Today is Christmas and many of those who celebrate the holiday, when asked what they want most, will say something along the lines of “world peace” or universal love.” Well, I want all those things too, but I have to tell you that there have been many moments during my years of living in and around Atlanta when what I’ve wished for the most is…a new transit system. Usually this wish translates into actual thoughts (and sometimes mutterings) such as “There’s gotta be something better,” or “I absolutely, cannot believe this!” These thoughts/exclamations generally follow a 30-minute wait in a frigid (or sweltering) station for a train that clearly isn’t coming, or when splashed, post rainstorm (and yet again) by a bus picking up no passengers, headed for Laredo.
“So, drive,” you might tell me. “Stop taking MARTA.” For the most part I have, and I think it’s a shame. For years and years, I faithfully used the bus and the train nearly everyday. I would–at length–advocate the virtues of public transportation to any and all who would listen. It was an issue on which I was passionate.
And the thing is…I still am. I enjoy driving on an open road as much as anyone, but I have no love for intown car traffic. I don’t relish what my solitary driving does to the environment in terms of fossil fuel consumption. I miss the exercise that I get simply from hauling myself and my belongings all over the place. Most of all, I want there to be a reliable, broad-reaching public transportation system in place for those of us who live here–not only as an option for me and others with the option to drive, but to serve the many people who, for whatever reason, don’t have that option to drive. Whenever I visit Manhattan, I’m wowed again by the ease with which one can get around on the trains (although you’ll hear New Yorkers complain about the transit system all the time). I was also impressed with London’s system during my brief visit there. These cities’ systems seem more “organic” than ours here, and certainly employment in those cities (and other major transit-served metropolises like Chicago and San Francisco) is more concentrated into specific areas. Here’s an interesting short article, including maps of transit systems that had an undeniable impact on the cities they serve. You’ll see systems of mind-boggling breadth like those that serve Seoul and Hong Kong, as well as systems devoted to meeting transportation needs contingent on geography–such as Washington State’s system of passenger ferries and the vaporetti system of motor boats used by the citizens and visitors of Venice, Italy.
If you’re a dedicated driver who is interested in exploring a different perspective on getting around, you might check out Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger: Saving Ourselves and Our Cities from the Automobile. Grescoe, like many of my New York friends, doesn’t own a car. In fact, though he knows how to drive, he has never owned an automobile. The book is a fascinating study of public transportation systems worldwide, from Shanghai to Philadelphia, and along the way, Grescoe makes a very convincing argument for a transit revolution. It’s a fascinating and provocative book, especially in the face of dwindling fuel reserves.
And while you’re thinking about mass transit questions, have some fun with Transit Maps of the World: Every Urban Train Map on Earth by Mark Ovenden. Ovenden’s book delivers exactly what the subtitle promises–a collection of maps from every urban transport system on the planet with supplemental diagrams, photos and history. This would be fascinating reading for history buffs and graphic designers, not to mention the type of kid who voraciously devours all available information about a very specific area of interest. Looking at this absorbing book might make you realize that this kid is still alive inside you.
What’s your take on public transit? A matter of indifference or necessary evil? A vital preference or a fascinating theater of the human condition? Maybe it is all these things to you. As for me, I’m determined to try and start showing MARTA a little love this year. From now on I’m taking the train…that is, at least part of the time.