My recent train trek to Tampa, coupled with the absolutely shitty nature of driving ANYWHERE in Miami, has gotten me thinking about transportation. We live in an overwhelming car culture in America. And to be honest, it kinda bums me out. Why are we still waiting patiently for alternate transportation to “catch on” as the rest of the world’s developed nations are whisked away on high-speed rail? Why is the train station in Miami, a pretty major city in the ol’ U.S., a relic of the 1970’s? Why do so many Americans willingly sit in the drivers seat for hours long commutes every day? Why, when planning a trip out of state, do I have to consider plunking down a credit card charge equal to my month’s rent to get a coveted spot sitting on a flying metal tube? Now, it’s no secret to those close to me that I despise driving. I’ll gladly hand off my car keys to anyone willing to chauffeur me for the day. I would much rather amble down the highway in a bus with a stranger falling asleep on my shoulder than have to endure a long road trip as sole captain and passenger of my hatchback. I also have a pretty long-standing love of trains, streetcars, and other “we’re all in this together even if this means a B.O.-smelling journey”-transportation.
When I was 10, my family lived in a cozy apartment on Lazarettgasse in Vienna, Austria. Nestled next door was Zur Goldenen Kugel, a dimly lit restaurant with a mascot dachshund who would visit diners at their table. My bedroom window boasted a lovely view of Allgemeines Krankenhaus, which literally translates to “General Sick-House.” At night I would watch the lights flicker on and off in the various hospital rooms. Right up the road was a streetcar stop. Here’s where I would board the #5 streetcar, ride 3 stops, switch to the #13 bus and journey to Mariahilfer Strasse for dance class. I would make this journey by myself. I feel like this would blow a few helicopter parents’ minds in this day an age. But at 10, I felt perfectly fine tackling this trek twice a week. Sometimes I was accompanied by my flamboyant, Castillian Spanish-language tutor but the majority of the time this was a solo adventure. These rides opened my eyes to the city and it’s people and were a great way to catch a few moments alone when my days were otherwise spent cooped up and home schooled in a tiny apartment.
Just days after George W. Bush declared war on Iraq, I was riding a train with 3 of my very best friends on a day trip to an Irish seaside town. Completely clueless and naive to the rest of the world’s current perceptions of our home country, we didn’t know our accents could cause offense. Which is why we were totally blind-sided when a belligerent, red-faced local angrily approached us, cursing our presence and our president. I wouldn’t say we had been behaving poorly or talking out of turn on that particular train ride. But we WERE teenagers and there WERE four of us. I’m sure we were being as loud as one might expect four teenagers to be when they’ve been handed a little freedom for the day. He spat out his belief that we should have the sense to be silent when everyone on the train hated us so much for where we came from. He questioned our choice of clothing as misguided patriotism. (Puzzlingly, we were all wearing hoodies but only one of them was red so to this day I wonder about this part of his tirade.) We would get on more trains and buses in the days that followed but perhaps a bit more cautiously than our previous teenage fearlessness had dictated.
Riding the subway in New York City with my mom and sister, another family consisting of mother and two children, rushed into our car and sat down across from us. The little girl sat in a stroller, her brother perched next to her on the bench reading chapter books emblazoned with public library bar codes. She started to get fussy and squirmy and as her mom lovingly tried to distract her I realized the little girl lacked mobility in her appendages. She whined and pleaded to be let out of her stroller. Her mom, with exhaustion in her voice, said, “Not here, mija. You’ll fall.” In a last ditch effort the mom held out her cell phone in front of the girl and I watched in awe as the girl played one of those games like Candy Crush, maneuvering around the screen with her chin and lips. The game would *ding* indicating success and the little girl and her mom would dissolve into peals of laughter. Meanwhile, I was overcome with how lovely this mother was. I wanted to grab her hand and tell her “You’re doing a good job!” I wanted to tell ALL mothers the same. Riding in a cramped, rush-hour subway car on the way to get a slice at Russel Simmons’ favorite pizza joint, I was reminded of how many good people there are in this world. How many heroes go unsung.
Public transportation and train travel could be a crucial part of the solution to our nation’s economic, energy, and environmental problems. Every segment of American society – individuals, families, communities, and businesses – stands to benefit from it. Yet there are so many political and infrastructural barriers standing in the way. And even if those hurdles are crossed, erasing the car culture deeply ingrained in the American psyche could prove difficult. A culture obsessed with everyone in their own little box, driving down a highway cramped with exhaust breathing 18-wheelers and government money. Perhaps alternative transportation will never be plausible in America because of our refusal to sit next to or around people that don’t look like us.
And isn’t that sad? Because by sitting with people who didn’t look like me, I learned responsibility and an independent spirit would be integral qualities in helping me achieve my goals. Sometimes the journey is sweeter solo. Keep going. I learned actions have consequences and that too often we must spend time answering for actions we didn’t even insight. Don’t take it personally. Keep going. I learned you can see goodness and beauty in an otherwise ugly world you just have to open your eyes and look. The view isn’t always out your window and the journey is sometimes the best part of the trip. Keep going.