As a kid growing up, you could have never told me that I’d be riding public transit in my 20s (and soon to be 30s). The small town I grew up in was small enough that one could literally walk from one side of town to the other in less than 30 minutes. Given that everyone knew everyone else, it was easy to get a ride if you needed one. There was a taxi service, but I only remember using it once or twice when I was in high school. Otherwise, I walked or caught rides with friends or family. The only bus I rode was the school bus to/from school.
When I moved to Jackson, MS for undergraduate studies, I had 3 cousins in school with me, and two of them drove; so I always had a built-in chauffeur to shuttle me to/from the mall or grocery store. Jackson did have a bus system, so I did learn how to take the bus from campus to my job on the other side of town. The only downside was once I was at work, the bus stopped running at 6pm, so I’d have to get someone to drive me back to campus after my shift. At this time, I started thinking about how other people were affected by the bus not running after 6 or 630 p.m., not running on Sundays and limited routes. This question remained in the back of my mind for years.
Ironically, my college boyfriend taught me how to drive, but I never bothered to get a driver’s license until I was 24, after I had lived in Atlanta for a year, then New York City for 2 years. In both cities, I made use of their public transit systems. However, after using New York City’s expansive system (plus SEPTA, NJTransit and MetroNorth), Atlanta’s system seemed to be almost as rudimentary as the transit system in Jackson, Mississippi.
I moved back to Atlanta for a year, and worked in Buckhead, a neighborhood just north of Midtown and Downtown Atlanta. My commute was quite complicated – I would take a taxi from home to a local bus transfer center, take a local bus to the Doraville MARTA Station, then ride south to Lindbergh Center, then get on another bus, which would take me a block from my office – then make the same trip at the end of the day. Once express bus service started, I would take a taxi to the mall about 3 miles from our house, then take a south-bound express bus all the way to downtown Atlanta, get on MARTA at Five Points and go north to Lindbergh Center, then get on the bus to go to my office. My average commute was about 2 hours each way, to go about 20 miles. Either way, it was costing me about $200/week.
Then, my mom met someone who was commuting to the same general area, so she’d drive South to our house, then drop me off at the Chamblee Station, where I could ride south to Lindbergh Center and then catch my bus to work. In the afternoons, I would sometimes catch a ride with a coworker who lived “near” me in another suburb.
In 2005, I purchased a car, and moved 65 miles northeast of Atlanta to Athens, to attend graduate school. There was a local bus system, but I admit, I never used it. I did use the campus bus system, because UGA’s campus was sprawling and by that time, I was too out of shape to walk up and down hill after hill. For about 3 months, I commuted to my office in Buckhead (yes, about 65 miles each way – 2 hours driving each way – 5 days a week) before transferring to our office in Athens. I was so exhausted from the commute. Surprisingly, I had a little driving crew – other commuters going into Atlanta who would leave Athens at the same time as me and we’d drive with each other into Atlanta every day together. We never spoke, we never knew each others’ names, but we knew the cars and where everyone would get off.
I knew that after graduation, I wanted to move back to the Northeast. New York had gotten in my blood, and I couldn’t get it out. So, I applied to Planning school and moved to New Jersey. My enthusiasm was the highest my first semester of Planning school – here, I felt like I was finally amongst kindred souls – people who felt as strongly as I did that public transit could be the saving grace of American cities of all sizes and types as a solution to congestion and pollution; and to promote a better quality of life for people in all walks of life, no matter their race, income, ethnicity or gender.
As the semesters wore on, I became disillusioned as I found that some people didn’t see transit the same way I did. Some had never taken public transit, or made fun of me for knowing how to get places in the region without a car. I began to feel isolated, despite belonging to transit forums like TransitHell and having a few friends who I could talk to about transit (or would take transit with me).
As I finish my last semester of Planning school, and continue to search for a job, I wonder if I am too idealistic about what positive things more efficient transit – car, bus, train, light rail, bicycle, pedestrian – can do for the quality of life of people in America, despite the sprawl, inefficient land use patterns and love affair with the car. My frustration with my experiences in Planning school, coupled with disappointments on the job search have left me wondering why even bother with transportation planning? Why not just get a job teaching social studies or English and leave my love affair with transit to the weekends?