This morning I was chauffeured to work by my local bus driver. I am a vocal advocate of using public transportation whenever possible, whether I’m heading to the grocery store or exploring a new city. I have found I do not miss the luxury of a car. I also save a lot of money, since I do not have to worry about car payments, insurance, maintenance or gas. I just pay a flat $56 a month for a bus pass and ride around town to my heart’s content. I don’t even possess a driver’s license.
This lack of a license makes me an anomaly – a curiosity even – among my fellow Americans. Americans worship the car. City development revolves around car ownership. I am reminded of this lack of regard for the pedestrian whenever I head out to my local mall. The Fox River Mall in Appleton, Wisconsin is a loosely collected group of strip malls radiating out from the central mall, all connected by busy roads, but lacking a single sidewalk. As I dodge cars trying to cross from the main mall to Pier One or World Market, I silently curse the city planner who forgot the pedestrian who doesn’t own a car.
For many Americans, an automobile symbolizes freedom. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I first discovered my freedom while riding the light-rail system, affectionately known as MAX. I could zip from the suburbs into downtown or anywhere else in the city within 45 minutes. With such a well-designed and efficient, low-cost system, I questioned the need for a driver’s license. So while all my peers, including my brother, frantically tried to earn their licenses, I decided to forgo one, and see if I could live my life without a car.
Ever since that decision, I’ve found myself defending my choice to family, friends, and even strangers. While my husband is mostly supportive, many of my friends are truly agitated and shocked when they learn I have never held a license. This does not mean I do not know how to drive. I can make it into 3rd gear on a stick-shift. Still, this car-worshipping culture does not know how to respond to me, someone consciously rejecting the ultimate American status symbol.
Forcing myself to rely on the local bus or subway has opened up an interesting window on the world. A city’s public transit system says a lot about the values and character of the people who live there. In Portland, people value stewardship of the environment, and it shows in the city’s intricate network of bike lanes and paths, light rail, streetcars, and buses. Here in Appleton, Wisconsin, the car reigns supreme, and the bus routes are often inconveniently designed, looping out into the outer reaches of the city and then looping back into the central transit center. It often takes me an hour by bus to get to the mall, when it only takes 15 minutes by car. People here also complain that the buses are a menace on the road and unnecessary, disregarding the many disabled and elderly who rely on the bus on a daily basis to get to work or the grocery store.
Chicago and New York’s subway systems are some of the best in the world, a result of the demand from the people living there for an easy, stress-free and low-cost commute around the city. Despite the complaints and grumbles I heard during my 4 months in Chicago, especially about the construction delays on the Red Line, I never heard a single person argue that Chicago should not maintain their public transit system. They value their transit system too much to allow it to disappear.
When you’re visiting a new city, try out the local transit system. Watch the local neighborhoods morph as you speed by, and pay attention to who rides the bus. In Portland, it’s an egalitarian mix of the homeless (in Fareless Square), business people, students, people with bikes, and the elderly. I’ve gotten into fascinating conversations with homeless Vietnam veterans on the books they’re reading while riding the MAX into town.
While I’m in Eastern Europe, I plan to rely extensively on the public transit system. I look forward to being the majority for once, free from defending my choice to live license-free. And I’m excited for a glimpse into the heartbeat of each city and country.