It may be Mass Transit in Manhattan, but in the outer boroughs—except for the inevitable multiculturality of the rush hour commute—transit is about class, not mass. And nowhere more so than on Staten Island.
Most people don’t ask me The Question right away, but sooner or later it’ll come up. “So, uh, how come you don’t have a driver’s license?,” they’ll ask. “Was it revoked or something? How long till you get it back?”
To my questioner, a driver’s license and a car are core components of middle-class identity. Lacking those essentials, I’m not complete, don’t compute. Maybe I’m a convicted felon? Or subject to sudden, unpredictable seizures? Is that why I’m never seen in the driver’s seat, with my hands on the steering wheel?
The truth is much less dramatic. I view most of the post-WWII culture made possible by the privately owned automobile--sprawl, pollution, social dislocation--as destuctive and irresponsible. That's why I don’t own or drive a car.
[My wife, a car owner and driver, has a more moderate view and walks or takes mass transit whenever possible, despite a bad knee. I abide by an agreement we made in 1992--my last year as a car owner or driver. I’m responsible for my own transportation. That's the gist of it. She doesn’t drive me to or pick me up from anywhere. Unless it’s a bona fide emergency.]
What else doesn’t compute to my questioner is the fact that I take the bus. “The bus? Really?,” some people ask. Obviously, they’re thinking, I haven’t understood that the bus operates mainly to get commuters to and from their jobs, and secondarily to transport poor people to the supermarket, the mall, and the emergency room. Don’t I realize I’m not the sort of person who takes the bus?
KNOWN BY WHAT, OR WHETHER, WE DRIVE
On Staten Island, the class character of municipal transit services is revealed nowhere so clearly as on the bus. Here, if you ride the bus you’re either a child, a senior citizen, a recent immigrant legal or otherwise, or poor. That’s not entirely true, of course, but close enough.
Why, local reasoning goes, would anyone who could afford to drive, ride the bus instead? Extending that reasoning: If someone knew nothing about me other than that I ride the bus, would that person conclude I had no other options? Or would the conclusion be—and the correct conclusion-- that I had chosen the bus over the car as my principal means of wheeled transport when, for whatever reason, walking is impractical?
The Class Transit phenom is also very much in evidence when it comes to riding the Staten Island Ferry, where contact with people who don’t look, speak or dress as you do is practically guaranteed. Consider the experience of an ex-St. George neighbor of mine.
As his income rose, this ex-neighbor told me, he felt less and less comfortable riding the ferry. A senior v.p. at a major international bank, my neighbor was a very natty dresser even on the weekend.
As his salary and his threads became more and more upscale, my neighbor told me he began to feel more and more out of place, riding the waves wearing Armani and Ferragamo among postal workers, messengers and secretaries dressed in Old Navy. When he divorced and remarried a few years later, he sold his house and returned to Manhattan whence he’d come.
More recently I heard a radio interview with a man from a southern city who was considering commuting to work by bus for the first time in his life. He said he liked the monetary savings he’d realize by taking the bus, and the freedom to read or nap rather than drive. But what made him hesitate, he said, was the idea of being thrown into close contact with a bunch of people he probably wouldn’t know.
‘THE FANTASY OF HAPPY MOTORING,’ NO MATTER THE COST
Given the growing number and force of environmental, geopolitical and public health arguments against it, private car ownership and everyday use seem destined to become a less and less practical choice—particularly in New York, America’s most walkable city and the one blessed with what is arguably the best mass transit system in the world.
But as with smokers who continue to puff away despite the known health risks and the need to shell out between $7 and $9 per pack, it’s possible that many people, perhaps even most, will want to continue the Happy Motoring fantasy, as social commentator James Howard Kunstler calls it, no matter what the cost.