LURE OF THE SHELVES: The fiction section, ETG Book Gallery, Tompkinsville, Staten Island, November, 2007
AN IMPROMPTU TRANSPORTATION-MODE COMPARISON
I've been living car-free for 15 years now. But that doesn't mean I've forgotten what it's like to finance, insure, maintain, repair and drive a car in New York. If I needed a reminder, the week so far has provided the perfect one: two trips to the same place, one by public bus, the other by private car.
Here's the story:
Last night, a friend offered me a ride to the opening of an art show at the College of Staten Island (CSI). The show was hung in a ground-floor gallery in the same building where, two nights earlier, I testified in favor of Congestion Pricing at a hearing called by the NYC Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission. I'd gotten to the hearing, and back, by public transportation. The situation practically demanded a comparison.
From bus . . . to bus . . . to bus
To reach the hearing two nights earlier, on Monday, November 5, I took three buses--two public ones and one operated by CSI. On the main part of the trip--west, I think--on Victory Boulevard, a 4:30 bus was packed, but it moved at a reasonably good clip, and before too long I got a seat. When I got off at the campus stop, I walked to a waiting college-operated bus parked nearby. Soon I was inside the college auditorium, seated and reviewing my notes. The crowded but otherwise uneventful trip had taken me an hour, door to door.
The trip home was the same thing in reverse. The only negative I have to report is that, both coming and going, the wait for the Victory Boulevard bus was longer than I anticipated. I made the other connections fine; still, the 7- to 10-minute wait surprised me. On a bitter cold night, that long a wait could give even the most rabid mass transit advocate second thoughts.
Last night's trip by car was 20 minutes shorter than the trip two nights earlier by bus. But faster isn't always better.
Familiar and surreal
The first part of the car trip, on local streets, was slow but steady. Once my friend turned from local onto the Martin Luther King Expressway (440, I think), everything changed. We had been talking in a pretty animated way about neighborhood stuff and so it took me a minute to realize how dramatically our speed had slowed.
Outside my car window was a scene both familiar and surreal--cars, cars and more cars, ahead, behind, on overhead ramps, on the other side of the median, most inching toward the exit ramp like sand-grains in a funnel, descending in slow motion.
And in an instant, it all came back to me, this tense ballet I used to take part in as a driver, negotiating, maneuvering, alert to opportunity, contesting every inch. My friend, in most circumstances a genial sort, cursed and complained, honked and sighed and continued his rant in the parking lot, where we joined the competition for a parking space, circling the chariots, ready to pounce on any vacancy.
Two nights before, the college bus deposited me just outside the building where the hearing was to be held. Last night, after finally finding a spot in the designated parking lot, we discovered that the designated parking lot was one helluva trek from the same building I had reached so easily by the college-operated bus two nights before.
Better than expected
I experience this sort of thing again and again. Public transportation is almost always better than you expect it to be. It's cleaner, faster and more on-time than widely believed or reported--especially by people who seldom use it. And it's a lot cheaper than anything but your two feet.
Sure there are delays and inconveniences due to new construction. But most of the time the system gets you where you need to go in the amount of time you've allocated. People who would rather plan for delays that can be anticipated than complain about them can sign up on the MTA website and receive an advisory every week, detailing the coming weekend's schedule and the bus and subway lines affected. Similar ferry schedule alerts can be arranged on the DOT website.
Facts to counter the not-quite-lies
Public transit advocates have to be more vocal about the misrepresentations of the system so casually tossed around in conversation. The fact is, that system can compete with private cars not only in terms of cost and environmental impact, but as we approach near total gridlock in parts of Manhattan, perhaps even in terms of time.
If these off-the-cuff misrepresentations go unchallenged, they can be accepted as facts and can actually influence policy. And that's why we have to assert strongly what we know to be the truth. For most New Yorkers, most of the time, public transportation works.