Public transportation: To me, magic. To Doug, an insufferable hassle

My personal fave may be the London Underground. It's gear; it's fab; and all those pimply hyperboles...

My personal fave may be the London Underground. It’s gear; it’s fab; and all those pimply hyperboles…

Our brief exchange today about public transportation reminds me that I’ve been meaning to post this email Doug Ross sent me the other day:

I’m still struggling with your love affair with public transportation.  Here’s my latest experience:  I started a new job today and had to travel to Boston for a week of onboarding.  I’m staying with my son who lives about 15 miles south of Boston.   Here’s how our journey went today:
1. Walk 15 minutes in 40 degree weather to train station (or he could drive and pay $7 a day to park)
2. Buy pass for the week for $19 (a reasonable deal, about what I pay per week now for a tank of gas in my Honda)
3. Wait 8 minutes for train
4. Board train. Luckily he is at one of the first stops so I was able to get a seat.  But I am not a small person and that means sharing personal shoulder space with the people on either side of me.
5. Train starts moving.  It doesn’t smell great in the car.   Not as funky as the night before when I spent 20 minutes beside someone who smelled like a mixture of old milk and onions, but not as pleasant as my personal car interior.
6. Next stop, a bunch of people get on.   They all are standing.  Had I seen a woman nearby, I would have given up my seat (since I am a gentleman at heart) but there were none.
7. The guy in front of me decides to stand facing me with his crotch perhaps 18 inches from my face.   This RARELY happens in my car.  In fact, it has NEVER happened.
8. Spend the next 20 minutes hunched over my phone so I don’t have to stare at crotch guy.   My neck starts to hurt 15 minutes in.
9. Arrive in downtown Boston and fight the masses to get off train, hike up stairs to sunshine, and then walk 5 minutes to office.   Imagine if it was a rainy/snowy day?
Overall it took 45 minutes to travel 15 miles.   Maybe it would be worse in a car.  Yes, the parking downtown would make it impossible to justify economically.  But if I had to do this every day, I would quit my job and move to the suburbs.
Your mileage may vary.

For Doug, his unhappy experiences with public transportation — even with those systems that are my favorites, such as London’s Tube — are closely related to his disdain of government as inherently inefficient and incompetent.

All he can see is the hassles; all he can think is how much he’d rather be in his car.

Whereas for me, having the rare privilege of getting to ride on a subway is like a magic carpet ride. I LOVE it. You walk down some steps (or ride an escalator), step onto this conveyance that emerges from nowhere out of a dark tunnel (Minding the Gap, of course), and emerge moments later miles away across a metropolis that would be a nightmare to negotiate in a car, bypassing the traffic as though it doesn’t exist.


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51 thoughts on “Public transportation: To me, magic. To Doug, an insufferable hassle

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    And yes, the cutline on that picture at the top of the post is meant to evoke dialogue from “A Hard Day’s Night.

    I love that picture, and what makes it is the girl in the foreground who is not entirely seen. I saw quite a few girls like that in London, whose sense of style and attitude evoked Swinging London — Carnaby Street and Jean Shrimpton in the mid-60s, long before they were born. Her hairstyle — what little you can see of it, falling to cover one eye — was even evocative of that time.

    The guys in the background were more typical of the great mass of commuter/pedestrians in London that winter — dressed as I was, in bulky, black, water-repellent coats with hoods. That background made such girls as this one pop out by contrast.

  2. Doug Ross

    How often do you ride on trains that are full? How often have you had to stand for 30 minutes in a crush of people? I didn’t even mention the people talking loudly on their phones or the young Asian guys who play music videos on their phones without headphones… I’ve been riding the train twice a day this week and it’s no magical mystery tour. You’re either standing and waiting for a train or bounding down stairways to try and make the train that arrives in one minute.

    The ONLY advantage of public transportation is cost — if you don’t also own a car.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      Magical Mystery Tour!

      While in England, we even managed to take a Charabanc Trip or two — one to Oxford, the other to Woodstock.

      On the coach to Oxford, there was a group of Spanish-speaking young adults who were practicing their English on one another. One guy informed the group that Oxford was known as the “City of Spires.”

      A young woman in the group asked, “What ees Es-pires?” They tried to explain.

      Frequently now, when we see a picture depicting the skyline of Oxford, my wife or I will say, “What ees Es-pires?” and smile.

      We’d have missed that in a car…


  3. Karen Pearson

    Public transportation is a wonderful thing in places where lack of it would result in impossible driving conditions and battles over places to park. It lets cities be land use efficient rather than sprawling everywhere. I’ve used public transportation in NY, Washington DC, and Madrid, all cities that I am not terribly familiar with (in the case of Madrid I didn’t even know the language) and was able to get where I wanted to go without much difficulty.

    1. Doug Ross

      It’s fine one weekends or when visiting a new place. But the day-to-day grind is nothing I would ever choose to do. I’ve never had a job where my commute was longer than 30 minutes in my car. My time is worth more to me than anything. To spend ten hours a week on a train wouldn’t work.

    2. Barry

      My family and I used the trains in Washington a few years ago while there for vacation. They weren’t bad at all.

      I wouldn’t enjoy taking them every day.

      One guy got on the train and sat in front of us and loudly argued, tickled, and I think – spanked his young daughter for a good 10 minutes. I didn’t know whether to call the police, laugh, or cry.

      No one paid him any attention. I tried very hard to avoid looking at him. It wasn’t a comfortable experience. A “regular” told me that there is an “uncomfortable experience” on the train for him every day.

      I’d go nuts with that type of disorder going on around me all the time.

  4. Dave Crockett

    My wife and II have ridden public transportation in London (both the Tube and the double-decker red bus), Washington, D.C. (both the subway and buses), Atlanta (the Metro) and Las Vegas (monorail and buses). I have even ridden the free CATbus service in the Clemson/Seneca area. And they were all generally delightful experiences, even when sometimes crowded with locals (especially the student-stuffed CATbus). I suppose if it were a daily occurrence, it might not be so pleasurable. But in every case, the dollar and time cost of driving/parking a personal vehicle would have been many times that of public transport on those occasions that I opted not to drive a car.

    I suppose that is one of the many reasons I never sought employment in a major city.

    1. Doug Ross

      Try it every day. Try it every day in the winter in the Northeast. Try it at 5:00 when you have to wait 2-3 deep on the platform and don’t make the first train. Try walking a mile from the station to your home in the rain.

      1. Barry

        THe “regulars” in Washington DC told me and my wife to avoid the trains early in the morning and around rush hour in the afternoons.

        The consensus from them was that it was pretty miserable and we wouldn’t like it.

        We avoid those times. If we lived there, and used them, I think it would be miserable- especially in the winter. The wind and cold (It was 12 degrees when we were there a few winters ago) was so rough by 6 year old daughter ended up crying while we waited for the train.

  5. Michael Bramson

    I love public transportation and since I grew up outside of NYC and have lived in both Philadelphia and San Francisco, I have quite a lot of experience with it. It’s safer, it’s better for the environment, it allows for much greater density in urban centers, it is often more economical, it allows one to have a few drinks and still get home safely without a designated driver, it fosters community interaction and cohesion, it is more efficient in dense areas, it allows people who cannot afford a car access to their city, it makes the streets friendlier to pedestrians, I could go on and on.

    Anyone who has lived in a dense city knows the inconveniences of public transportation far better than Doug, but the advantages massively outweigh them. Not to mention all of the inconveniences of having to drive everywhere…

    1. Doug Ross

      “Not to mention all of the inconveniences of having to drive everywhere…”

      Which is not an issue when you live in the suburbs. I can get downtown in 15 minutes.

      If you own a car AND commute daily with public transportation, the economic advantage goes away (except for a few dollars saved on gas).

      I think the people who do it on a daily basis just become desensitized to the negative aspects. I just haven’t developed a tolerance for people pressing up against me for 30 minutes… or the smells… or the annoying riders.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, you can get downtown in 15 minutes, but then you have to park. Which is easier in some places than others…

        This afternoon, I met our good friend Kathryn Fenner for coffee, at the Barnes & Noble in the Russell House. It would have been a pleasant walk from my office (1220 Pickens, just north of Gervais), but I was coming back from somewhere else and trying to park somewhere CLOSER than my office, and as you know, around USC that’s not easy.

        I ended up finding a place about two blocks closer than my office, and being three or four minutes late. Fortunately there are mobile phones, for apologizing…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Of course, it’s 100 times easier to park anywhere around here than in the cities with great public transit.

          I find myself wondering why people in such cities even have cars. In London, we stayed about 100 yards from the Swiss Cottage Tube station, in a sort of upper-middle-class neighborhood. All these people had cars outside their homes, and I wonder how often they really found them useful

          A cool thing in that neighborhood, right between the Tube and our hotel — a sushi place, with a line of cars outside for deliveries. They were all Smart cars, plugged in and waiting. In this country, delivery people generally have to provide their own cars, which quickly wear out from all that stop-and-go driving (my sons over the years have worn out a number of cars that way). I thought it was really cool that it seemed the employer provided the cars, and such cool cars at that…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Just now, I tried to find that place on Google Maps — I was going to grab the satellite image of the Smart cars parked outside.

            It wasn’t there. Maybe the cars just can’t be seen from space. Or maybe it went out of business, so…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I knew somebody would bring that up…

            I left the office with plenty of time to go grab something to eat and meet Kathryn at 2.

            But I was aware of it. And the most dangerous thing I can do, in terms of being punctual, is to consciously think to myself, “Hey, I’ve got plenty of time…” I’m doomed from that point on.

            Whereas if I’m running late and know it and am in a total panic about it, things tend to turn out OK.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              What I SHOULD have done was return to the office and walk from there. The two extra blocks of walking would have taken much less time than the driving around hunting for a space. I was reluctant to do that, though, because I didn’t know when it would start raining again…

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              To elaborate on this: “Whereas if I’m running late and know it and am in a total panic about it, things tend to turn out OK….”

              You realize, that’s why I became a newspaperman. I learned in school that my mind will only focus on a writing task when it needed to be done an hour ago. Then I could do good work.

              If I ever wrote anything ahead of time (something I tried many times to do with my column at The State), I’d look at it again when the deadline had arrived, think “That’s crap; I’m not running that,” and rewrite it from scratch, often tackling a completely different subject. And it was better, because the adrenaline was flowing.

              I could fill a book with all the columns I scrapped and never ran. But nobody would read the book because they were crap; that’s why I scrapped them…

              1. bud

                Must have had decades to work on the 2004 presidential endorsement. (That’s my cheap shot for the day but just couldn’t resist).

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Well, I DID have a lot of time to think about that one. From the time Kerry was nominated, it was a pretty foregone conclusion. Unlike with McCain vs. Obama four years later, which took a lot of discussion, that one did not…

              2. Bryan Caskey

                I’ve been working on an appellate brief for two weeks. Different kind of writing, though. It’s more methodical. It’s like building a wall, brick by brick. Not really the same thing as a column.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Yeah, that’s not the kind of writing I have any experience at (nor do I do the kind of writing that obeys the rule of not ending with a preposition).

                  I write holistically. I get a set of ideas in my head, intuit how they fit together into a whole, and set out the entire thing all at once. (You can’t write a book that way, but it works well for columns.)

                  Teachers tried to get me to write that way — deliberately, in steps and with building blocks. But I never turned in the outline or the 3X5 cards. I got zeroes on that part of the project, then made up for it with the way I wrote the paper, starting the night before it was due. Oh, I’d do some research before that — JUST before that, like on the weekend before. But I didn’t write until the night before.

                  Back in those days, before I could really type, it could take all night. I’d write it out longhand, then type it. Which was a huge chore in the days in which, if you made a significant mistake (something beyond the power of Wite-Out to fix), you had to type the page over before you could go on to the next one. I’d finish typing in time for breakfast, and take it to school…

                  1. Bryan Caskey

                    I think that writing on my blog helps me in my legal writing by engaging in writing that is not so legalistic and cumbersome. By the same token, I do have to change my writing style a little bit. For example, when writing on a blog post it’s fairly common to have paragraphs that are one sentence long. You don’t really want that in an appellate brief.

                2. Brad Warthen Post author

                  The thing about legal “writing” — it IS about building a brick wall. And it’s equally penetrable.

                  It’s about following all the rules and containing all the necessary elements and making all the necessary points, and doing so in the most technical terms possible. It is indeed about constructing an edifice, and the work is more that of an engineer, or a maker of lists, than that of an artist.

                  In the end, if you do it right, you have made a perfect case. But you have created something no normal person wants to read. Only people paid to read it will ever do so.

                  Because every relevant thing has to be in it, it’s a lot like what journalists call “notebook dump” — taking everything you’ve written down and cramming it into the story, without regard for how it reads.

                  I’ve never been much of one for giving general advice to writers. I’ll take their copy and improve it, but I don’t have great faith in the potential for improving someone’s writing with a set of rules.

                  But when I DID give advice, I told people this: Do your legwork until you fully understand your subject, until you’ve GOT IT in your head and know you can explain it. Then put aside your notebook and write what you now know. If you really understand it, you will remember to say all the important parts.

                  Then just use your notebook to check names, titles, spellings, exact quotes, etc.

                  You’ll write something far more worth reading that way, and your reader will better understand what you’ve written about.

      2. Mark Stewart

        I live 15 miles from Boston and drive. It is 30 – 90 minutes each way. 30 is highly optimistic.

        If I could take the train, I would. The only thing that sucks is the Boston commuter rail schedule. In NYC, Chicago and DC it’s the way to go – subway or train.

        And Doug – never sit on the subway if it’s crowded. Just a fact of life.

        1. Doug Ross

          My son took the commuter rail from Acton into Boston all last summer. That process involved someone getting up early to drive him to the train, a lengthy ride into the city, swapping to another train, then walking to work. Three hours a day spent in commuting status. Life’s too short for that nonsense.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      I was mostly with you until this line:

      “…it fosters community interaction and cohesion…”

      Lots of interaction between strangers on the subway, is there? Do tell.

  6. bud

    Seems like a good public transportation system would be so liberating. No hassle with parking. No concerns with crashes. Don’t have to worry about your car breaking down. Don’t have to deal with potholes and terrible drivers. You can work on stuff or read while you’re riding. Generally it is far cheaper. Sure you can have bad experiences on the train but at least from my very minimal experience they’re a great way to get from a to b while getting a mini workout walking stairs and sidewalks.

    1. Barry

      “Good” is the key word

      but the trains can be late, way crowded, those sitting around you might not like you much – or care that you might walk slower when you get older, or care that you are trying to hold your young daugther’s hand

      If I have a choice, I’d drive every single time.

      Catching a subway train on vacation – sure. Otherwise, no way.

  7. Bryan Caskey

    I lived in downtown Chicago and worked at the CBOE before going to law school. It was the only time my life I didn’t have a car. Going into it, I thought it was going to be very limiting, but it was actually very freeing. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like flying a commercial airline but not having any luggage. You just get on, ride, and then get to your destination.

    Admittedly, I didn’t leave the Loop much at all, but I didn’t have much reason to.

    However, it’s part of the identity of the City. Everything isn’t the same. Mass transit isn’t going to work in Columbia (or almost all of the South for that matter) because the population will never be dense enough to warrant it.

    I’m going to go with a Brad-like statement on the issue here and say: Mass transportation is great when it’s appropriate, and it’s not when it’s not.

    If I lived in Chicago or New York I wouldn’t own a car. But then I’d also have to figure out what to do with all my darn guns, since they don’t allow guns in Chicago or New York.

    You do have to make some sacrifices when you leave America. 🙂

    1. Barry

      I think an elevated train system in Columbia might work if

      1) it was cheap

      2) It was super nice, clean, and safe

      3) it had fast service between specific areas

      But this is a dream that wouldn’t happen- so it’s not worth thinking about.

  8. Burl Burlingame

    There’s nothing to prevent Doug and like-minded folks from driving their cars.

    Public transportation is like democracy — terrible, except for all other systems.

    Seems that what’s icky about public transportation is that the public is allowed to use it.

  9. Phillip

    Once again I have to take this opportunity to give a shout-out to the improved Comet bus service here in Cola. There may be waste and fraud with the penny tax but its effect on the bus service is tangible and has made my quality of life better. Especially considering that USC is pursuing unchecked growth (their motto is “no limits,” you’ll recall) and they and the City of Columbia seem to be not at all collaborating on issues of traffic planning, etc. But the increased bus service has been a big help.

    1. Norm Ivey

      Hear, hear!

      Since they have restored service out my way (Two Notch and Village at Sandhills), I’ve seen far more people using the Comet. If the timing were just a little more convenient, I would, too.

    2. Doug Ross

      How much does it cost for a ride? How much would it cost if it were not subsidized by the 99.5% of the county’s residents who don’t use it?

    3. Doug Ross

      Phillip, would you describe your general commute when you use the bus? How far do you have to walk to get the bus? How long does it take to arrive at your destination (distance?) Do you use the bus in inclement weather?

  10. Phillip

    It’s $1.50 per ride…there are some deals where you pay less per ride if you get a monthly pass, but since I don’t go in to the office every single weekday that’s not worth it for me. For me it’s great cause it stops one block from my house and then across the street from my work place. If I time it right walking out of my house (and the bus, with some exceptions, runs usually only about 5-8 mins behind its published schedule), it’s 20 minutes door to door. There is a little shelter at my bus stop, if there’s rain.

    I don’t know about the 99.5% of county residents not using it…I will say that my route is way more consistently full than I ever remember seeing in past years (when I still occasionally would take it). Both directions, and at various times of day. We don’t all have children in public schools but we pay taxes to support them, libraries, etc. for the overall well-being of our city. I have a choice about taking a car or the bus but I bet the majority of my fellow riders depend much more crucially on a quality and reliable bus service than I do. For taxpayers who help support the bus but don’t use it, my answer is: they should consider it, or try it.

    Nobody is suggesting we do anything radical like build a light-rail here in Columbia, but a reasonable bus service (which we definitely did not have before) seems like a minimum threshold to meet for a city of our size. (But, speaking of light rail, if there were a high-speed train between here and various nearby cities like Charlotte, I’d be taking it all the time).

    1. Bryan Caskey

      A high-speed train between Columbia and downtown Charleston is something I would consider supporting. Downtown Charleston is already very walkable, so you don’t necessarily need a car once you’re there.

      The land between Columbia and Charleston is relatively flat and it’s a straight shot. You might be able to get a train going pretty fast. If you could get rolling at 200 mph, you could be in Charleston in a little over thirty minutes.

        1. Norm Ivey

          The problem with the I26 median is the curves and hills. Rubber-wheeled vehicles can navigate steeper grades and tighter curves than rail can. Currently?my lines don’t run direct from here to there. You can catch a train to Florence or Savannah, but not to Charlotte or Charleston.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      Hey Phillip! Sorry I couldn’t make it to your concert. I heard it was amazing! I had a conflict on my calendar (taking my four-year-old to Monster Jam). In a coincidence, I think I saw you yesterday afternoon in Publix. I was going to stop and introduce myself but I was only 90% sure it was you, and it was also really busy in there.

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