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Take the train and take your life back

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, November 20, 2008 16:54 EDT
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Via Brian, a story from Florida about how the surge in train use hasn’t gone down as much as you’d think as gas prices creep down to where they were. This was my concern as I saw gas prices start going down at the pump. (In Austin, it’s below $2 a gallon now.) If it deflates the cost of food that wouldn’t be the worst thing for my pocketbook, but the environmentalist in me was hoping to see gas prices stay high until it forced this country to rebuild our infrastructure. We’ve already demonstrated we won’t do squat until it’s too late, so I was glad that it was looking too late before it might really be too late, and kicking people into gear. All discussions about taking steps towards discouraging car use and encouraging public transportation are usually met with a chorus of howls from people who may buy organic and recycle, but don’t want to give up their cars and will cling to all negative side effects of the change without asking the question, “Are the negative aspects of the change worse than the negative aspects of continuing as is?”

A lot of people need to use their cars. But I think a huge percentage of car use could be replaced by public transportation, bicycling, or walking, but that people don’t see the changes they could make because habit sends them straight to their cars. There’s the fear of change aspect, and generally the only way to overcome that problem is to put enough obstacles up that people have to change. It’s basic psychology. You could have a dog that sleeps on your couch and it’s not enough to buy him a softer, more appealing bed. You have to put laundry baskets on the couch so he can’t get up there and has to resort to using the bed, and only then will he find out that it is indeed more pleasant to sleep on the bed. It seems that this effect is happening on the trains.

“We’ve seen a slight drop off, but it’s still considerably above last year,” said Tri-Rail spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold. “People are saying they’ll stick with the train because it is less stressful than getting into their cars and driving.”

I don’t have a car, and have to borrow Marc’s if I need a car. Because I have to borrow, I’m pretty stingy about when I ask, which puts my butt on a bicycle or a bus a lot more often than when I had a truck. It’s so worth it, too, because Arnold is right—driving is stressful. Very few other daily tasks have as many instances where you are frustrated or delayed by someone else’s inconsiderate behavior. Worse, you have to engage in a behavior that isn’t what you really evolved to do—be tense and alert but still. Be moving through space through your own mental processes but still in your body. Neither the bus/train nor the bicycle causes you to mix signals like this. On the bus, you can relax, and on a bicycle, the motion of your body matches your motion through space.

I still hold a massive grudge over the great wrong done to Al Gore in the 2000 election, when he tried to tie environmental concerns to the mental health concerns created by traffic jams. He was right to point out that hours spent each week sitting in traffic, tensely waiting for an opportunity to move, hating your fellow human being, and just generally putting up with the helplessness of traffic isn’t good for people’s mental health. It’s a small thing, but true—I suspect a lot of people who are risks for depression could be pulled back from the brink if they were given back the hours they spend stuck in traffic. And while being on the train or bus isn’t kicking it in your backyard, at least you can read or pay real attention to your music or a podcast, or even just stare into space a little and clear your mind. But it was a big joke then. Not so much now. Maybe now that we’re going to have a President who can speak in complete sentences, and who is committed to weekly internet casts, we can start making these connections for people. Driving less isn’t necessarily a sacrifice. It can be about getting some of your life back. Like Brian says:

I was sold on the train when I lived in San Francisco, and now, after getting off the train in Boca having watched the Rachel Maddow Show podcast, I’m in a fine mood, as compared to when I used to get out of my car, ready to eat a live baby because I just spent half an hour watching people zoom by in the HOV lane while inching along from Hillsboro to Glades listening to NPR and hating life.

Of course, the other thing that the article points out is that no matter how cheap gas gets, the train or bus is cheaper. However, this perversely is part of the problem, because driving is understood as a middle class privilege. People will give it up if it gets way too expensive for them, but they’ll push it. Which is why you didn’t see train usage go up even more, because some people would rather drain their bank accounts than feel like they’ve slid down the class ladder by getting on a train or a bus. (That they could use the money saved for other conspicuous consumption seems lost on people. The lady they interviewed in the article who made the switch could buy an iPhone after just two months of gas savings.) I’ve definitely seen this reaction from people when I tell them I take the bus on occasion. The classic “blink blink” reaction you’d get if you said that you live on Ramen noodles. Like pity and confusion. Which is one reason that while trains may be more expensive to build and operate than buses, with no time advantage, they still need to be built. Because the train doesn’t have the same downscale stigma attached to it that the bus has. Everyone has seen movies where there’s subway scenes with guys in suits with briefcases on the subway. Trains are just cooler and look more expensive, too. That could go a long way to quieting fears of sliding downhill.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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