Public transportation and proof that it’s still not easy to be green

I started a new job today after two years of having two part time jobs — one I loved, one I hated — that left me with odd but wonderful pockets of time to go out on mid-day hikes, lounge around with the cat, bake bread all morning, and blog. I don’t know how other people manage 40 hour work weeks, commutes, and social media. Either I’ll learn, or I won’t. (I apologize in advance if I can no longer read every one of your blog entries, retweet your content, and chat with you on Facebook. Sigh.)

I digress. One of the selling points of the new job was its proximity to a train station. I left work with three minutes to spare today and caught the express train home. The office is literally half a block away from the train, so I thought — hey! This will be a great way for me to test the waters of being car-free. I’ll get to take public transportation for the first time since college and feel smugly green about how much carbon I’m not emitting!

Hah.

Even when the train station is practically in my lap, making the green choice continues to be perversely expensive and inconvenient. The amount of time it takes me to drive to the train station, wait for the train, and get to the office: 1 hour, 15 minutes. The amount of time it takes for me to drive to work in substantial traffic: 45 minutes. The amount of money it costs to pay for parking and a daily train pass: $16. The amount of money it costs for gas and parking once I’m at my destination: $12. The peace of mind of not having to drive in traffic? The peace of mind of knowing that I’m not contributing to carbon emissions? Somehow those fade in significance next to the immediate savings in time and money my car continues to offer.

I grimaced, but I bought a monthly train pass (which you can’t buy at the station — you have to order them online and wait a week), which brings the daily total down to slightly less than my car, but also commits me to a commute that takes an extra 40-60 minutes out of my life every day. I suddenly feel a lot more sympathy for people who have a public transportation option but refuse to use it. Gas is still too cheap, and our transportation systems are still too slow and cost-inefficient. Without a teeth-gritting determination to do the right thing by the planet, I doubt I would be choosing the train.

I think my reluctance, even as a self-described greenie, says something about us as a species. We fall for whatever solution is easy, comfortable, and cheap. While part of the responsibility for making more conscious decisions is certainly ours, I can’t help but think that the government should also step in here and make it easy, comfortable, and cheap — or at least comparable — to make greener decisions. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect anyone but the diehard nutjobs to choose an inconvenient, expensive green option.

All things considered, I stand by my first conclusion: it’s still not easy to be green.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Wow. You are so right. For years, I attempted to convert my parents to recycling. It was, at their age and space in life, just too much work, and not at all conveneinet for then.
    We all have areas where it is still too much of a stretch. But, we do well in others. You are stretching, observing, and sharing. It all works.
    Keep doing that, and just take the train when you can.
    I appreciate that you put this into words.

    Reply

    • Hi Lisa,
      I think you really have to pick your battles, especially when it comes to your parents. I tried to get my parents to use reusable bags and even got my mom a few purse sized ones. She’ll use one and then take plastic bags for the rest of her groceries. Sigh. I have a feeling I’ll be set in my ways by the time I’m sixty, too. Hopefully they’ll be good ways!

      I confess I drove to work today. It didn’t make financial sense to buy the monthly pass and continue to pay for daily passes until it arrived. I almost got hit by a careless driver. Maybe it’s a sign…

      Reply

  2. People always ask me why I take the public transit to work, it takes longer than driving would and I have to wake up earlier than I would if I drove. But for me, it actually is cheaper, but the time I spend on the train & bus to work, I use to read. Something I used to do once I got home from work when my commute was shorter & involved me driving. I love that time and I find that I read a lot more too.

    I agree, it is not easy being green.

    Reply

    • Hi Regina,
      Once I was on the train, it was lovely. I almost finished reading a book on my trips to and from work yesterday. There was no traffic to worry about, and I realized how much of what used to be my reading time had been taken over by internet time. I’m not sorry that I spent the time reading instead of hanging out on Facebook, but I do wish the cost and amount of time were more comparable to driving. Even when I know the full impact of driving, it’s hard to suck it up and set that alarm clock an hour earlier and pay that extra money.

      Reply

  3. Back when I had a real job I thought about trying to take public transportation, but it just made zero sense. To drive took 10 minutes to get to work with free parking. To take the bus was an hour and a half costing nearly $5 a day. In what world does this make sense?

    I strongly believe that subsidized gas prices are the real problem. CatMan did an analysis about a year ago and concluded that when you include the oil company subsidies & tax breaks, environmental clean up cost, and cost of the military operations required to secure access to oil, the current cost of gasoline is well over $18/gallon. That’s the REAL cost that we’re already paying, it’s just conveniently hidden in our income taxes.

    Reply

    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      You are so right that the nominal cost of gas is much, much lower than its true cost — and that all things considered, the train is the better option. Yet even knowing that, it is remarkably difficult for me to dish out the extra time and money to make the greener choice. In some cases, I think things shouldn’t be left up to individual conscience — charge the hell out of me for gas, and see how fast I change! I’d probably get a bike tomorrow if gas were $18 a gallon.

      Reply

      • Absolutely right! I say stop all of the subsidies, tax breaks and wars… or at least include a “war tax” in the cost of gas. If the cost was really attached to the product people would change their behavior in an instant.

        I think that holds true for so So SO many things these days… the real cost of all that cheap stuff from China, the real cost of vegetables flown in from the other side of the planet, etc.

        Reply

  4. p.s. My condolences on having to get a full time job…

    Reply

  5. Posted by Amy on 06/01/2011 at 16:28

    I agree that it’s not always easy being green. I used to ride the bus to school when I was in college. It was ‘free’ for students and they had a direct route to campus. I could have driven there faster, but I didn’t want to deal with parking. I loved it! It was my time to listen to music or study.

    Now it would take me 2 hours to get to work riding public transportation, but only 10 minutes to drive. I don’t see the logic! I’m aware that I could probably buy a bike and ride it to work, but it’s challenging when you have to dress professionally and you don’t have a place to store a bike. Maybe someday!

    Reply

    • Hi Amy,
      My university did the same thing for its students, and while it wasn’t always fast and was sometimes ridiculously packed, I had a lot of time to stare out at clouds and the ocean line. I think I even tried to compose poetry on those bus trips back to my apartment. Heh.

      It is frustrating the way public transportation often isn’t very feasible, as in your case. My last job was near enough that I could have biked, but I don’t own one (I know…) and am terrified of the expressway I’d have to ride on. I’ve seen bikers narrowly escape death on that road.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Sparrow on 06/01/2011 at 18:08

    Add in another wild card factor — my autism and the social repercussions of it — and it explains why I took up bicycling. There have been times in my life where I have regularly bicycled 20 miles every day because it was preferable to taking the bus. To me, a bus represents being trapped in a box with lots of strangers and that’s such an anxiety-inducing scenario that I often found myself just not going — to the grocery, to job interviews, even to something otherwise fun — because I couldn’t bring myself to get on the bus.

    Add in having been sexually harassed by strangers on the bus multiple times in my early-to-mid teens when I took the city bus to school and having watched my favorite city bus driver (after the harrassments, I took to sitting as close to the driver as possible and got to know a few of them somewhat as a result) get stabbed by someone for no reason (the man had not exchanged a single word with the driver and just stabbed him in the side casually as he exited the bus!) and I just can’t do it. The bus is too scary for me to contemplate. I’ve bicycled in the rain, I’ve even bicycled on ice in order to avoid the city bus!

    Now that I have a driver’s license (yes, I am a late bloomer) I drive when there’s ice or rain but I still bicycle most of the time because over the years it became comfortable and safe and familiar to me. I only use bicycles with step-through frames so I can even bicycle to church in a long dress (although there have been times when bystanders have started singing out “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dah-duh” as I rode by — the theme music played in the Wizard of Oz when Ms. Gulch/The Wicked Witch gets on her bicycle in her long skirt.)

    Sadly, I can’t think of any cost-effective way to make public transportation safer and less scary. What I’d love to see (though it would cost a fortune) is some sort of system whereby “cars” are propelled (for example, something like the old trolley systems with wires, but energy efficient) instead of driven. You get to have your own personal vehicle (or the system has plenty of vehicles such that you can always use one but never own one), but you punch in your destination and just sit back and let the system take you where you’re going. No more collisions, no more traffic jams, no more age restrictions on driving. Blind people could “drive” just as easily as sighted. No one would have to be trapped in a box with (potentially dangerous) strangers. Done properly, no parking problems — you call a car when you need one and when you’re done, it goes back into circulation.

    But this is some kind of George Jetson dream, not anything close to reality. And it doesn’t cover things like driving out to the countryside to go camping. But I can dream, right?

    Reply

    • Hi Sparrow,
      I’m sorry your experiences with public transportation have been so rough (to put it mildly). I don’t like being shut in with strange people either, but I’m fine if I can stare out a window and ignore them. Taking the bus or train takes a certain amount of faith in your fellow humans. That’s unfortunate.

      I came across something a bit like what you’re describing in a science fiction book. The details are foggy, but I think they were auto-drive hover cars above magnetic tracks. I would love not having to drive or share space with random people. If you figure out how to implement it, count me in.🙂

      Reply

    • I have the same fantasy about the public transportation pods, and we’re not alone. Check out this article and the video in it: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/cities/delhi-considers-futuristic-driverless-pod-cars/530

      Looks like they’re already building one at Hithrow Airport in London and the city of Delhi (India) is considering building one as an addition to their existing public transportation system. George Jetson here we come!

      p.s. The bus scares me to… it’s like every gang member and who knows who else is on there.

      Reply

      • Posted by Sparrow on 06/02/2011 at 01:16

        Yes! Loving the ULTra pod cars!

        Where we most need them out here is that where I live there are lots of medium-sized towns, about 30 minutes drive apart. Resources get shared among the towns so, for example, I had to go to another town to see my autism specialist but someone with a sleep disorder will have to travel to my town to see a specialist. Additionally, there are only two places to fly out of so most people have to travel half an huor or more to get to the airport, even people living in the third largest city in the state! (I am in the second largest city in the state.)

        I had to quit seeing my autism specialist because there was only one bus per day in and one bus per day out of the city she is in. So the only way to see her without a car is to get a hotel room and spend the night! Not really possible when you’re trying to see a doctor once a week!

        If cars like that could go longer distances, they would be perfect. People could shuttle between the local towns whenever they needed to isntead of being stuck overnight unless they drive. It would really cut down on a TON of emissions to have something like that between towns here because every day there are so many people going from town to town. Some people even work in a different town from the one they live in so they are on the road an hour or more every day just commuting and there is no train or workable bus shuttle available.

        Probably a pipe dream to have something like that out here, at least in my life time, but I’m so stoked to see that they’re at least building them SOMEWHERE! Thanks so much for the link!

        Reply

  7. Public transportation – don’t we all love to hate it? Here in Toronto everybody complains about the system, and it’s got its flaws, but the bitching has to stop because it’s getting us nowhere. It definitely doesn’t get us to our destination faster, and it’s obviously not spontaneously fixing any of the system’s problems. But I digress, that’s not relevant to your post.

    Good luck navigating the work/life balance thing. You may have noticed that I’ve abandoned Twitter (and I do apologize for being limited in my ability to advertise your blog without it). I hope you don’t mind I’m terribly slow at getting to your new posts these days!

    So I’m wondering, am I a “diehard nutjob” for choosing an inconvenient, expensive green option? Or am I supporting something I believe in to make it better for everyone in the future? I guess that makes me a diehard nutjob about locally and sustainably grown produce, too, since that requires a trip to the market on a day/time when I’d rather be doing something else, or visiting an out-of-the way grocery store that happens to specialize in the food I want. It also means spending more. For now. I envision a future in which food that is healthy for us and the planet is available everywhere, and due to demand and subsidies is more affordable. It’s not going to happen if I sit by and choose the more convenient, cheaper option at the grocery next door – there are enough people already doing that, and we’re voting with our dollars. I see transit the same way. You can’t change a system unless you’re within it. What we buy or buy into is what we believe in.

    I admire you for standing by your convictions despite the frustration around your commute; it’s a sacrifice that some of us need to make if we want to see a better future.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Michael on 08/03/2011 at 15:04

    Greetings,
    I just wanted to add that I also catch the bus into work at least 80% of the time, taking the car only on days when I need to run around town for meetings.

    I’ve recently toured some Asian and European cities, and I can confidently declare that public transport is much better implemented in some places than others. On returning to Australia, I had to realign my expectations here – instead of waiting a maximum of 3 or 4 mins for the next train, the most frequently my bus runs is every 15mins (7am-7pm), and with the walk to the bus stop included (but excluding any waiting at the stop) my commute takes 40mins – exactly twice as long as if I had driven. It also costs about 20% extra for the bus fare than it would cost for fuel (acknowledging I drive a small car and also get free parking at work).

    But… I apply the fact that my wife and I share a car, and that if we were to purchase a second car it would come at great additional cost, in terms of registration, insurance, servicing and depreciation. You can apply a price tag here – In my circumstances it could reasonably be about an extra $5k per year (after tax) and that’s if I don’t drive it around too much either. Even if my boss would agree to pay me extra for the 40mins per day I could free up by driving, it wouldn’t get close to $5k.

    Instead, I use that time to read a book that I’ve borrowed free from the library, or chat to/email friends, send birthday wishes, read blogs on my smartphone. I don’t see that I’m losing time here at all, I’m just shifting where I spend my time each day, probably building in more efficiencies into my day anyway.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Michael! I agree that it’s much more relaxing to sit on a train or bus than drive through rush hour traffic…at the same time, I’m so much of a homebody that I really start getting cranky if I’m out of the house 11 hours a day. Kevin and I have been talking about going down to one car as soon as one of our cars dies (his: 1998 Honda, mine: 1997 Ford — think I’m going to lose!) for financial and environmental reasons. But I do wish public transportation would improve first. I’ve lived in the UK and traveled in Asia, and both of those places seemed more conducive to not owning a car.

      My phone, like my car, is out of date — no blog reading for me on a 5 year old flip phone!

      Reply

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