I was hungry–enthusiastic–to move to an American city with a fully-functioning public transit system, and Cleveland seemed to have potential. In moving here, we sought to rent a place near easy bus or train connections, and I immediately signed up for a monthly transit pass. Even an awkwardly uncomfortable encounter on my very first day riding the bus home with a fellow needing to deliver a racially-charged, drunken rant, did not discourage me. I commuted with the bus, more or less, uninterrupted for 10 months, but it wore me down. And it is with some regret that I say I have adopted a new primary commuting mode for the non-snowy months: a scooter.
I have to admit it: after four consecutive years, and many other jaunts, in Europe, I became a full-believer in the good that a proper public transit system can provide. The good comes on the macro- and micro-levels: it’s good to help organize cities; remove traffic from high-density areas; reduce smog; help move large numbers of commuters, etc. It also helps individuals–I didn’t own a car while in Europe: I could hop on a train, tram, or bus and get to all of my reporting assignments; and for the rare occasion that required wheels, I could rent a car or take a cab without breaking the bank. (Switzerland, sadly, was expensive for everything, but still.) There was something freeing about not needing a car. There was something special about being able to hop on a train to take me right to the Alpine farmer who grows Ricola’s herbs.
This is not a story about an idealistic American expecting two continents to be the same. I realize the United States’ history has been oriented toward cars and highways for the last century–I grew up in the West, where you can drive for an hour or much more before hitting a ‘big city.’ And there are examples of large investments in public transit in the U.S., especially in the last two decades. Older transit systems, in New York City or Washington, D.C., are functional, but one must admit these systems aren’t as modern as Berlin’s U-Bahn, or offering stellar commuter service as seen in Japan.
Still, it’s probably not fair to compare individual systems. There are cultural differences. There are budgetary constraints (priorities.) Excuses aside, at the end of the day, I am not sure we can argue that public transit is bad for anyone, when it’s done well. The trouble usually starts when the conversation turns to ‘well, who will pay for the system? Who will pay for maintenance if tickets sales don’t? What programs won’t be funded, if this one is?’ These are important questions to be answered, but rarely, does it seem, the conversation is held in such a way that would allow the possibility for one side or the other to change their mind. The folks who need public transit the most are often too busy trying to get to work via bus or commuter rail to consider bond issues or infrastructure spending debates. In Phoenix, it took me almost 90 minutes to take the bus to work (the one time I needed public transit there, as my car was indisposed). By car, that drive was 5 minutes. 5.
This brings us to the scooter, a Kymco 250. I am in a similar situation now in Cleveland, that I was in Phoenix, but less extreme. By car, my commute is 15-20 minutes. By bus, with one connection, the ride is nearly an hour. Many Americans commute this distance and more without any trouble…but I like to exercise options when I have them. If it were just the time aspect of commuting, perhaps I wouldn’t have moved to a scooter so quickly, but there are other factors.
In my first 10 months in Cleveland, commuting by bus, I had that first night encounter mentioned above; I was penned into a doorway by (presumed) intoxicated teens on St. Patrick’s Day; I witnessed a group of teens? execute a purse snatching, complete with one conspirator staying on the bus to offer ‘sympathy’ to the victim; I endured the regular loud music, expletives, aggressive phone calls, aggressive random interactions between passengers. And this doesn’t include issues that have come from late or MIA connections, or buses that pull away just as you get there. (That could be a post of its own.)
Many of these things are probably reasons why folks with means choose to drive their car in the first place, and that’s reasonable. But I wanted to be a booster for public transit, and I still am. Only now I am flying solo when I can.
A scooter seems to be a logical solution for my situation. I was fortunate to have the time to pass a motorcycle skills course, and acquire an endorsement. And in researching motorcycles and scooters, for my needs, a scooter seemed best. It is an automatic transmission, making for a much simpler operation. I opted for a 250 (243cc) to allow for top speeds of 70-80mph, just in case. And fuel economy…for two weeks of commuting the gas tab came to about $7.50. Insurance costs about $100/yr. And I am at work, and back home, in 15-20 minutes, instead of an hour (or more.)
Cleveland’s public transit authority has pointed to younger professionals living in the city center as leading the push for more public transit. But there are scores of folks living in the ‘burbs who would love easier, more reliable options, to ditch the car. I understand that decisions about investment, taxation, and utilization are not easily made, just as my decision to get a scooter wasn’t an impulse…it was a calculation made based on my almost-a-year of mixed results using buses.
I will still ride the bus on occasion, especially in the winter months. And I am still a booster for public transit. But I am also an advocate for considering options, and making smart choices. And for now, that leaves me cruising on two-wheels.