A few weeks after leaving Europe and arriving back in the US, it feels good to get back to my busy schedule. Among other instant pleasures, such as cooking my own food and doing my own laundry, I sought solace in my well-loved car, a six-speed manual Ford Focus in adequate condition. I drove it around the city, eventually on the highway, and all the way to East Lansing and back for a concert.
Something was wrong, though. While driving back from that concert, I felt shaky moments driving through the blizzard at 1 am, trying to make it back to Detroit at a decent hour. Maybe my eyes are giving out, maybe I was just too tired; but never before had I ever felt so unsure.
In the back of my mind, the wheels of reverse culture shock whirred: This is ridiculous, I could be on a train home right now.
Although public transportation seems like an easy solution, I have never fully realized its potential. The closest Detroit comes to “public transportation” is the People Mover, which moves in a circle barely covering ten blocks and takes approximately twenty minutes to ride round trip.
Pathetic. Everyone knows it, too.
The difference in socioeconomic levels between the city and the suburbs are most likely to blame for the lack of buses and trains that travel to across town. But what is the rest of Michigan’s excuse? What is the excuse for the rest of the country? What stops me from a train ride to Chicago rather than six tedious hours of driving?
While planes, trains, and automobiles exist as a means of travel for the public by and large, it’s the intercity and rural transportation that creates problems for the majority of Americans. Take Grosse Pointe, my hometown, for example: it’s a suburb just north of Detroit whose goal is to segregate itself from the rest of the metropolitan area as much as possible. Although a bus system exists, its stops are few and far between, only skirting the Grosse Pointe limits.
There are advantages to driving: you can be in control of your own speed (even though you could get there in the same speed as a train), and you can come and go as you please (even though a train would travel back and forth at regular hours). But for those of us who are tight on money, those without regular income, it wouldn’t hurt to have options.
As an offspring of the suburb, I had never received instruction on the use of the public transit system, and therefore was completely lost when I arrived in Europe. While my German peers quizzed me on American trivia I found to be useless, Stella, my Italian-German friend, was taken aback when I had no idea how to read the bus schedule. Before coming to Europe, I had never been on a public bus in my life (save one short, disoriented ride in Quito, Ecuador). There’s something wrong with that. Looking back, I regret all the opportunities I could have taken to ride the bus in Kalamazoo to go to the grocery store.
The problem isn’t just me, though. There’s no getting around the poor maintenance of public transportation in the United States; for many cities, it is unreliable and unsafe for students.
Grosse Pointe is only one example of a city that needs to invest less money in lawn care and more money in public services. We’re talking about a place where more than half the population receives a car on their 16th birthday, although more than half the population could walk to school. Every day, my next-door neighbor drove his Expedition SUV to the same high school I attended. My next-door neighbor and I live two blocks away from our school.
The advantages to owning a car make it tough to weigh: you learn about responsibility of a possession and its monetary value, as well as important navigational skills. But driving two blocks to school? Agonizing over ridiculous parking prices just to drive downtown? Give me a break. Big cities aren’t the only ones who have to worry about getting people across town. Government support should go towards a bus system, not parking tickets for a Range Rover in front of the local high school.
It should call the “People Mover” for a reason.