What would it take to get me to use public transit regularly?

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It is World Car Free Day, and city transit was free today – for those who have vouchers they downloaded and printed or picked up at the one of the libraries. I think the idea of free transit for the day is great, but I was a little uncomfortable with the idea that we need vouchers to be able to do it. I doubt vouchers made it into the hands of those who need it the most, though maybe they did through the libraries.

I used to use public transit. When I lived in Montreal I used the Metro to go to and from the university, but since moving away from there, I haven’t used public transit except on the occasional trip to Toronto. I’ve never been on a Sudbury bus before. My younger children have never been on buses at all. So today with the free transit passes seemed like a good time to give them that experience.

I needed to find the bus routes, so I checked out Sudbury transit’s website. There is a thirty second video listed as telling “how to use mybus.greatersudbury.ca on your computer, smartphone or tablet to display the number of minutes until the arrival of the next bus at your stop.” Somehow I don’t believe that video clip was made as a how-to video, but more of an advertisement. In any case, I couldn’t use their mybus site because I don’t know the stop numbers. Thankfully my tweet about it got picked up by another twitter-guy and the good folks on Friends of Sudbury Transit noticed the tweets got back to me with a link to their website.  Their website includes a map through which I could figure out the necessary bus stop, route and schedule

I’ve heard plenty of reports about the buses running behind schedule or ahead of schedule, so I went a little ahead of schedule to the bus stop. The walk to the bus stop was fun. My kids were happily A-Trip-On-The-Busplaying as they scampered along. On the bus they were ecstatic. Homeschooling they’ve never ridden any bus, so being unbuckled was a novelty for them. Seats that face sideways and backwards were a novelty. They wanted to know everything. How did the bus driver know when to stop? Did he stop at every stop even if no one was waiting there? What were the little red buttons for? What were the big red latches for? A lady sitting close to us actually thanked us (non-sarcastically) for livening up her morning ride.

None of the apps that allow passengers to know how long it takes before the next bus arrives helps at all for people, like me, who lack a smartphone. Nor was that information available for the couple of people who asked me about bus routes as I waited at the stop. I did give out a few extra free vouchers to people who had not heard of World Car Free Day.

We didn’t go very far on our bus journey. We went to a grocery store and home again. At the grocery store I told the children that anything they suggested would go into bags they would have to carry home, and they did help carry things for us.carrying groceries

It was a great trip out. It was great to use transit, and the kids are interested in using it another time. However even with my youngest traveling free (she’s under five), it would still cost us over $14.00 to go both ways, as well as converting a half hour trip into a two hour or more trip. For a monthly pass we would be paying $176. We don’t use that much in gas per month, and we’re not ready to stop insuring our car yet. We’ll have to stick right now to what we’ve been doing: my husband walks to work, and I use the vehicle for as few trips out as I can stand. Slowly, we’ll work on enlarging the territory that we are comfortable biking in too.

I have mixed feelings about writing about this, because I know that if I factor in the damage to the planet from car ownership, I should be willing to take the bus. I’m not, and I feel guilty about that. (Probably part of why people hate feminists and environmentalists?) I attempt to counter that by the thought of the time waster it would be for my children and the extra stress on my husband and I if we had to get all our groceries, all the time, by bus. (And how would we possibly by the freezer-full of ethically farmed meat?) Yet I know at the same time that lots of other people do manage by bus, even with families. The things that make it hard for me to make the switch would be luxuries to others, not necessities.

I know there are people who say that the goal should be bringing everyone up economically to the point they can own cars because it can be more convenient. Bringing everyone up economically to the point where they could own cars makes sense to me – that’s about freedom and equal opportunity. Yet then I don’t want everyone to own cars because the roads would be a lot more crowded, pollution worse and more land taken up with roads and parking. The goal has got to be that while we work for economic justice we also work for improved infrastructure so that transit is the preferred choice.

That brings me back to why I started writing this post. I’ve been thinking about comments I’ve seen recently about what it would take to get people to start riding the transit. For me, I think the big thing is the cost. That is what keeps me from riding it when it would be convenient, which is what stops me from getting to the point where I could feel comfortable letting go of my car. Right now it feels like an all or nothing proposition. Either I can afford a car or to take the bus. I don’t feel like I can afford both. I’m only just learning how to look up a bus route. I’m not ready to make a huge jump. Having public transit more affordable would give me the chance to wade into using public transit easier.

I also think there are good arguments out there for why public transit should be free. Free public transit would be a way of helping subsidize those who have to rely on it, as well as encouraging those for whom it is currently optional. It is also fair, in many ways. Through our taxes we pay to maintain the roads and yet I don’t have to pay a service fee to drive on the road. Why not view our transit system as a common good like that too, one necessary enough a person shouldn’t have to pay a user fee?

Yes, I recognize this is a self-serving argument on my part. I want to use the transit and don’t want to spend more money directly on it. I’d rather pay once through my taxes than four times for myself and three kids. I’d rather have it a non-optional pre-paid amount (in taxes) where I feel like I might as well use it, rather than something where I think “ooh, maybe I can save money by not using it today…”. It is totally self-serving, but I don’t think that stops it from being a good idea.

I’m uncomfortable with this blog post because I know it might sound like a bit long excuse for why I’m not “doing the right thing” and using public transit. In a way, it is. But while I’m not, I’m also looking at things I could do. I’m thinking about how much this upcoming municipal election means to me, and wanting to make sure that the candidates who are elected are ones who value making public transit more accessible. I’m thinking about how I schedule my trips and about how I really should plan on car ownership being something for this time in my life – this time while I have young children – and not something that we need forever. And, as my husband reminds me, no one in our household commutes to work or school, so we are doing our part that way.

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One Comment

  • Jennifer | The Deliberate Mom

    Very interesting post Christy. A while ago, I came to the conclusion that I must do all I can but I can’t do everything. There are many ways to lower our carbon footprint… the fact that your vehicle usage is minimal is great. Sometimes some things are necessary.

    My city has a really poor transit system and I refuse to plant my family in the core of the city… so for us, a car is a necessity. However we have a low emissions vehicle and if we every had to replace it we would choose electric hybrid.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    Wishing you a lovely evening.

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