Sunday, October 23, 2011

Turning points in my thinking

When I think back on the events that guided my thinking in changing from a car-entrapped suburbanite to a car-eschewing suburbanite, a few specific instances come to mind. This is the first installment. They will not be in chronological order.

In June 1992, I attended a wedding in the San Francisco area. I had been to the area around Sunnyvale and Santa Clara a couple of times in recent years as a result of business trips, but had never had an opportunity to visit out there on a purely personal basis. My wife opted not to go, so I was essentially on a solo vacation for about three days. Since many others from my hometown were also flying in and staying in the same hotel, it was fun to just sit in the lobby and see who walked in. In short order, another girl I went to high school with happened by. We'd never been that close, but since I knew the area, it was useful to be able to explain how to get around and find one's way back to the hotel. She too had arrived a day early to get in a little sight-seeing, but had different agendas, which was fine. What happened afterward, comparing notes on our travels after we got together again after the wedding, made me realize how much having a car really gave us different experiences.

Sitting in my hotel room, I pawed through telephone yellow pages and maps and brochures, trying to figure out how to get to the BART system I had heard about, how to get to various points in San Francisco, and get back. This was 1992, long before websites were common. Even in Silicon Valley, while the hotel room may have had a dial-up plug for a portable computer, it was useless to me. I didn't own one, and even if I did, I had nothing to dial in to, and no sites to connect to with online data. Nevertheless, with the couple of phone numbers I did dial, I figured out how to drive to a BART parking garage in near-enough Fremont, and carried enough cash and small change to make any fare I might need for that, a cable car, maybe a bus or three, and get back. It wasn't easy, and I didn't have all the information I needed, but I had enough to have my adventurous spirit conquer any nagging fear, so drove the rental car to Fremont. In short order, I was singing merrily along at 50 mph on a BART train, reading a discarded USA Today. This was a world apart from trundling through Beechview on Pittsburgh's "T" at 12 mph, stopping every 250 feet.

As the afternoon progressed, I toured the Old Mint, hung off the side of a cable car, walked along the Embarcadero, dined at a little boutique, walked all over the place, and rode an overhead electric bus back to the Powell St BART station. I noted with amazement that it was a 10-car train, and had a stop for a huge stadium. A single person drove this amazing 0.1-mile-long machine, a tiny woman who went off duty at Fremont. In the brief conversation I had with her as we rode down the escalator together, she said it really didn't require that much effort. All the real work went into systems that controlled the doors, made the announcements, and prevented things from going wrong. Impressive, and I took a world of knowledge back to Pittsburgh with me.

My friend from high school, meanwhile, had also made a trip into San Francisco that day. Comparing notes after the wedding, I found out that she had dealt with slow-and-go traffic into the city, then drove down the length of Market Street by herself, looking at things as she went. She paid to park in a parking garage, did some shopping, then got stuck in stop-and-go traffic for 10 miles getting back out to Sunnyvale.

Who had the better experience? In cash alone, I may have spent just a bit more than she did between gasoline and parking and me having a few transit fares to pay. I also did a lot more walking around, whereas she parked and walked into a couple of buildings. She saw a cable car. I hung off the side of a cable car for six blocks. She went shopping somewhere in town. I had a beer, then walked around a park being serenaded by a guy in bagpipes wearing a kilt. She sat in traffic. I read the paper. I guess whatever floats your boat. But that disparity in experience was a thought I've carried with me as I've pushed for better transit in Pittsburgh for the last 19 years.

The real take-away was that I decided in advance to try using transit. This was long before I joined ACTC, but well after I was sold on transit, after I chose a house based on proximity to transit routes, after dealing with a nasty transit strike, and after starting to retire my fleet of old vehicles. The piece that mattered was that people have different experiences in a strange town based on how they choose to physically approach it. I could have been stuck in a car, stuck in traffic, watching the city go by, all while trying not to rear-end the car in front of me. I could do that anywhere. But I went out of my way to experience the city, sans car, and it made all the difference.

1 comment:

  1. What made me so pro-transit? Here's the first installment in a series of posts on that topic. How I ended up hanging off the side of a San Francisco cable car!