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.
What you have observed about public transportation is true in most areas of the U.S. There is no doubt the car is a big part of American culture. Yes, Americans like to go everywhere on their own schedule not someone else’s. You are right on when it comes to students going to school in the U.S. too. The one thing I would add to your obsevations, is that gas and cars are cheap in the U.S. That is another big reason Americans love using their cars.
Nice job as always Dana.
This reminds me of something Margaret Thatcher once (allegedly) said: “A man who still takes the bus in this thirties has every reason to consider himself a failure”.
In some countries the idea is that only very poor people use public transport – and curiously enough, most of those countries seem to be English-speaking!
It’s incredibly short-sighted. The Czech Republic and other countries in Continental Europe have a lot to be proud of for having such well-tuned public transport systems.
After 18 years of driving in California traffic – LA and Orange Co. – the one thing I loved about Czech was the public transport. Not only did it get you where you wanted, but it was very affordable.
Now in London, I do love the ability to get around easily by Underground and buses, but the cost is increasingly difficult to take. And to travel by overground to anywhere outside of London… forget it! It is cheaper to fly to Prague for a weekend than just take a train to Scotland.
One of my favorite spoof movies is L.A. Story by Steve Martin. He tells his neighbor he is coming over, hops in his car and drives to the next house, only a few feet away. Practically true! Even when a place IS walking distance in L.A., you drive.
Love the observations, Dana. They make me feel normal. 😀
“Yes, Americans like to go everywhere on their own schedule not someone else’s.”
Well, yes, but what about getting stuck in traffic, not being able to find a parking place and when you finally find one, having to run back to feed the parking meter every hour…?
“…gas and cars are cheap in the U.S. That is another big reason Americans love using their cars.”
That’s why I’m excited about gas prices going up in the U.S. People are finally starting to think about the types of cars they drive and about carpooling. I got so tired of SUVs clogging up the roads and blocking my view all the time on my daily 40-mile commute a few years ago. At least one third of the cars on the freeways seemed to be SUVs and those macho trucks, and almost all of them just had one person in them – the driver! What’s the point?
“A man who still takes the bus in this thirties has every reason to consider himself a failure”.
Yep, I bet Margaret doesn’t take the bus! 🙂
“And to travel by overground to anywhere outside of London… forget it! It is cheaper to fly to Prague for a weekend than just take a train to Scotland.”
That’s really too bad. I hope the Czech Republic doesn’t follow suit. Public transport prices do keep increasing here.
“Even when a place IS walking distance in L.A., you drive.”
Not only in L.A. I think it’s very common in the U.S. in general. I noticed it very quickly after first arriving in Texas in 1997. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw people driving from one store to another within one shopping complex.
“Love the observations, Dana. They make me feel normal.”
But what is normal? (A phrase my husband and I use a lot in the Czech Republic as we often feel like aliens here.)
Here’s a book that may help you feel even more “normal”:
Bill Bryson: “I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away”
And since we’re on the topic of driving, you may want to start with the chapter “Why No One Walks”.
Thank you all for the comments!
Needless to say, Margaret has a big share of BP stock. She did not have to worry about transportation costs, since the British public was paying for her commuting needs! Anyway, it is a fact that Americans overuse the car — to go next door! The irony is that the same characters who drive to the store one block away, also pay a monthly fee ($50 – $100) to a Gym (driving there)to get some excercise and walk nowhere on a thread mill? Go figure, that is marketing at it’s best!.. Recent statistics show, that the average American spends close to 1/3 of their disposable income on the auto independance dependency habit. I guess, according to Margaret, I’m a failure, for I’ve given up the car in 1997 and I’m well over thirty…With the money saved ($5K annualy), I can afford to go dinner 2-3 times per month and hire a limo for the event.. It is all about “priorities”!