Tuesday, November 12, 2019

My 400-Mile Public Transit Experience: A Multifaceted Analysis

Last weekend I went to a conference at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Because I've been learning about the contribution that flying makes to climate change, I decided to travel to the conference by alternative means. Here is my story.

The trip:

I took a train from Kitchener, ON to Windsor, ON leaving around 7:15 on a Thursday after class, changing in London, and getting to Windsor around midnight. I stayed over in Windsor, then got up Friday and took the cross-border Detroit-Windsor tunnel bus. I got off that bus and walked about 20 minutes to the Detroit bus station, then at 1:05 pm I got on a Greyhound that got into South Bend around 6:30 -- which should have been time for exercise but which I took to be time for wine and food and rereading Lucky Jim at one of the seventeen Irish themed pubs nearby.

The conference was all-day Saturday and in the morning, Sunday. Then I did basically the same thing in reverse, except I took a taxi instead of the tunnel bus and I had to catch the train from Windsor at 5:30 Monday morning.

The transit experience:
The main thing about the transit experience is wtf is with putting train and bus stations way out in the middle of fucking nowhere? To get to the Detroit station you walk past blocks and blocks of concrete and fences and nothing. There's no coffee or food in the station, or visibly near the station (though I did use Apple Maps to make my way eventually to "King Coney" Coney Island Diner which turned out to be awesome). Right, because what long distance bus traveler needs food or coffee?

I thought Detroit was bad, but then the South Bend bus station is at the airport. Literally -- it is inside the airport. Thus forsaking, for no gain, the main benefit of public transportation, which is that you normally don't have to make some special trip in some special expensive taxi or something to get to the station, because in a normal city, normal people put the station in the middle of the city where the people are.

I realize the aim is to optimize. And that the little bus-taking needs of little bus-taking people just don't add up to anything. But come on -- it's supposed to be a station, not a distribution center. We are people, not boxes of Cheerios.

The personal experience
The main thing about the personal experience was the number of small exchanges I had with people that involved small exchanges of generosity and how surprisingly life-affirming that was. On the bus to South Bend, a woman asked me for a mirror, revealed that she didn't have a phone, then ... I don't want to tell her story even anonymously, but let's just say it turned out she was on her way to a different city for one of those things you do when nothing else in your life is remotely working in any way. She needed to call a place, she needed to transfer prescriptions. We chatted and I loaned her my phone. And she called the place and talked to the people. And she called Walgreens. And then she called her friend. And by the end of the trip the planning and the prescriptions were all sorted out.

In South Bend someone let me share a cab at the very last minute, after a hotel concierge said to me slowly "We find Lyft and Uber are fastest. Don't you have Lyft and Uber?" In Detroit, I went back into the station to use the ATM because the taxi driver was like "Uh, yes cards but I could really use the cash so I could get gas today." I don't know how to describe it, but being able to move cooperatively through these small obstacles with other people made some of the world's other awfulness seem momentarily less bad. And I don't know why driving and flying never seem to have that texture for me, but for whatever reason, they don't.

The pointlessness of the gesture experience
When you take a long bus trip that you could easily have avoided with a pleasant flight from the cute Island Airport via straight shot to Chicago, you have a lot of time to ponder the pointlessness of your choice. People are flying to other cities for destination bridal showers, FFS. I know that in context, my individual sacrifice does not contribute to a solution in any measurable way, and that solving the climate crisis is going to require more than individuals making individual choices.

Still, It didn't feel pointless. Generally, I am disturbed and weighed down by the degree to which for middle-class people on up, the lifestyle leading to climate catastrophe feels so easy and seamless. It freaks me out when I'm in the airport and the easiest thing is to buy heavily packaged snacks and use thirteen single-use plastic containers in a row and pay twenty dollars for a sandwich. I know it is capitalism's job to make me feel this ease, and I bristle. So I found weird small comfort in the idea of a 400-mile trip feeling difficult, like yes, it's a 400-mile trip for a person, which is a difficult thing, and it felt difficult. Plus there were water fountains in all the stations for my reusable water bottle.

More relevantly, it feels to me like between now and some hopeful imaginary future in which things work better, things are going to have to change, and we have to start somewhere changing what we think of as normal activities. Some things I'm not so good at, but taking the bus? As we know, that is often within my wheelhouse.

I've talked to some friends and colleagues about the flying thing, and I got a variety of thoughtful responses, including the idea that individual choices aren't the crux of the matter, which is, in some sense, true. But some people also have said "Well, we're doomed anyway. So." and that one I have trouble with. I mean, yes, probably. But even if that is true in the long run, doesn't it matter whether the coastal cities are flooded in 50 years rather than 30? Or whether kids who are five now get a reasonable world when they're 50? Isn't a slightly less bad climate crisis better than a slightly worse one?

I haven't stopped flying, and I'm going to fly to California to see family, a trip that seems non-negotiable to me in terms of having a life because I love them and need to see them. But I'm taking the advice to make each trip count, and I'm going to do more things there and see more people. Partly this will involve a roughly twelve-hour transit trip from the Bay Area to SoCal. I'm checking out the Flix Bus. I'll keep you posted.