This morning, after standing in the rain for 15 minutes, I boarded the Metro Nashville Bus which I take to work each morning (my employer, Vanderbilt University, generously provides free boarding for all employees on the entire Metro system). I noticed, as I always do when it rains, that the bus was at about 75% of its normal capacity. I've always wondered about this. As naive as I am sometimes, I asked the driver why the bus was so relatively empty on rainy days. "For the most part," he says, "the people riding today have no choice. They'd drive if they had cars rather than stand in the rain. You've got a choice, today, you drive."
This concerns me. Not greatly perhaps but it does concern me. While I'm certainly not "Mr. Green" by any means, and while one could easily point fingers at me as well, I started riding the bus because I'm not sure we do have a choice. Whether you're concerned about the damage done by auto exhaust (and this isn't even something I'll debate), or you're concerned about the ongoing global impact of our "reliance on" oil, I'm not sure you should be acting as if you do have a choice. No one likes standing in the rain, no one likes waiting to move, no one likes the inconvenient route buses often take, but some people take mass transit because they don't have other transport. If the rest of us would begin to really believe that perhaps we shouldn't have a choice . . . . that in the long run we don't have a choice, maybe our behavior would change. Maybe but doubtful.
I know the reasons people avoid mass transit, especially in the south, are more complicated than just the matter of convenience. For instance, unlike other areas of the country, my sense is that people continue to associate mass transit in the south with lower classes. That is, it's not a way to get to work; it's poor people's way to get to work (or wherever they g0). So, certainly, we need to work on matters of reputation. Further, unless you completely get rid of your car and no longer have to pay maintenance, tags and taxing, it's often not significantly cheaper (depends on where you live, of course, and the fares). And, of course, some people have child care issues and other problems that make it more inconvenient. But I suppose what I'm aiming at is this: if we all began to act in our lives as if it wasn't a matter of choice (and I'm beginning to believe it's not), as if there were pressing environment and geo-political reasons not to take individual cars to work each day, could we change our behavior? Would we change it? (This goes as well for other aspects of our lives). Now, again, I know it's not that simple: it may well be a zero sum game: less demand equals lower prices, equals less pressure to create alternatives, equals simply a longer time line. But a longer time line matters, especially if we believe in discourse, in persuasion, in the ability to change people's behaviors regardless of economic incentives. I still do. Barely, but I still do.