This is a Tough One

blog on a bikeWith the rise in gas prices, I’ve been seeing more and more people on the streets, walking and cycling, and more people using the subways and the buses. While I know that it has been producing real hardship for some people, I have to admit that it has been fantastic to see this change. So many streets and street corners have come to life. It has always been clear that higher gas prices would have this positive change, and I’ve hoped for it in some ways, but I wish that it had not come about in this way. I’d rather that it was because we’d managed to break out of a political climate so selfish and naive that nobody could propose raising taxes to an extent that would simultaneously give an incentive for people to use their cars less while at the same time providing much needed revenue with which to improve public transport infrastructure. Sadly, instead we’re just having high prices with nothing to show for it but a bunch of expressions of anger, while the oil companies and producers get fatter and fatter.

When I say I’d been hoping for higher prices, I need to clarify. I’m completely aware of the fact that while I get to choose whether I get around by car or not in order to earn my salary, others don’t have that choice. I spend a lot of time telling people that a public transport system in LA exists, and that it is much better than the tired clichés and people’s reluctance to be even slightly inconvenienced would have you believe, and this is all true, but I know that it is not uniformly good. It works well for me, but I chose to live where I live with public transport in mind. Not everyone has that choice, or took that into consideration when they might have had the choice (for one reason or another).

There’s a lot of history to be overcome. Years of cheap gas and flight away from the centre has meant that people have chosen to -and in many more cases are forced to- live very far from where they work and rely on the car to get to those jobs. In many cases, these are among the most vulnerable groups of people, economically. Suddenly rapidly raising the price of gas with taxes to serve some dream of us all cycling and taking trains and buses is naive and destructive, in that a large part of the population gets hurt. That’s not what I had in mind at all. These things would have had to be done in stages, over many years, giving people a chance to adjust to increments, while at the same time continuing to improve the coverage of public transport.

Well, its all changing now, for better or worse. The high prices are here, and people are grumbling, and adjusting out of pain and necessity. And we don’t have a penny more to build more rail lines or add new bus routes. That’s life.

In the meantime, I’m looking at the positives. It has been great to see people walking a few blocks from one venue to another rather than driving and re-parking. It’s been excellent to see people actually carrying bags of groceries from the store and walking along the street with it instead of heading for the parking lot. (A little over a year ago I had a neighbour quiz me about what I was doing when she saw me walking home with a bag of groceries from one of the local supermarkets, not much more than a fifteen minute walk away. There was so much incredulity in her tone that it took me a while to realize that this was all she was asking about. Presumably this “remarkable” feat of mine would not be seen as so remarkable now.)

It has been great to see people using the -still rapidly expanding- bus system more (and there have been even more new rapid routes opened recently- hurrah! – see e.g., here). I’ve especially enjoyed seeing the change in economic – and correspondingly, ethnic – demographic mix that has happened on the city’s public transport. The subway and bus system no longer looks like so much like the alternative LA of predominantly poorer people of colour that it did just a short time ago. You’ve got day labourers sitting next to web designers, inner city school kids sitting next to professors from the fancy universities, and so forth. This happened in the past to some extent, but it is no longer is really all that remarkable. (This may all sound odd to you if you’re not in LA, but that’s how it was.)

The question is whether or not if the prices went down tomorrow people would continue realizing the benefits of sitting on a bus or subway train and letting it take you there while you read a novel. The little bit of extra planning it takes to figure out how to consolidate lots of tasks and errands so that they require fewer (or no) car trips, or can be done on foot all in one neighbourhood, and so forth, isn’t that hard. But everyone is somehow too super special (“I just can’t spare the time”) that they stay stuck in the rut of wanting to dash around everywhere highly inefficiently by car all over the city and then arrive all hot and bothered complaining about traffic and “that idiot who cut me off”, and so forth. This isn’t all avoidable, I know (although I’d like to see, as a next step, better global planning of certain kinds of meetings to make things more local or close to public transport, maybe even use of videoconferencing more when workable, and so forth) but a lot of us are choosing to do this car-centric way of basic existence more than we need to. Sure, sometimes the extra time is hard to come by, but is it really always that way? Can anything be done to use public transport at least for some of the work week? If we (or at least those of us reasonably close to it) get out and use it more, flawed as it is, it will hasten along the improvements that the MTA will make that will make it better, and more accessible to many more people. I’ve seen this happen over the last few years. The bus system has become so very much better in a really short time, has ridership as been increasing due to congestion and gas prices. I don’t think this would have happened if we’d all stayed away from the buses and trains over the last several years. This cycle can continue, but we’ve got to persist in putting pressure on the system by simply using it.

So if the prices went back down, would those extra people I see on the bus and trains and the streets just jump back into their cars? I think that they largely would, if the truth be told. (I hope I am wrong.) They’d all go back to the standard LA excuses about public transport: “it doesn’t work for me”, “I’m too busy to have a long bus commute”, “the subway doesn’t go anywhere”, and so forth. When the car is both cheap and convenient, the bus and train are a distant memory. You see, I’m under no illusions that most people are doing this largely because they suddenly realized that it is better for the environment (not to mention their health – physical, emotional, and mental). It’s about money. I wish the non-money component of the motivation for using mass transit was larger than it probably is.

brompton foldedThis leads me to the last point. I’m a bit embarrassed about feeling this way, as it is not entirely noble, but I’ll admit it. I’ve been getting into a lot of conversations about my bike (as has been usual over these years of cycling in LA), and these are welcome. I’ve noticed that people are expressing interest not just because of the perceived novelty (see photo left and above right, and a host of previous posts) but because they are at least slightly closer to the point where they might be wondering if such a thing might work for them (cycling, if not going as far as using a folding bike)… Overnight, I’m not the eccentric (probably poor) weirdo with the bike that they pass in their cars anymore, but something else entirely. Someone to take seriously.

This is all good, and I should be so pleased, and I am….but what’s really annoying is people so often assuming (and saying so) that I’ve chosen to walk, cycle, etc, to get around because gas is expensive. And they assume it is a recent decision too. As though all the other great reasons that have been there all along (it’s good for the environment, I don’t feel the need to rush around everywhere, I don’t have to deal with idiot motorists, I get lots of exercise, can read when I take the bike onto the bus, I can encounter real people and have conversations with them, I can experience that wonderful city that reveals itself when you’re not whizzing along in a car…) don’t occur to them. So I get random people pulling up next to me in their cars, or noticing the bike on the shopping trolley at the supermarket, saying things like “well, of course with gas at the price that it is now…”, as though it is equivalent to “well, of course with that loaded gun to your head like that…” It’s more than a little annoying. There are reasons to do things that aren’t immediately traceable to its impact on one’s wallet… (And before you write in accusing me of being “elitist” (sigh) I say this not to deny that considerations of money are not important, just that it need not be the only thing that forces us to do less than convenient things. There’s the greater good that lies beyond my own immediate personal concerns.)

So I’ve been trying to think of a good polite and informative response to those remarks. Most of the ones I’ve thought of so far are not really very neighbourly, and I don’t want people to stop engaging in random conversations about how to get around town. Random conversations are wonderful. I might have hit on a good one, but I have not tried it out yet: When it is suggested that I’m cycling because of recent gas price increases, I should simply wrinkle my brow in a concerned way and say “Oh, have gas prices increased?”

Hmmm… Probably just get me beaten up in the playground.

Ok. Now go ahead. Shout at me for touching on a touchy subject. Oh, wait, nobody actually reads blog posts longer than a couple of paragraphs. Everybody’s too busy…

-cvj

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