Friday, May 21, 2010

Blessed Are The Poor in Transport

Yesterday, I took my ratbike motorcycle to a nearby shop for a new drivechain and a new set of sprockets. It's a funky little shop, a far cry from the shiny shiny megadealer nearby. The mechanics there are cheery, heavily tattooed, and can do the work on time and for about half the price.
The challenge is getting back home after I've left them the bike, and then getting there again. It's about four miles from my house. I can't have my sons pick me up or drop me off. The 12 year old couldn't care less about driving, and while the nine year old would salivate at the opportunity to get the keys, I'm not sure that little jaunt would end well.
So when I go there, I take the Metrobus.
And We Hate Buses. Americans are carefully programmed to hate taking the bus, a process that begins in high school. It's cemented when that senior with their jacked up fire-engine red '71 Chevelle reminds sad little sophomores that they aren't ever, not never, going to get a girlfriend if they don't get themselves a sweet ride first. We don't like the bus. The popular, successful kids don't ride the bus. And we have to sit there, waiting, waiting, waiting, never sure when it will arrive. It's frustrating, particularly for thems of us who want it right now. It's the American way, baby.
That waiting impatiently part is no longer true. In DC, as I discovered yesterday, the buses are all outfitted with GPS transponders. Those transponders rely data about real-time location to a Metro computer, which then relays data to the Metro website. Information about when the bus will show up at any given stop can be accessed your mobile phone. It's accurate to within 30 seconds. Meaning, you don't have to wait around at the bus stop. It changes the whole equation.
But the popular kids part is still true. I rode the bus twice yesterday. Once the bus was half full. Once it was nearly completely full. Both times, I was the only Caucasian on the bus. Everyone else was Latino, or African American, or Asian, or of Middle Eastern descent. None had about them the trappings of affluence. There were no suits, or expensive shoes. I saw no-one else dickering about on their smartphone, whipping off e-mails to assistants. No-one was manically thumbtyping texts. These were folks who are not on the upper rungs of the economic ladder, or even on the middle rungs. They were working class.
The upper and middle classes were in their cars, zooming around us, talking on their cell phones. Many were driving SUVs. Others were driving hybrids. What struck me, sitting there on my honkey behind, was just how much better at caring for creation my fellow bus riders were.
Our bus was powered by natural gas, meaning essentially no emissions, and no reliance on oil from nations that hate us. With a third-full load of passengers, it gets the same mileage per passenger as my motorcycle. With a full load, that bus gets the equivalent of 165 miles per gallon, which even the best promises of plug-in hybrid technology can't offer.
As I looked around at America's working class, America's bus riders, I realized something. For all of the talk on the right about America' energy independence, and all the talk on the left about environmental stewardship and carbon neutrality, the people who are doing the most they can to make us more efficient are the folks who need to be efficient. As human beings, those who aren't growing temporarily rich on the fleeting abundance of our carbon economy are the ones who are doing the most to care for creation. The folks who cry Drill Baby Drill and the folks who buy thirty-five thousand dollar hybrids loaded with electronic gimcrackery aren't even coming close to the folks who ride the bus, day in, and day out.
Yeah, they may not be the cool kids. Or the "successful" ones. But those things don't really matter, now, do they?
Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse. (Proverbs 28:3)


  1. "I was the only Caucasian on the bus."

    When I read some of your posts I gotta say, D.C. does not sound at all very cosmopolitan. We have mass transit here in the Houston area that while not 100% perfection is still quite good. And you do indeed find all manner of individual on the Metro buses and frequenting the transit centers here. Now much of that maybe due to the fact that Houston is a very large city, in that it is spread out in a wide geography. More so I suppose than D.C. it seems. Never been to D.C. (well unless Fallout 3 counts) so I can't be certain. This is all just observation from your posts regarding DC and Virginny. :o)

  2. DC is an impressive melange of cultures and peoples. But our system of public transportation doesn't reflect that cosmopolitan character. Plenty of Honkey-Americans like myself do use it to commute...but just not as a means of regularly getting around. The system itself is actually pretty well developed, and could be great if our buses weren't chronically underutilized and underfunded.

  3. I grew up in South Dakota, in a town of ~125,000 people. Sprawling suburbia, 4 bus lines. Definitely the demographic you describe. As a high schooler, I expected my own wheels, and when I got them, I drove to school--a school that was about a 10 minute walk from our house. I did graduate school in Madison, WI. Parking on the downtown isthmus between the two lakes would have been next to near impossible. So I walked or biked or took the bus. Again, it's the same demographic you describe, except with the addition of university students. Not a bad experience, but I never did see one of the "progressive" professors riding the bus. Now I live in Berkeley ,CA. The Bay Area is so dense, it's fairly unfathomable to drive anywhere yourself. It is faster to take mass transit or walk. Luckily there is a pretty good network here, but again (and this is in an eco-crazy liberal town) the top of the food chain doesn't drive. They might shun plastic containers and compost their food, but most all of them still drive. My husband and I walk a half hour to our jobs. It's one of my favorite parts of the day. When I tell my parents back in SD this, they think it's ridiculous. At least I'm not spending that time on my butt in a car!

  4. *****on that previous comment, I meant to say "The top of the food chain doesn't take mass transit"