Old Habits Die Hard: A Look at Public Transportation

With gas prices being what they are, Caitlin Boersma starts taking the bus to work but must overcome unreliability, socioeconomic classism, and a false sense of superiority.

“Gas prices reach all-time high” is a frequent headline. Last week, the U.S. national average finally reached $4 a gallon due to the $140 per barrel price tag. My wallet was already hurting when the best deal I could find was $3.80 a gallon, but I realized I needed a new method of transportation when I drove home to California last month.

I was warned that once I got into the Golden State I wouldn’t be able to find gas for under $4.20 a gallon.

“That’s an exaggeration,” I thought. “There are always those stations that aren’t Chevron. They’ll save me.”

They didn’t. The cheapest gas I found was in Redding for $3.99 9/10. Once I reached my home in the Central Valley, I had to wait in line for thirty minutes to pump the coveted $4.09 a gallon gas at Arco. It cost $4.30 almost everywhere else.

This week, I didn’t even buy a full tank because I wasn’t sure if my debit card could handle the $50+ charge after a recent trip to the grocery store.

Driving – and buying gas – has never seemed like much of a problem to me. My hometown has a bus system and a free trolley that operates in the downtown area, but I grew up in the country about five miles outside of town. It was a trek to the nearest bus stop, and even then, my parents probably wouldn’t have let me take the bus by myself. North Visalia isn’t the safest of places, and it wouldn’t be wise to hang around a bus stop – especially after dark.

To add to the stigma of public transportation, a Visalia bus was hijacked and its driver raped at knifepoint in 2000.

Because of the inconvenient Visalia bus system, a fear of people who ride the bus, and living outside of the city, I was given a car when I turned sixteen. I had a great time, but this experience also led me to be completely unfamiliar with – and even a little scared of – public transportation.

This changed somewhat during my freshman year of college when I left my car in California. I was forced to ride the bus now and again, but I still relied on rides from friends when I needed to get somewhere that wasn’t in walking distance.

This summer, however, everyone is adapting to new methods of transportation in light of high gas prices. I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon. The bus is a great way to get around Pierce County, Washington, but there are limitations to using the bus as my sole mode of transit.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

One of my jobs is in a nearby town, a fifteen minute drive, and requires that I be there in the wee morning hours. There is no bus service at 4:00 a.m. If I have an afternoon shift, the bus can take up to 45 minutes to arrive, and I’m often on a tight schedule. To get to work on time, there is a 25-minute period of downtime during which I simply have to wait.

Many routes have buses that run every fifteen minutes, which is incredibly convenient, but the bus rarely shows up on schedule. If it’s supposed to arrive at 8:45 and 9:00, but doesn’t appear until 8:52, does that mean it’s early or late? When I decide to take the bus, I’ve noticed that my day moves slower and requires a lot more patience.

Riding the bus a few days per week saves me some gas money, but it also makes me feel good about myself in a way that I don’t really deserve. Taking public transportation makes me think I’m doing my part to reduce emissions and, in the process, that I’m becoming a savvy urbanite.

But I’m a pseudo-bus rider. I still take my car whenever I feel like it, I’m hardly helping the environment, and since I frequently get lost when trips require multiple transfers, I’m not really becoming savvy either.

When my housemates and I get together after the workday, we occasionally swap stories about our bus experiences that day. These might include the crazy guy talking about Satan, the woman who insisted on introducing herself to everyone, or the baby who made the bus smell like poop. These accounts are always told in a way that could be prefaced with “listen to what I survived today,” like it was some great feat to sit in a crowded bus instead of driving our empty cars with the temperature and music set to our liking.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

I’ve enjoyed the new experience of relying on public transportation to get around, as have my friends. But it has unearthed a nebulous and touchy brand of classism.

It’s not that I think I’m better than other bus riders, but that I’m painfully aware that I am different. I can afford a bus pass and a car. I choose to ride the bus when it’s convenient, and then feel like a good person for having done so. If I’m running late or have a cumbersome load of groceries, I can drive. Perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up over it, but accepting compliments and feeling vaguely noble for choosing public transportation when plenty of other people do it everyday without a second choice (and then complaining about how fellow riders made me less comfortable than I would’ve been in my own car) makes me somewhat of a fraud.

I’m pleased that rising gas prices have forced me and others to rethink our habits, but there needs to be some social improvement. Perhaps it will require higher gas prices still or cities that are more conducive to walkers, bicyclists, and public transportation, but people need to rely less on their cars. Attitudes about public transportation need to be adjusted. I like to complain about being too cold and being surrounded by crying babies, but I have also experienced positive changes through taking the bus. I don’t have to worry about parking, I get a lot more reading done, and slowing down my day is not necessarily a bad thing.

I enjoy getting around Tacoma without a personal vehicle and hope more people decide to quell their driving habits, but I’m still not ready to sacrifice the convenience of having a car. I expect that someday I’ll be forced to give up this luxury, and I might even find I’m better off without it.

Caitlin Boersma is studying political science and English, but spends most of her time analyzing pop culture. Her premise for a new reality TV show, Killing Andy Milonakis, has yet to be picked up by VH1. She is notorious for spending a week’s wages on a ticket to see Morrissey live.