Trains and buses

The last two summers, for two weeks each, I’ve gone to Europe with my boyfriend to visit family. I had been to Europe twice before that. Getting around there is unlike most anywhere in the US outside of a densely packed city like New York, and I think that while I may have recognized it as a kid, I see it so much more as an adult. My boyfriend didn’t learn to drive until he came to the US, and as a kid none of his family owned a car. His parents still live in their small town, and even in their 80s they can get around on foot to make jaunts to the grocery store and run nearly all of their daily errands.

In the Swiss town we were visiting, for anyone taking the train, which is part of the national system, not a local bus or subway, it’s a ten minute walk from downtown. The hillside rising up above town is awash with vineyards and wound with a few small streets for access. But even a road along the hillside sprouts an occasional bus stop. While I have not seen the bus running, and don’t know exactly where it goes since I’ve only walked there a bit on a weekend, I can’t say how it works, but the fact that it’s there surprised me.

I understand that the way that Europe probably was and the way it evolved to what it is now, has a lot to do with the fact that there are many people without a lot of space. In the US, we like to spread out. Eisenhower’s Interstate System certainly aided that spread. For a long while, though, this country was dominated by trains. Now trains are everywhere else it seems.

There is something of a renaissance in the US currently underway with our train system – the bastard child included in the transportation funding that no one in Congress seems to really want to talk about and most wish would just go away. Amtrak began to fail in the 1960s as the automobile caught the nation’s attention. By the ‘80s, my mother drove over an old train line that I always looked down, wondering if a train would round the bend of the old brown tracks with the overgrown bushes beside it. My mother said that before I was born she could hear the train whistle during the day. The line has long since disappeared, but maybe it’s a Rail Trail now; if not, who knows what’s happened to it. But I remember being dazzled, even as I sat in my car seat, by the idea of taking a train to somewhere far away.

I took a train a few years ago after visiting my sister in Oregon. I had planned to take Amtrak’s Empire Builder to Chicago. It’s one of the busiest lines in the country, but primarily as a vacation train for the views. I got a phonecall several days before departure that rains had flooded out most of the track, so I needed to reroute. Luckily I had a brother in Boulder at the time. I left Portland, OR heading south to Sacramento, CA and changed trains there for Denver, CO. After staying overnight with my brother, I flew east, missing most of the country that I’d hoped to see from the ground, but getting home in about the same amount of time.

A study came out recently that shows that Millennials, the generation of people born after about 1980, putting me on the line between Gen X and Millennial, have more interest in public transportation, or at least not owning a car, as the generations before them. It’s true that between the older friends I have and the younger ones, there is a definite shift, especially when given the options. I’ve seen how so many more people are pushing for better transportation and biking, and a shift back to trains and away from cars. My younger brother lives in NYC, doesn’t have a car by choice, and uses the train to visit our parents, but my younger sister who lives in rural NH with kids has to have a car. It’s not going to be like Europe anytime soon, but for making it easier to get around in the US, the push for more varied transportation options is a welcome change.

August update

Spring moves into summer. Summer somehow turns to August. Life goes on.

It’s been nearly 3 months since I’ve completely been without a car, and to tell you the truth, it’s been easier than I thought in some ways, and only difficult in a few predicable ones.

First, the harder ways are those that I’ve been prepared for and have been dealing with for a while now, like big grocery store trips or leaving town. I think the most difficult has been the patience I have to have with public transportation, and mostly the buses. I’m a mile from work and a half mile to the nearest T station, as we call the train stops for the MBTA.

Most of the time I don’t mind walking around. I do a lot of it, and that was normal even when I still had a car. I think what annoys me now, though, is those times when I would have just taken my car to avoid hassle. The days when it was windy or raining heavily or I had an appointment after work, I would just drive to my office. I could avoid having to rely solely on the buses, and therefore had more patience when things didn’t go well. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve been exhausted or it’s been raining, and the bus isn’t on schedule. It blows by me as I walk home figuring I’ve already missed it. And there’s always going to a bus you know should be there in 7 minutes only to realize it’s closing in on 15 and still no bus.

My mother is no longer able to drive, either. For her, it’s because of her eyes – she has something similar to Macular Degeneration and she no longer feels comfortable driving. She and my niece came to Boston earlier in the summer to visit the Museum of Science. In the last ten years a bus line between Boston and Hanover has gained popularity. It takes nearly the same time as if we were driving the whole way, and with gas prices, costs almost the same as well. The schedule is good, so on a weekend my boyfriend didn’t have free, I took the bus to NH. The route was familiar and I read as I used to when I was a kid and my parents drove me around. It was relaxing not driving, and although I probably would have preferred driving, it was a great surrogate.

The one benefit I didn’t expect came when I decided to move from my current apartment. I’ve lived in the same place as when I moved to the Boston area 7 years ago and I realized I need something new. Looking at my finances, and by moving my auto insurance and maintenance and registration/inspection into my housing/rent/utilities bracket, I realized I could afford something better and with only one roommate instead of two.Image

I wanted to stay in the area and near my office and obviously near the T and buses. One rule was the new place couldn’t be more than a 10-minute walk to a T stop, which means about half a mile. I also was hoping for something on a bus line that would get me close to work so I wouldn’t have to deal with walking far on bad weather days.

The past few years as a pedestrian have made me much more aware of how little drivers consider anyone outside their metal sphere. Puddles of salty, slushy ice water get sprayed up onto sidewalks without any apparent concern. I’ve seen numerous people sprayed and I’ve been close enough for a few droplets as well.

Last week I finally signed a lease and it included all the pieces I’d hoped for but doubted I’d find. I can get to a T-stop in 5 minutes, work in 5, a bus in 2, and a library, various cafes and food stores in under 10. Not having a car even made it easier to find a place because it meant that I didn’t have to negotiate parking or permits with my new landlord.

My only hassle now, of course, will be the actual move. I’m considering whether to hire a group of college movers to help me. My boyfriend has already warned me about his lack of interest in being responsible for anything larger than a car. I probably only need a cargo van, but I get the idea. I’m moving after Labor Day, so I have time to work that out.