity. A random bus might contain a senior citizen, a single parent, a little kid and a sullen teen. You might sit next to a Muslim and across from a vegan. Maybe you'll overhear a group of girls giggling about a boy or a cluster of labourers griping about their boss. My point is you get a dose of humanity on transit that you don't get locking yourself into a car every day. The other day, I was on Edmonton's LRT (light rail transit that goes both under and above ground) and as we crossed a bridge, a four-year-old looked out the window and reported, "I think we're in a helicopter, Mummy." I mean, can you even? A small moment, sure, but I'm smiling now as I think of it.

I've been lucky to live in cities all my life. I've lived in places where transit is prioritized and available. I guess I'd have to buckle down and buckle up in the driver's seat if I ever moved to a small, bus-less community and needed to travel back and forth. I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone can live without a car; sometimes circumstances dictate that you absolutely need one. But for now, if I find myself in Saskatoon or Edmonton or Toronto you'll find me blissfully answering texts on my way somewhere, comfortably at home on public transit. If you find yourself in those places too, why not join me? Or at least send me a text that says, "Hi! :)". I mean, you don't have to, but you should.

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