Public Transport (or the Nonexistence Thereof)
From 1999 to 2004, Jeff and I lived in a suburban town in the San Francisco Bay Area that had a population of some 40,000 people. We had virtually no public transport available. I think there was a bus running between some of the neighboring towns about once or twice a day, but it was on a schedule that was of no use to us and we never figured out where the bus stops were. We each had to have a car to be able to function on a daily basis. We experienced a similar situation in Austin, TX, a city of about 600,000 people, where we lived in the late 1990s. Austin seemed to have regular bus lines in operation, but these buses were used by a fraction of the population – those who couldn’t afford to own a car, and occasionally me… Back then we only had one car available, which Jeff used for his daily commute, so whenever I needed to get somewhere and the car wasn’t around, I either walked along the side of the road (usually being the only person walking) or I took the near empty bus, feeling strange.
The lack of frequent, dependable and convenient public transportation struck me again on our recent visit to the Bay Area. I have gotten very accustomed to taking public transport around Prague and the Czech Republic over the past two years. It’s become second nature to me and I have felt relieved to not have to depend on a car to get me places. We don’t even own a car now and don’t have the need for one. Prague’s public transport is excellent and even the little Moravian village I come from with a population of 800 is served by 10 trains and 24 buses throughout a work day.
The California town we stayed in on our February trip requires the use of a car to get absolutely anywhere and everywhere. To the grocery store, to a restaurant, to the post office, to a DVD rental store, to the dentist, or to the park where you can drive yourself to … take a walk. Getting from one town to another usually requires you to drive as well, unless you’re lucky enough to be traveling between two cities that are connected by the Bay Area Rapid Transit train (BART). But then again, once you step off BART, there is often no convenient way for you to get to your destination without driving. So you get off the train and head for the parking lot to get in your car. Except for San Francisco and some of the cities right on the BART line, there are no local buses, trolleys or trains, not even taxis to take you home.
How do American kids get to school? From what I’ve seen, the real little ones take the school bus. It’s a cute idea and it works. But when kids get older, their parents usually have to drive them to school in the morning and pick them up again in the afternoon. You don’t want to find yourself driving at the time of “school traffic”, which can cause congestion on the roads. Once a teenager turns 16, she may get a driver’s license and her parents may give her a car, so she can start driving herself to school and back. American high schools and colleges are equipped with large parking lots where the students park their cars for the day. I still find myself dumbfounded by this concept. In the Czech Republic, kids either walk to school or take regular public transportation. Being driven to and from school by your parents is unheard of, or at least it was in my school days.
A car is supposed to give you freedom, but I distinctly remember how the ever present necessity to drive made me feel confined and unfree sometimes when I lived in the U.S. Sure, having to rely on public transport is limiting as well, but I just love having the option to hop on a Prague tram or take the train or bus almost anywhere I want to go in the Czech Republic. I think it is really unfortunate that the U.S. is such a car dependent nation. Sadly, the number of cars on Czech roads has been increasing steadily and congestion has become a common problem in large cities and on some freeways. I just hope we Czechs will know our limits and won’t start attaching two and three-car garages to our homes any time soon.