Saturday, July 4, 2009

Many segments of the population are too old for this shit

When your Cap'n was a young whippersnapper, I traveled all over Europe and North America on the cheap. I stayed in youth hostels and friends' couches. I rode overnight from Chicago to Montreal on a Greyhound bus and on another trip from Paris to Venice in a non-sleeping compartment (with the return trip spent slouched against my bag in the corridor, surrounded by Italians who didn't care about "non fumare").

I gradually came to the conclusion that some things are more important than saving a few bucks. Stumbling around Northern Italy I realized that a good night's sleep is one of them. This was confirmed a few years later when Priceline saved me $20 by booking an "off-peak" flight with a two-hour layover in Phoenix at 1AM. Suffice it to say that I've never had anything to do with Priceline again.

Now I try to arrange things so that I always have a seat, and somewhere that I can get some rest. I'm still willing to put up with a lot, but it's less than I used to put up with. I'm not rich by any means, but at this point I can afford to pay $20-30 more for a flight that will get me home before my bedtime, and to take the train even when the bus is cheaper. I imagine that this will continue to change as I get older. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Now I have a strong aversion to cars. Been there, done that, but it's the transit life for me - for all the reasons listed at the top of this page. But supposing I had different priorities, and comfort was more important than avoiding any chance of losing control of a vehicle, or of minimizing my contribution to global warming. Confronted with the choice of relatively cheap and convenient but uncomfortable transit versus paying for a car, I would at least be tempted by the car.

The less convenient transit is, the more people opt for driving. I happen to think that cars have their own peculiar set of discomforts, but at least you don't have nuts preaching at you unless you specifically tune them in. You never have somebody's elbow in your ribs unless you drive a pickup with a bench seat. If you want a more comfortable seat, all you have to do is pay more.

That's the frustrating thing about the New York subway: there's no way to upgrade. No matter how much money you put into the Metrocard machine, the seat is still the same old molded plastic (possibly still sticky from some kid's Mountain Dew). There's no cupholder, no makeup mirror. The most you can do is buy a better Ipod.

Well, almost. James commented on my previous post:
Cap'N, depending on where you live in the city, there is another option re: a higher cost but higher quality option - it's called Metro North and the LIRR. When I find myself experiencing periodic subway burnout, I cough up the extra $2 for a Metro North ticket and enjoy a quiet, fast and immaculately clean trip home.

I have, in fact, had that experience. I live walking distance from the Woodside LIRR station, and there are times when I will spring for the $5.75 or whatever it is and be home in 25 minutes (if I'm near Penn Station to begin with). Of course, the commuter rail lines don't stop in very many places and they don't all have convenient schedules, but when it works out it's great.

There's a third option, even: express buses. As I understand it, many routes were specifically designed to capture some of the market that was leaving the transit system. There was one time when I needed to read books and articles and take notes. The subway was impossible: even if I got a seat, there was nowhere to put the book while I was writing the notes. I tried taking commuter rail, but it was actually too fast to get anything done. What worked pretty well, though, were the express buses. For at least part of every trip I had two seats to myself, and was able to spread out. Even when I didn't, the seats were wide enough that I could manage. And it was quiet: cell phone conversations were kept to a minimum, nobody was rowdy or intrusive. On the way home in the evenings, I think half the bus was snoring.

The commuter trains, of course, are full of people who feel like they're well off enough that they don't want to put up with the noise and dirt of the city. Some of them were born to it, others strove for it. The particular express bus route I rode, I noticed, was full of older Black and Puerto Rican women. I never had much of a conversation with them, but I got the feeling that they had taken the subway when they were younger, but after twenty or thirty years in whatever office or bank branch they worked at, they were too old for that. They had earned the $4 price of the bus ride, and the extra time it took to get to Midtown, and they needed it to keep their sanity.

Without the express bus system, these women would be driving cars. Without the commuter trains, the suburbanites would be driving into Manhattan too. These modes are helping transit to work for the middle class. They work. Let's use them more.


fpteditors said...

Amtrak business class... expensive, but worth it!

Cap'n Transit said...

True enough, Editors, but should it be free?

Anonymous said...

As controversial as it may be, cap'n transit, it sounds like part of what you like about the different modes is the difference in the clientele; older, quieter, fewer snotty kids with moutain dew. If the upgrade is free that advantage goes away. Plus it would likely cost some money to implement so that cost will either go into everyone's ticket price or will come out of taxes. Wouldn't you prefer the better seats go to the old, tired and bad-backed rather than the young person willing to take a worse seat for $2. I'm still the young person looking to save a few bucks so I would prefer neither my ticket price nor my taxes to go up and keep the plastic seat. Cost differences allow people to prioritize based on their personal preferences rather than imposing their standards and the associated costs on everyone else.

J.D. Hammond said...

But tebici, doesn't the fact that some people pay more for transit just demonstrate that they're willing to pay more and not whether or not they actually deserve more?

George K said...

The disadvantage of making a more expensive mode of transportation, such as the LIRR or Metro-North free is that there is a higher chance of undesirable clientele.
However, these modes of transportation are less known to those types of people. For example, I used to live in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Everybody knew about the train, but very few people (including myself) knew about the X29 express bus that ran nearby. Therefore, chances are that the more undesirable clientele will go for the mode of transportation that is more well-known, in the case of Brighton Beach, the train.
As far as the theory that express buses and commuter rail attract people to mass transit that would otherwise drive, that isn't entirely true. Since most of the express buses/commuter trains go to areas such as Lower/Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, that have a lot of congestion and expensive parking, those people would've most likely stuck to the local buses and subways. Very few of those people would've actually driven. For example, on Staten Island there are local buses and express buses. If there were no express buses, my family would always be using the local buses. However, since express buses offer a more direct trip, we use it when we are in a rush. However, if there were no express buses, we would be forced onto the local buses. Basically, we only use the express buses because they are there. (You could, however say that transit systems generally run these services into areas where they have the segment of the population that is ''too old'' to ride the subway/local bus)