Getting There is Less and Less Fun April 25th, 2010
Editorial By Noel T. Braymer
Transportation is second only to housing of the cost of living for most people. Flying today often means crowded planes, long waits because of annoying security searches and sudden cancellations. Rail passenger service what little there is of it is no less subject to disruption. Generally we are dependent on our cars. But driving is increasingly becoming a more expensive hassle with rising fuel prices (often caused by Wall Street speculation) high auto repair bills plus crowded and often poorly maintained roads.
Recently I was suddenly “car-less” for a few days because car repairs. The expense of repairing an 8 year old American compact car was stressful enough. Trying to depend on public transportation was a quick lesson on why most bus riders are “transit-dependent”. Most people including myself would rather not take the bus if they have alternatives. I dropped my car off at a dealer in Escondido not far from work and took transit home. The dealership wasn’t in an area with good bus service so I walked over a half a mile to catch a bus to connect with the Sprinter train so I could catch another bus to ride home. After a 10 to 15 minute wait I got the Sprinter at the first station outside of the Escondido terminus. The Sprinter takes almost an hour to travel 20 miles; not exactly high speed but faster than the bus. I got off at the Vista Transit Center. Just as I was ready to cross the tracks to get to the buses the operator blew the train’s horn to get ready to leave. I stopped to let the train pass. Then the train didn’t move and the operator gestured to let people cross the tracks.
This delay was only for a few seconds. I got to the other side of the small station and as soon as I found my bus I saw it pulling out! I ran to stop the driver but he refused to open the door and drove off. The station security guard tried to calm me down telling me that the bus driver couldn’t stop or he could lose his job. The transit agencies policy is not to stop for passengers who are “late” getting to the bus stop because this causes the bus to run late. There has been a problem with buses particularly the one I was transferring to being late making the connection with Sprinter. But the train was on time and I didn’t waste time catching the bus. There seems to be no communications between the buses and the Sprinter. Since during the day this bus runs every 15 minutes it wasn’t considered a big deal if I had to wait for the next bus. The final insult was after my connecting bus left I saw the bus and driver of the first bus I left Escondido on leaving too. If I had just stayed on my first bus and skipped the Sprinter I would have made my connection and gotten home sooner.
For a trip that would have taken roughly 30 minutes by car took almost 2 hours from the time I left the car dealership till I got home. What other travel alternatives do I have? Well I love riding my bicycle. What I soon learned was that I had to plan my travel much more than I would with a car. The nearest stores are less than 2 miles away. But many trips I take are over 5 miles away. I needed to get the most out of any trips I took on the bike to avoid making more than one trip. Plus there are limits to how much I could carry on the bike. Most people won’t ride bikes for transportation because of fear of traffic and the poor state of the roads. Also most bikes are designed for recreation not transportation and require constant repair.
Are there solutions to these problems? It is very frustrating trying to get public transportation providers to make modest improvements which cost little yet would improve their ridership and revenues. Case in point is the lack of connections by Metrolink just between its own trains to say nothing with Coaster or Amtrak trains. Increasingly we are seeing reductions in service and declining tax revenues for transit. Roads are not getting any better and cars are becoming increasingly more expensive to drive. Yet because we are mostly dependent on the car, everything thing is spread out, or as it is called urban sprawl. Urban sprawl causes us to waste time and money running around to get the simplest things done. A classic example of this is the “soccer mom”, driving kids all over the place. One thing we can’t do very well in this country is walk because nothing is walking distance. I have in-laws in Europe and most of them don’t have cars. There is more dependence on transit, but my in-laws travel on foot more than anything else.
There was a time when this was true in this country. My father bought his first house in Altadena just before his second child was born in 1948. He didn’t buy his first car until 1951. A car would have been convenient, but my dad didn’t think he could afford it. My family didn’t use transit that much. But my family in our first house could walk to stores, to church, and to school. My Dad often rode a bike to work. Family and friends did help with rides and cabs were used for important trips like bringing babies and mom home from the hospital.
The solution to reducing traffic congestion, reduce fuel consumption, save money, time , to improve transit , get more people riding bikes and improving physical fitness is to build housing, jobs and stores closer to each other. This doesn’t mean building a Manhattan in every town in America or eliminating the single family home. But we need to rewrite most of the zoning laws of the last 60 years so people can again walk to a train station, stores, churches and schools. People should be able to live within 5 miles of their jobs, not 20, 30 or 50 miles away. We can save a lot of time, money, energy and frustration if only we didn’t “have” to travel so far to get to were we need to go.