Posts Tagged ‘public transportation’

In the safety of my car

September 9, 2009

1022488_heavy_trafficLast night, burning down I-495 in heavy traffic with my entire family in the car, I wondered if we’d all soon be dead. It would take only one aggressive D.C. driver weaving for a moment at 70 miles an hour, and we could all have been history.

“What if,” I thought to myself, “We could have taken a train to the beach instead. How much nicer that would have been. And safer.”

Fast forward 10 hours: Morning commute on the Red Line heading toward downtown Washington. My train car is full, a common scene since that horrible subway collision in June near my home station that claimed nine lives. Repairs to the subway system have left us with delays and overfilled trains ever since.

But I’ve managed to get a seat (after confirming that no elderly or pregnant person is in sight) and settle in. I’m reading the news on my phone when I hear commotion farther down the car. Somebody is yelling and cursing and creating a scene.

And now this person is elbowing and pushing his way through the packed car while barking in a threatening voice: “Where are my enemies, my enemies. I need to know where my enemies are. Are you my enemy? Where is my enemy?”

Nobody is saying anything but everybody’s thinking the same thing. What if he has a gun or a knife and decides to take out an enemy or two? We’d be defenseless.

The train stands still as the conductor tries to get the attention of security. Meanwhile, the man paces back and forth, visibly upset and rambling on about his enemies.

I think about the privacy and safety afforded those who right now move through traffic in their own cars58870_hanging_on__2 with all doors locked from the inside. Riding public transportation, there’s no such thing as privacy or private space and – when it comes down to it – very little safety.

Who needs this? A lunatic with who-knows-what in his pocket making hundreds of hardworking office workers, nurses and federal employees feel vulnerable – and late for work. I think of the many Americans who value and enjoy their private space in their private car and who – if they were on my train right now – would feel mighty snug about their transportation choices in life.

But guess what? Security did show up and removed the bad guy. And I was only 10 minutes later for work than expected, after exchanging smiles with the woman who sat next to me the whole trip.

As far as survival goes, one only needs to consult the
latest data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to know that your odds of living increase greatly when you ride a subway train through run-down innercity neighborhoods, compared with braving the expressway that circles around the city.

Of the 43,032 Americans who died in transportation accidents in 2007, 41,059 – 95 percent – died in highway accidents. Fewer than 2 percent, 845 people, died in train-related accidents.



Glimmer of hope

December 9, 2008

Gloom and doom is everywhere.

Huge corporations are going bankrupt. Half a million people were laid off in the United States alone last month. Homes are foreclosed on in record numbers and Christmas is shaping up to be a bust.

On top of it all, a cold front is gripping the American East Coast, making our noses red and fingers cold.

920015_commutersBuried in today’s morning paper, however, was an astonishing piece of uplifting news. Forced to park their cars at home as the price of gasoline rose above $4 a gallon over the summer, Americans may have – for the first time ever – gotten a taste for public transportation.

During the third quarter, Americans logged more than 2.8 billion trips by train or bus – an increase of 6.5 percent over the same period last year and the biggest quarterly jump in a quarter century, the American Public Transportation Association reported. The steady rise in ridership came despite the fact that gasoline prices dropped down to near-“normal” levels during the quarter.

At the same time, the number of miles traveled on public highways declined by 4.6 percent.

Could it be that Americans are finally discovering what Europeans and Asians have known for decades: that riding buses and trains helps us relax and focus – and perhaps even happier?

In the subway car in the morning, I’m surrounded by people who read novels. The car is very quiet. Unlike in Stockholm, where mobile phones jingle incessantly and private conversations invade your private sphere, the wireless signal dies the moment the D.C. Metro train goes underground. Some commuters take a short nap before starting their work day. Others just sink into their own thoughts, iPods in hand.

“At first I really didn’t like to move farther away from the city,” an executive and father of two young children told me. “But now, I relish those extra 20 minutes on the train because it’s my own time and the only time I have to myself all day. Nobody can interrupt what I’m doing.”

Could it be that those harried folks in Los Angeles think back at the eight-lane traffic gridlock that used to be their morning commute and decided they wanted no more? (L.A. train ridership rose 17 percent during the third quarter.)

Or that people in Atlanta finally got over their fear of black crime and discovered that not only do you survive the subway trip, you can also enjoy it? (Atlanta ridership rose 11.3 percent last quarter.)

Could the American love affair with the automobile, in fact, be fading – and for reasons that have nothing to do with oil prices? Stay tuned.

Back in the U.S.A.

November 14, 2008

1075772_the_metro2In the two years that we’ve been overseas, green has – finally – become hip in America.

The subway car that whisks me to work in the morning is sporting ads from Chevron, the oil and gas giant, that urge us to conserve. Close-up portraits of sober citizens proclaim: “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will use less energy.” Wow!

Public transportation ridership has soared in tandem with rising gasoline prices. Americans took 140 million more trips by bus or train during the spring than they did a year earlier, the American Public Transport Association reports. And as investments plummeted in a weakening economy, venture capitalists managed to pour a record $1 billion into renewable energy projects during the third quarter alone.

Change is definitely in the air.

At my workplace, we have blue recycling bins in the office and the lights automatically turn on and off when we come and go. But progress is uneven – or, should I say – half-hearted?

In September, as outdoor temperatures in Washington, D.C., dropped to a comfortable 80 degrees, I piled on sweaters and cranked up the electric space heater next to my desk because the air conditioning was turning my windowless office into an ice box. There was no way to turn it off, our maintenance man explained. I drank hot coffee to keep my fingers from going stiff.

Our fancy coffee maker, however, is another environmental concern. To brew a cup, you stick a small, sealed plastic container with coffee grains in the machine. When your cup has been filled, the now-empty container automatically falls into a trash bin. How much plastic do I go through in one week?

“And why are there only plastic forks in the kitchen drawer and paper cups for coffee?” I ask a co-worker. “Can’t we buy some cheap mugs and silverware at IKEA and just wash them after lunch?” That would never work, he replies. “People would just leave their dishes in the sink and we’d have a mess.”

papermug11At the take-out restaurant downstairs I’ve made a point of telling the woman at the cash register that I don’t need my wrapped sandwich stuck in a plastic bag. “I’ll just grab it like that,” I say, sounding green and chipper. “It’ll save you some plastic!” I get a blank stare in return. She has no idea what I’m getting at and couldn’t care less.

The printer at the office spits out paper all day long. How many trees did we consume in the past month? I soon learn that some of my colleagues print out reports and documents to read and edit on the train home in the evening. The workload is such that tasks can never be completed even if you log eight or nine solid hours in the office and eat lunch at your desk. Best to print it all out and bring with you.

I rarely see people working on their laptops while in transit and I have yet to hear any discussion about deducting such telecommuting time from the regular workday, as many Europeans do. There’s also, still, no wireless access on the trains that run in and out of D.C. So people do it the old way: On paper.

But hey, we’re making efforts where we can. Metro officials are scrambling to put in more bike racks outside the subway stations, because so many more people are biking rather than driving and parking the car there. That’s progress!