Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Being Sick on the Bus

The worst thing about being sick is not being able to ride my bike. Thank goodness west LA has two wonderful bus lines in addition to the standard Metro system. When forced, I use the Santa Monica line that runs right in front of my house. It's an interesting bus line, and I often feel guilty that the only reason I take the bus is because my other options just won't work. I get exposed to all kinds of people, not just my neighbors, but also a wide variety of people who regularly go car-less in Los Angeles. This is an extremely diverse group and I get to engage with people and the city in such a different way than riding my bike.

A few years ago, a colleague and friend of mine (on a recently-abandoned blog) discussed how easy it is to escape racial diversity in Los Angeles as compared to cities on the east coast. Clearly much of this has to do with class issues and public transportation here. But it isn't just an LA issue. Many people all over the U.S. are afraid of public transportation, not just because there is a certain amount of loss when a person must share space in public, especially during one's commute, with people that are from very different walks of life. For example, whenever I go to Atlanta to visit family, I take the MARTA train from the airport. The people who ride that train are either travelers who only use the train when the airport is concerned, or they are daily commuters going to work. The differences between these two types of people is visibly evident not just in their dress, but by race, age, and social class. The tension on MARTA is clear and like other public transportation systems, people rarely talk to each other. Another friend, billtron, is actually spending a good portion of his dissertation discussing individual and group listening practices in the New York City subway system. In this system, iPods (and soon, mobile phones) are integral to the lived aural experience on the subway. People don't look at each other, and unnecessary talking to strangers is rarely an acceptable thing to do. But subways in New York have a very different character than public transportation in other places. Simply, you can't read Los Angeles through the MTA,* the way you could other cities where the transport system cuts across more sectors of society.

I like buses, but the buses in LA are a mixed blessing. They are really the only public transportation currently available on the West-side (well, the entire city). They are the only affordable way to get to LAX (even though it is painfully slow), while other parts of LA like Pasadena have light-rails.
In the last year, there's been a lot of buzz that the city is going to develop more trains to offer some well-needed traffic relief going from downtown to the beaches. As recently as last week, the LA Times ran two stories about the challenges the city is facing as it plans to expand rail service to the west side. Not surprisingly the two biggest challenges come from neighborhood resistance in the form of NIMBY-ism, and higher expenses having to do with waiting so long to engage in a project of this type. (Remarkably, the resistance isn't coming from Beverly Hills, but Hancock Park and Miracle Mile.) It's sad. And I could go into the history of why this happened, but that's already been well-rehearsed.

In the end, my complaints about public transportation would really be half-hearted. Fundamentally, I want to be able to take my bike on a train to visit my parents, as opposed to enduring a 50-mile bike ride that is excessive for a weekend visit. But really, I generally only ride the bus when I am otherwise immobilized. By the time these new trains are finally implemented, I probably won't be living here anymore. Rails would be nice, but the bus system here is functional.

Today, I actually broke a major rule of bus patronage: I talked to my neighbor. It wasn't more than a sentence or two, but it happened. It was the kind of conversation that would never have fit in any other social situation, and it made me happy.

*Although you could certainly come to some fascinating conclusions through such an analysis (as many already have). See, for example, George Lipsitz, "Learning from Los Angeles: Another One Rides the Bus," American Quarterly 2004: 511-529.

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