Cars, Buses, and the Von Trapp Family Singers

Public transportation is a wonderful thing. We haven’t driven a car for over four months, and we’ve rarely missed it. In our town of 100,000, we can get anywhere we need to go quickly enough by bus or on foot. We leave home 35 minutes before church meetings start, little earlier than last year when we drove every week.

Rarely missing our car is not the same as never missing it, however. I much prefer the train for long-distance travel, but there are a few places I’d like to see closer to home that public transportation doesn’t serve. There are ward members outside of town for whom there is no practical way for us to visit them if we needed to. It’s actually some of the shorter trips that make me miss our minivan the most. Right now, we carry home all our groceries on our backs. Mostly my back. I can carry a lot of food in a backpack and two cloth shopping bags, but that doesn’t amount to much more food than we consume in a couple days. Sometimes it would be nice to pick up ten liters of milk all at once, but it’s not going to happen soon. And building up a cushion of groceries for emergencies? Forget about it.

On the other hand, driving a car offers very limited options for self-representation. The make and model of a car send a clear message about the driver’s wealth and status, or ambitions to such, but not much else. For many people whose mobility is tied to the automobile, the only chance to see and be seen frequently comes during shopping, a family-unfriendly activity whose semiotic possibilities are also strongly coded according to degree of affluence. Riding on the bus or walking about town offer a broader spectrum of self-representation strategies, however. With our last move from the US to Germany, we jumped overnight from merely doubling the national average number of children per family to tripling it. When we usher four kids dressed in their Sunday-go-to-church clothes and chattering in two languages onto the bus, it makes a statement to the captive audience of fellow passengers. People notice. As my wife points out, sometimes the reactions couldn’t be more pronounced if we were all dressed in Lederhosen and Dirndls while singing folk songs. Or, as one woman asked us last Sunday, “You’re Mormons on the way home from church, aren’t you?” Nobody ever asked us that when we drove.

110 comments for “Cars, Buses, and the Von Trapp Family Singers

  1. Norbert
    January 12, 2007 at 9:39 am

    I totally, totally agree. It is a great thing to live in a place where it is possible to go without a car. In a weird way, I always feel quite constrained when I go back to CA (where my parents live) and need a car to go anywhere. It is true that you don’t really interact with people in a car culture.

    Having said that, we do own a car. I was against it when we first moved here. But one day we went to a party on the edge of town. The bus trips took an hour, and we were still twenty minutes early and had to wander around a residential neighborhood in the rain. We stayed at the party for about an hour — long enough to feed the babies — then got back on the bus to get the twin home to bed. So we got a car. It was actually a benefit of my job that we were stalling on to avoid paying the tax on it.

    We only use it about three times a week. ‘Big shopping’ is a plus, and we can now get to the temple in 15 minutes. And as a member of the bishopric, getting out to visit people is possible as it wasn’t before.

  2. DKL
    January 12, 2007 at 11:22 am

    The introduction of mechanized rail travel in Europe raised a concern that trains would enable the riffraff to travel, thereby upsetting the status quo which secluded riffraff-types to certain areas that people with good taste could easily avoid. Once auto-mobility became an option, rail travel seemed innocuous by comparison–when you control where the rail is laid, at least you’re controlling something about the travel patterns of the other half. Thus, laying rail, maintaining under-capacity roads, and imposing exorbitant gas taxes has had exactly the intended effect, and auto-mobility entails a certain affluence that is not required in the US, where you can still get to your destination fairly economically in a rusty old 1973 Dodge Dart or 1978 Plymouth Valare station wagon, so that there’s nothing astonishing or especially expensive or luxurious about a car with a large 6 or 8 cylinder engine. In the end, it’s fair to say that Europe’s elaborate public transportation system is largely a consequence of the fact that, being a society with fairly static class divisions, they hate their poor — sure, they’re willing to through money at them to politically pacify them, but offering them a seat in the proverbial parlor is absolutely out of the question.

    Moreover, its doubtful that the Von Trapp family could have escaped without the use of an automobile.

  3. January 12, 2007 at 11:22 am

    “It is a great thing to live in a place where it is possible to go without a car….It is true that you don’t really interact with people in a car culture.”

    Ditto everything Norbert says. The car culture ends up creating (and/or contributing to the creation of) a social environment of distinct little sovereign places, mostly inaccessible by walking or other forms of transportation, thus undermining social interaction–including your nicely phrased “strategies for self-representation,” Jonathan–and ultimately civic health. Of course, architects and urban planners have been aware of this for years (Greg Call even wisely identified a Mormon angle to it in this post), and the effort to create healthier living environments have had some successes, but the obstacles which face alternatives to the car culture are huge.

    And yet of course, we’re part of it too, again for the reasons Norbert (and Jonathan) point out. We’ve got kids, we’ve got callings, we’ve got people to serve and feed, and thus we can’t (or, I guess, won’t) just secede from the car culture, not so long as we live in the sort of environments modern Western human beings mostly create. I’m a ward missionary now, and I’ve got to hand it to our local elders: the weather has been rough in Kansas lately, and they’ve been out on their bikes pretty regularly nonetheless. But give the amount of ground we have to cover visiting members and investigators, and the conditions under which we need to do it, if we didn’t own a minivan that I could throw the elder’s bikes in at the end of the day when I shuttle them around, the amount of work we do together would probably be cut by nearly half.

    (Incidentally Norbert–good to see a comment here from you! I hope you’ll stick around, and make more; it’s been too long, and we need to catch up.)

  4. Julie M. Smith
    January 12, 2007 at 11:29 am

    “a family-unfriendly activity whose semiotic possibilities are also strongly coded according to degree of affluence”

    Hard to imagine anything more strongly coded according to degree of education than that sentence (grin).

    Also, that sentence made me think of IKEA.

  5. January 12, 2007 at 11:39 am

    Jonathan, are there any of those 2 or 4 wheeled foldable metal shopping carts available for purchase in your location? That’s what the little-old-ladies-in-tennis-shoes (LOLITS) and blind people used in my old neighborhood to shop at the nearby grocery. I’ve even seen people take them on the bus. I realize you’re not in the states, but I’m thinking of something like this:

    I’m a strong believer in at least a 1 to 2 week grocery “cushion” if not a multi-month, full-year, or multi-year food storage. In Indiana we have a snow or ice storm about every 4 or 5 years that shuts down most stores for 2 or more days.

    Even if it’s a few store-bought bags or containers of dried beans, rice, pasta, instant potatoes, powdered milk, flour, and a couple gallons of water in 2-liter pop bottles.

    I lived about 4 years, from ’91 to ’95, without a car in Indianapolis, but I was also literally next door to a shopping center that had a grocery store, dollar store (didn’t they used to be dime stores?), barber shop, restaurant, dry cleaners, and a coin-op laundromat. And it was on the intersection of 2 different bus lines, one of which took me to an even bigger shopping center.

  6. January 12, 2007 at 11:42 am

    “In the end, it’s fair to say that Europe’s elaborate public transportation system is largely a consequence of the fact that, being a society with fairly static class divisions, they hate their poor — sure, they’re willing to through money at them to politically pacify them, but offering them a seat in the proverbial parlor is absolutely out of the question.”

    Interesting theory, DKL. It accounts for all the data, is plausible, and is internally coherent. Unfortunately, it is also historically inaccurate in regards to all its particulars. For starters, you might consider that the automobile, both in Europe and America, began as an upper-class toy which was then–thanks to the marketing genius of men like Henry Ford, the desire for the open road on the part of otherwise economically marginalized women and youth, and the hardball tactics of rubber and oil monopolies that bought up and bankrupted streetcar and railway companies throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries–transformed into a middle-class “must-have.” The poor–both urban (who had no place to park the damn things) and rural (who lived in small villages and just needed reliable ways to get back and forth to metropolitan centers)–clamoured all along for better public transportation. In Europe, where smaller distances, less fluid economic and living patterns, the ability to rebuild infrastructure after WWII, and an earlier-burgeoning environmental consciousness combined to create the political will to serve the needs of the poor, they got the public transportation systems they needed. In America, they didn’t.

    Not that I think the U.S. could have or should have become Germany (where Jonathan is) or Finland (Norbert). In our case anyway, it’s obvious that Kansas is too big and too sparsely populated for public transportation to have ever truly made the automobile unnecessary, and that probably holds for most of the United States. But we certainly could have done better than we did.

  7. Jonathan Green
    January 12, 2007 at 11:51 am

    Bookslinger, I know the kind of carts you describe, and I’m getting closer to qualifying for one all the time, but my pride prevents me from being seen with one in public.

  8. January 12, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Jonathon, come on! The one bookslinger linked to has a cupholder attachment! A cupholder!

    All of what you described reminds me of my family’s time in Germany as young’en and my time in Italy as a missionary, not as much of a young’en. I must say that it would be nice to have the car to use for the 2 or three things you listed: visiting members (when I was branch president, none of the district presidency could ever come to our branch on sunday’s because none of them had a car. It was really, really hard to get things done like calling quorum president’s or getting interviews for reccomends. I was never actually sustained as Branch president until I’d been in for a month or two…), and groceries — imagine if you could go shopping on the other side of town regularly… and short day trips to places that are nearby that don’t have good public transportation. There are a bunch of places I would have liked to have seen in Italy that were only like 20 minutes away, driving, from my apartment, but I couldn’t because we had no car.

    That being said, it feels really, really nice to go car-less. We’ve somehow landed back in provo right now, and if we try hard we can manage to use our car once or twice a week max, because we live within walking distance of campus and church is just around the corner. It’s pretty nice.

  9. Wilfried
    January 12, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    I will not get into arguing about Europe’s transportation system, but let me just pay tribute to the European car-owning Saints who are the free taxidrivers for so many other members and for car-less investigators. Their service and sacrifices must be written in heaven.

  10. Kevin Barney
    January 12, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    I had a partner at my last firm here in Chicago who has never even driven a car, and he’s older than I am. He grew up in NY and started practicing there and then moved to Chicago. He is a senior partner at a major Chicago law firm, but he takes the bus to work.

    I read about a family that gave up on cars and went exclusively to bike transportation. They started out in Minneapolis and now live in Seattle, so commuting by bike seems hard to fathom, but they do it. Pretty rare though, here in the States.

  11. January 12, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    The automobile has always been portrayed as a symbol of freedom.

    Today it’s more of a prosthetic device.

  12. Norbert
    January 12, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    An interesting generalization. I have to say that this is not my experience in the slightest. It does not seem to be the poor that use public transport in Europe, nor for whom it seems to be designed, at least in the UK and Scandanavia. Second, it seems like the way to show that the poor is uncared for is to provide inadequate transport options for those who cannot afford the cars needed for their livelihood. The idea that even the poorest Americans are happily tootling about in old jalopies seems a bit naive. But of course, America has no class distinctions, do they?

    Yes, it’s true. We do fill the car almost anywhere we go. On my mission in Holland, we had baptized a blind man and all the cars were full, so we borrowed a bike-for-two and gave him a ride on the back. It’s harder than it sounds.

    When I lived in LA, I flew in to LAX once and nobody could pick me up, and I didn’t have the cash for a shuttle van. So I took the LA “subway” and Metrolink to Burbank. It required 4 changes, took 3 hours, involved just missing an armed robbery, but I felt like the King of Los Angeles. I also had conversations with strangers on the subway, several of whom were headed for County Jail for visiting hours. I, on the other hand, was coming home from working at summer camp, complete with foot locker. It was great fun.

  13. Ardis Parshall
    January 12, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    Car-free for eight years now, thank you very much. Lousy public transportation, but plenty of cheap shoe leather. I even gritted my teeth and succumbed to one of those nerdy shopping carts, but I use it only after dark. I have the tiniest shred of dignity left.

    One of the few difficulties in my new and wonderful ward is fending off all the offers of rides. I do accept occasionally, but it’s cheating to pretend to give up your own car and then count on the free use of everybody else’s, along with chauffeurs. I didn’t have that trouble in my old ward: The nearest grocery store was a three-mile round trip walk, half of it laden with as many pounds of food as I could bear. Not one offer of a ride in four years. A lady apologized to me once for not having picked me up when she’d seen me walking earlier that week, “but it was raining so hard that I didn’t want to open the door.”

    The bright side of being carless is that Wal*Mart is not easily reachable by bus. :)

  14. mpb
    January 12, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    I must be too American. Although I lived by public transportation on my mission, and enjoyed it, the picture you paint sounds miserable to me. With the three day weekend ahead, we are considering traveling to a (somewhat) nearby national park. Once there, many of the the park’s best historic and scenic locations are only reachable by 4×4 (or foot of course, but not with the kids). I’m not ashamed to admit that I love my pickup and its ability to get me to uncommon places. Back to the mission, I never escaped the longing for the western mountains in my location that I never got to see up close.

  15. Ryan Bell
    January 12, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Norbert and Russell,

    I just can’t agree that our car culture cuts down on interaction, at least in any meaningful sense. Sure, being jammed into a subway car (even in a ‘nice’ system like D.C.’s metro) puts you close to a lot of people without a sovereign space, but the implicit sense that all of the people find this closeness an undesirable part of the bargain of mass transit, rather than a blessed chance to cultivate a culture of egalitarian interaction makes it hard to find the civic benefit. Besides, the proliferation of newspapers, books, laptops, closed eyes and headphones on any self-respecting transit system definitely draws boundaries around a number of sovereign spaces that approaches the number of such spaces crawling down any given freeway.

    Are we being serious in a pragmatic sense when we laud the interactivity of mass transit, or just praising the idea in theory?

    (And yes, there will always be the moment that Jonathan describes where someone notices a unique family and reaches out in a comment to them. But everyone who’s spent time on an urban transit system knows that such comments require a great amount of courage to make, and are the exception that prove the rule)

  16. Amy
    January 12, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    We have two cars. And we like it. :P

  17. January 12, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    “One of the few difficulties in my new and wonderful ward is fending off all the offers of rides.”

    Heh heh heh–this one makes me laugh, Ardis. We now live about 1/5th of a mile from our church building. We can see it from our front door. Even with the kids and all our church stuff, we can walk the distance in less than five minutes. Consistently though, on our way home from church, members of the ward stop and offer us rides. We just smile and wave them on. I don’t know how long this will continue; perhaps people keep thinking that we don’t own a car or that it’s in the shop, and that we have a temporary problem.

    “With the three day weekend ahead, we are considering traveling to a (somewhat) nearby national park. Once there, many of the the park’s best historic and scenic locations are only reachable by 4×4 (or foot of course, but not with the kids).”

    Again, I think this is a “mostly in America” sort of thing. We’re a big country, and our parks are big and distant from population areas and it was just assumed (the rise of national parks pretty much perfectly coincided with the rise of the automobile culture) that people who wanted to get out of doors would manage it on their own. My impression from Germany and Korea is that many other countries, being small in size, have often figured out and developed ways for people to take trains and cable-cars to parks, trailheads, and so forth.

  18. Jonathan Green
    January 12, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Well, mpb, there’s all kinds of misery. Lugging home groceries is pretty miserable, but so is replacing a transmission one month and an axle the next. Looking up places on the map that no train or bus serves is miserable, but so is trying to drive across the continent with a big car full of small bladders. The automobile is a great thing in a lot of ways, and a necessity in most places in the US, but I don’t mind taking some time off from its miseries.

  19. January 12, 2007 at 1:44 pm


    “The implicit sense that all of the people find this closeness an undesirable part of the bargain of mass transit, rather than a blessed chance to cultivate a culture of egalitarian interaction makes it hard to find the civic benefit.”

    Sound to me like a chicken or the egg claim. What came first: an innate (natural?) desire to preserve personal space and privacy while moving about, thus making the closeness of public transportation a burden (and spuring the development of technologies which allow people to close out the others around them), or a car culture that taught us to prioritize personal space and privacy in matters of transportation, thus leading people to discover psychological burdens in public transportation that wasn’t there before? I have my suspicions.

    (Please note that I am not trying to sell public transportation as a prerequisite to Zion or anything. Though I suspect a Zion society is unlikely to feature much road rage or gridlock.)

  20. bbell
    January 12, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Hey RAF,

    Have you ever noticed while traveling in the EU that you can pick out the Americans by the way that they “spread out” and take up lots of room on the trains? I myself spent quite a bit of time using public transport in Chicago while a student. It was convenient at the time for a single guy or for a Dad going to work. Not for Moms juggling strollers and crying toddlers.

    The areas where young LDS families can afford to buy homes and will send their kids to the local school are usually far from public transport. Away from the actual city and outside the older suburbs. The idea of bringing home $250 worth of groceries on the bus boggles my mind.

    Our chapel parking lot is full of trucks, SUV’s and minivans.

  21. Jay S
    January 12, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    In a way – a car is very egalitarian. It allows someone able to scrape together $1000 to enjoy the same mode of transportation as someone who can purchase a Silver spur, 750, or Enzo. On the other hand it is very costly. It impacts our finances, the way we live, the resources we use and the look of our cities. Once prevalent, it is hard to change (see this article for why planning standards built around cars make walkable communities unrealistic)
    That being said – I like driving my car. I enjoy heel-toe shifting and hitting the perfect line through the corners. I would disagree about the level of self representation available on cars. The color paint, the accessories – the stance of the car, the cleanliness can all tell you a lot about what a person wants to be. This isn’t a given for everyone – but is an option.

    But I wish I didn’t have to drive in traffic everyday. I loved taking the Orange line into DC everyday (I got a lot of reading done). For this reason it appears that car sharing is a great idea. Daily commuting – take the bus/train. Need to run to the bigbox grocery warehouse once a month – rent a car for $10.

    And BTW – not all western parks need a 4×4 or even a car to access. Most have some sort of tram or bus access to most of the significant sites, and one at least (zion’s) bans cars in the heart of the park during the summer.

  22. Kevin Barney
    January 12, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    Ardis, this one was a keeper:

    A lady apologized to me once for not having picked me up when she’d seen me walking earlier that week, “but it was raining so hard that I didn’t want to open the door.”

    That was hilarious. The Gospel in action.

  23. Norbert
    January 12, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    No, the closeness is not always nice — I’m thinking the London tube in the summer — and it’s not always a chatter-box, especially here in Finland, where small-talk goes against the social grain. But I have several friends I’ve made on the bus. And I ride the same bus as an inactive sister every now and then, and people who know the family from the playground often sit by me and we talk. And walking to work, when there’s no ice on the sidewalks, I can stop and chat with the guys fishing off the bridge (in my poor Finnish).

    #20 “The idea of bringing home $250 worth of groceries on the bus boggles my mind.”

    The idea of buying $250 worth of groceries boggles my mind. I don’t think it’s possible here, and most people simply don’t shop that way in Europe.

  24. Ryan Bell
    January 12, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    Russell, if you’re postulating that the need for social space was partially caused by the ascent of car culture, I think that’s a hard one to buy. For example, there are plenty of people in Manhattan (although I recognize a high proportion of transplants, too) that have never owned cars nor partaken in their culture, but almost everyone riding the subway there would rather look at the back of someone else’s head than have to engage them. There are a lot of possible causes for this, but the fact that elsewhere people are sealing themselves off in climate-controlled car cabins doesn’t seem likely to be one of them.

    More generally, it seems a pretty observable phenomenon that the closer you pack people, the more they put up boundaries around them to keep from feeling social burdens every minute of every day. Blaming that on cars just seems like a nonsequitur to me. But maybe I’m overlooking something.

  25. Sam B
    January 12, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    That wasn’t my experience (except for rush-hour commuting) in NYC. I could almost always strike up a conversation if I wanted to and, once I had my infant daughter grabbing the person next to me, there was almost no way not to interact with the person next to me.

    Of course, in the morning on the way to work, all bets are off, and in the evening returning, same thing.

  26. warno
    January 12, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Don\’t forget what I see as the greatest benefit of limited car use and alternative commuting methods: physical exercise. I\’ve been a bike commuter for almost 3 years and it is amazing what a difference it has made for my overall fitness and well-being. I\’m not hardcore and my biking is largely limited to my commute due to family obligations but that 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening are wonderful, even when the temps are near freezing. Perhaps another reason (along with smoking and eating less junk food) that Europeans are generally much more fit and less likely to be obese than Americans.

  27. Ryan Bell
    January 12, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Warno, is that true that Europeans smoke less than Americans? I would have thought it the opposite.

    Norbert, that sounds really nice– the chatting with the fishermen on the bridge. I know that kind of stuff happens all the time, but the bigger the city, the bigger the boundaries people have. Thus, in America’s big cities, while I know some conversations must happen, I think they’re a tiny, tiny minority. Which, of course, is still more than what’s happening in cars, at least those that carry only one person.

  28. January 12, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    I buy $250 worth of groceries all the time. We have four kids. I love my minivan!

    I love public transportation, too. When we lived in Logan, UT I used to “drive the carpool” by accompanying our kids and the neighbor kids on the (fare-free) bus. The bus system was well-designed and we didn’t have to spend hours getting there or transfer anywhere we weren’t covered by an awning. Still, though, even that would be tough for me to do now. My third child has Asperger’s Syndrome and it’s really tough to take him much of anywhere, let alone get him through all the transfers and walking that would be necessary, especially with his siblings also in tow. After about half an hour he’d be screaming bloody murder and throwing himself under the bus. Forget about his safety or my sanity, the social opprobrium alone makes it worth driving.

  29. bbell
    January 12, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Has there ever been a time in the last 100 years or so when there was more Public transport use then there is now in the US? I honestly do not have the answer and I would be curious to see the historical patterns.


    I always enjoy your anecdotes about the reaction to your family of 6 in largely childless Europe. Keep em coming. I would imagine you would get the same reaction here in the US in say Manhattan or Cambridge or the entire state of Vermont.

  30. warno
    January 12, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I meant smoking as an appetite suppressant, “fit” meaning lean, not necessarily in-shape cardio-wise.

  31. Wilfried
    January 12, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Ref. 26. Yes, and many European institutions and companies give a little financial “bike-bonus” to their employees, per travelled mile to come to work and return home, to discourage car use and promote physical exercise.

    But Europeans still smoke more than Americans.

  32. January 12, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    “Has there ever been a time in the last 100 years or so when there was more Public transport use then there is now in the US?”

    Yes–from the early 1900s through about the 1940s. You had extensive (well, by historical American standards, anyway; can’t really compare their extent to contemporary Europe’s) passenger rail transport between numerous cities, and you had often very extensive trolley and streetcar transport within cities.

  33. Mike Parker
    January 12, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    Well, I’m going to be the gainsayer and declare — loudly, firmly, and sincerely — that we have two cars in my SoCal family of 5, and I would never, never, never give up driving for public transportation.

    Two vignettes:

    1. I live about 10 miles from where I work. It takes me 20 to 30 minutes to get there by car, even with typical freeway traffic and without using the carpool lane. Out of curiosity, I used the local transportation agency’s web site ( to find the bus route from home to work. I’d have to walk about 15 minutes to the nearest bus stop, then take a 90-minute bus ride, including two transfers. And if I’m 5 minutes late getting out the door and miss the bus, I have to wait 15 minutes for the next one, and, with transfers, delay my arrival a whole 30 minutes. No thank you.

    2. Everyone praises the social interaction on public transportation. Baloney. The buses here are full of transients, the mentally ill, and illegal immigrants. Last month my wife decided — “just for fun” — to take our three kids on the bus to Chuck-E-Cheese while our van was in the shop for an oil change and new brakes. First she didn’t have exact change, and ended up paying $5 for a $3.50 fare (that’s right, $7 for a round trip that would have cost us $1.50 in gas). A slightly deranged lady came and sat uncomfortably close to her and started talking and would. not. shut. up. The bus driver on the return trip was not only rude, but a maniac driver as well, flooring the pedal on starts and slamming the brakes on stops. (And this was a good trip — at least she didn’t have to lift her feet when going around the corners so she wouldn’t get urine on them.)

    I am a social person. I like to walk. I enjoy meeting new people. But public transportation — at least in Orange County, California — is hell, and you will never get me out of my car.

  34. Peter
    January 12, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    “Yes–from the early 1900s through about the 1940s…you had often very extensive trolley and streetcar transport within cities.”

    After WWII, Vienna bought a bunch of NYC streetcars to restock their fleet. Word has it the locals liked ’em ’cause they had big leather seats instead of the wooden ones they were used to.

  35. bbell
    January 12, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Mike Parker again shows me why he is one of my favorite bloggers. Stating things as he sees them. Once in Chicago I had an unfortunate violent attempted mugging by a addict of some type while on a “L” train. Since he was unarmed and I am a former linebacker he had picked on the wrong guy. I still marvel at what he was thinking. I have another friend who while on a L platform was mugged by a guy with a .22 revolver. My friend turned and ran and received a .22 slug in the back of his leg. I have several other “L” train stories of course.

    I also am not getting out of my car anytime soon either. Public transport has its place in society but I do not see it expanding in exurbia anytime soon.

  36. January 12, 2007 at 4:45 pm


    Your image of Europe is comical. It’s the comment-equivalent of Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent. What, do you think Europe’s roads are cruised only by a few playboys in Audis? (Insert non-aggressive smiley-face.)

    Vienna’s public transport system is a wonder to behold. Where I live owning a car is not really necessary. And if I really felt like having a joyride on the Autobahn I would rent a really nice car for the day. Driving my minivan around Baltimore is not something I miss.

    I’m sad to say that the UK is the European exception as usual. Our public transport stinks and our roads are clogged by every pleb imaginable.

  37. TMD
    January 12, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    My experience with PT, in more than one place, is that it’s often a waste of time. Here in the states, I had to replace a transmission, and so take the bus to get to campus for two weeks. The drive was about 15 minues, or at most 25 in heavy traffic on a fairly well designed superhighway system. On the bus, at peak operation, it took not less than an hour and a half, complete with a transfer that always malfunctioned–meaning that the connection that was supposed to be made was always missed by about 3 minutes, lengthening the trip. This was not a suburban problem, by the way–rather, it was going from the inner city of a mid-sized midwestern city to one of the largest university campuses in the country (think 50k students plus). And all the shady people–would not want to talk to them!

    While studying in Britain, the nearest ward was in the next city over–a 20 minute drive (someone drove once), but an hour long bus trip each way, at the end of which was a 15+ minute walk.

    I’d rather drive, thank you very much. And it’s an odd kind of pride that makes people who don’t feel superior to those who do.

  38. January 12, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    I’ve been commuting — as a student and for work — on public transportation.

    A very rough, very conservative calculation:

    I have spent 5,000 hours on or waiting for public transport and spent more than $10,000 to pay for the privilege of using it.

    Still worth it to not have to deal with a car (or only have one car once I got married), but, dang, that’s a bit depressing.

  39. Sam B
    January 12, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    That doesn’t speak poorly of public transportation in the States; it speaks to poorly-designed public transportation in one place. May I say, the Metro system in DC sucks in comparison to New York’s (or at least Manhattan’s) subway system? That’s not to say it’s bad, but there’s a variation. However, I imagine that most (though not all) places could have tremendous public transportation if we had spent on developing a public transportation system what we have spent creating and maintaining our various roadways.

    May I add, I hate driving in the metropolitan DC area? I wish public transportation were better here, but we take public transportation anyway, and the bus doesn’t take any longer to get into the District than the cars on the same road take. And when I get in, I don’t have to find a place to park.

  40. January 12, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    I have no idea whether Europeans hate their poor. But I never felt that Tony Blair resented my first car, a 600GBP heap of poo.

  41. DKL
    January 12, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Sorry, Ronan. I know it’s a mistake, but I don’t tend to view the UK as especially European. I’m sure that United Kingdomites think that their poor are just tops (much like we Americans do).

  42. Jay S
    January 12, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    The problem is that our current mass transit system in the US is deplorable! It goes like this – No one used busses, thus bus routes and frequencies are limited, so no one wants to use the bus system now.

    When we lived in DC my wife and I used the bus/metro system extensively. It was super convenient. It sometimes may have been cheaper buying gas alone than taking the metro. but not once you figured the purchase/maintainence costs of driving.

    Even in places like Provo, UT, I used the bus more than a fair amount. The bus, while slightly slower than driving, was significantly faster overall, because I didn’t have to park.

    Mass transit also isn’t as cost effective in more spread out communities. That isn’t too say that you have to be crowded in. Just look at the Older neighborhoods in many of our cities – they are closer together – but when you don’t have to have a huge driveway, large garage, on street parking and all the incidentals required for modern automobile travel, you can increase the density, with the same amount of open space.

  43. January 12, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    I’ve no doubt that every complaint brought up by TMD, and bbell, and Mike Parker, and others, is completely accurate. I’ve been dependent upon some pretty crappy and dangerous public transportation systems myself. However, it seems to me reasonable to ask why those public transportation systems have been crappy, given that there is plentiful evidence (from Europe, from East Asia, etc.) that public transporation systems need not be crappy. My suggested answer is that it is at least in part the result of generations of decisions (corporate, political, and personal) that led money and families away from public transportation and into the suburbs and exurbs, and that few of those decisions were inevitable (or, indeed, necessarily wise). But others’ answers are likely to vary.

  44. DKL
    January 12, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Russell Arben Fox: [edited]

    This is beneath you, Russell.

  45. Veritas
    January 12, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    I find myself, for like the 100th time in the past few days ’round the ‘nacle, suggesting Who Killed the Electric Car….

  46. January 12, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Fair enough, DKL. It’s been edited.

  47. Peter
    January 12, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Anyone who rejects public transportation based on their experience in the States is out of their mind. It’s like hating driving ’cause you drove on a dirt road once–trust me, there’s better out there.

  48. Jeremiah J.
    January 12, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    I don’t believe that the difference in transportation systems is cultural. Some Americans say that they love their cars more than people in other countries, but in general I don’t believe them, a) because of how badly they often treat them, and b) because I can’t imagine that they hate to sit in traffic for 3 hours per day any less than the French, German, Brazilian or Chinese. Oh, and because most of the ones American companies design are ugly (if you measure it by car beauty, the “American love affair with the car” must have ended in the early 70s). Granted, our trucks still rock.

    Of course part of our reliance on cars has to do with the size of the country, but that doesn’t quite explain why people in the DC area or in other metro areas will drive their Ford F-150 to work without anyone else in the car, and waste 1/8 of their lives on the Beltway. The answer seems to me to be pretty straightforward–gas prices are extremely low and public transportation stinks. Whenever the DC metro expands one of its lines, the parking at the new end of the line fills up immediately. People in the DC area do ad hoc car pools with strangers (to ride the HOV lanes). This isn’t the behavior of people who will drive their own vehicle no matter what other alternatives are available. If Americans could easily commute to work with public transport and walk to the corner store for milk and bread, they’d still have their cars, but they’d probably have fewer of them (probably one per household), and they’d use them mainly for recreation and mid- to long-distance trips. That would be a lot better than what we do now, I think (“slam into four-wheel drive to pick up a dozen eggs” as the Veggie Tales put it).

    This may be one of those camera obscura instances where the real relationship between ideas and social relations is reversed. We have no good choice other than to drive everywhere, but then we claim that our car-driving is a sign of good ol’ American freedom and independence.

    You want to see a people who really love their cars? Go to Germany. Their cars clean and polished pride-and-joys. But they don’t generally commute in them. Our cars are pretty often trash receptacles and storage units–we *have* to practically live out of our vehicles so they look lived in.

  49. Bill
    January 12, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    William Morris,

    Think how much time and money you’ve saved.

    I’ve never regretted not having a car. On the rare occasion I might need one, I just take the subway down to any of several convenient car rental agencies. In the meantime, I don’t have to pay for gas, insurance, parking, a car payment, or have the headaches of scraping off the ice, washing, and other maintenance of a depreciating asset. I also don’t have to sit in congestion for an endless commute, putting myself in danger of some fool’s road rage. Instead, I take a book or magazine on the subway or bus, or set out for an invigorating walk.

  50. Ardis Parshall
    January 12, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    I tried to sound light-hearted in my first comment (thank you, Kevin, for laughing — you’d have been proud of my poker face when she said that), but it can be pretty miserable having to rely on public transportation, even in a relatively well-covered city like Salt Lake.

    It’s a hot topic here right now, with arguments over expanding public transport vs. building more highways across the valley. The arguments against public transport all — all — every one — seem to be that only poor people use public transport, and why should WE be forced by government fiat to use OUR money to help THEM get around?

    Even if poor people really are worthless in the eyes of the more aristocratic public, that still doesn’t address my transportation problem, or that of many other people. In my case, I gave up driving voluntarily because I didn’t want to kill anybody, once my eyesight had deteriorated to the point where I could no longer judge speed and distance. Yeah, I could get 10 or 20 rides to church, but errands and vacations and visiting aren’t covered by the goodwill of neighbors. Holidays for me mean little more than days that I’m trapped within a few blocks of home because the buses aren’t running.

    Once population density reaches a certain point, adequate public transportation is a requirement of civilization every bit as much as adequate sewer lines and fire hydrants and garbage pickup, and is far more essential than public swimming pools and state parks. I really don’t understand why so many people are willing to accept — would demand if it weren’t there — the blessings of public utilities, but draw the line at the blessing of public transport. RAF (#19), maybe you should consider selling public transport as a pre-requisite to Zion.

  51. Jonathan Green
    January 12, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    DKL, I removed your last comment for repeating a point that I found ill-informed and offensive the first time around. Please don’t repeat it. Thank you for the link to the cartoon, though.

  52. Paul Mouritsen
    January 12, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    It seems to me that the church could more to make it a little easier for people who do not drive. Chapels are often built in the most inconvenient places. When I was a missionary in Argentina, chapels were often built far from bus routes, making it almost impossible for many members to attend regularly. When I lived in Springfield, Illinois, the chapel was way out of town, in the middle of the corn fields, far from any established neighborhood, let alone public transportation. Only in the past few years has the church installed bicycle racks at chapels in the United States. Before that, even the missionaries had trouble finding a place to tie up their bikes. In many places, it is hard for a family to get to church withtout at least two cars, one for those in leadership positions who have early meetings and another to get the rest of the family to Sacrament Meeting. Do the planners in Salt Lake City ever think about these things?

  53. January 12, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    Re #50:

    Bill — Absolutely. I like not driving. And I agree about road rage — standing on a subway platform out in the Bay Area suburbs and watching people drive while waiting for the train, I slowly began to realize that the automobile and how people use it is a form of collective madness.

    But it’s interesting that the economics/politics/planning of the Bay Area are such that even when a decent public transportation system is in place, it’s still expensive and time-consuming. BART is great, but it really was created for the people who can afford to live out in the suburbs. Muni is a joke. The best part of my commute (other than the walking, which I enjoy most of the time) is the casual carpool.

  54. MikeInWeHo
    January 12, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    re: 35 When were you in Chicago, bbell? I lived in Lakeview from 1990-99, rode the L daily and never had the slightest problem. Never knew anyone else who did either. It’s not as if being in a car really protects you, anyway. The carjacking stories I’ve heard in L.A. are much scarier than any public transport mugging stories I’ve heard elsewhere. Living here, I vacillate between anger and grudging acceptance at the constant snarl of traffic. Yesterday it took me 30 minutes to go 2 miles up La Cienega at 5pm. I could have walked faster. Satellite radio helps a lot. Do they broadcast General Conference on XM or Sirius?

    Mike Parker’s assessment of SoCal public transportation is dead-on accurate, but it’s fairly unique to where he lives. I’ve taken it a couple of times and it’s a completely different experience than in Chicago or NY. The class divide is much more visible here for some reason. It seems that in California anybody who can scrape together the money for a junker avoids public transport, whereas in the other cities you do find commuting professionals and other more affluent people on board (at least some routes).

  55. manaen
    January 12, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    A few thoughts:

    As part of shedding my exoskeletal life (defined and supported by things outside of myself: job titles, callings, $ earned, degrees, kids’ achievements) – and in no small part inspired by Bookslinger’s recounting of trading car repair for copies of the BoM to give away — I now have a little ’92 Sentra that’s fun to drive. I bought it for $600 and it goes 33 mpg and has needed no repairs in the last year. Like Bookslinger, I find more enjoyment in using the extra $ to help others than I had in costly cars; the enjoyable reliability without flash takes me closer to where I want to go. Maybe you can’t get to heaven in an old Ford car, but this little Nissan is helping me explore what truly satisfies.

    But then I live in SoCal’s freeway net. I still marvel at Manhattan’s public-transportation grid. If we here the proximities and choices in Manhattan, I would test the car-less waters.

    I acquired this little defense of cars while working for one of the car companies. I hope you enjoy it:

    I love all cars, if the truth be known. We’re told cars are dangerous. It’s safer to drive through south central Los Angeles than to walk there. We’re told cars are wasteful. Wasteful of what? Oil did a lot of good sitting in the ground for millions of years. We’re told cars should be replaced with mass transportation. But it’s hard to reach the drive-through window at McDonald’s from a speeding train. And we’re told cars cause pollution. A hundred years ago, the city streets were ankle deep in horse excrement. What kind of pollution do you want? Would you rather die of cancer at eighty or typhoid fever at nine? Cars have made us richer, freer, happier people. Life is better because of cars. Cars are good. If you don’t think so, try making out in a country lane on Rollerblades, you eco-weenie.

  56. DKL
    January 12, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Russell, LOL. Touche!

  57. gst
    January 13, 2007 at 2:02 am

    #48 is nonsensical. We can only reject or accept the public transit system where we live. I suppose I would commute on the NYC
    subway, but for the fact that I live in Orange County, California.

    MikeInWeHo, I used to take either the red line stop at Irving Park or the Lake Shore express bus every day. Never had a problem during normal commuting hours, though late one night a bum stumbled in from the adjacent car with his pants around the ankles, trying to escape the transexual prostitute who was beating him about the head with a mostly-empty liquor bottle. It was another data point confirming my theory that nothing good changes cars while the train is underway. Whenever you hear a forward or aft door open, you don’t have to look up from your paperback to know that it’s not a business commuter with his Wall Street Journal casually moving from one moving car to another.

  58. Carrie
    January 13, 2007 at 2:14 am

    “The automobile has always been portrayed as a symbol of freedom.
    Today it’s more of a prosthetic device.”

    This is so my new sig for everything. I’m a southern Californian, and a commuter. You guys, this site is totally awesome. I found it on accident when I was looking up hymns, and somehow got linked to the “Hymns we should ditch” post. Now I’m trying to read everything!

  59. DKL
    January 13, 2007 at 2:20 am

    Carrie: You guys, this site is totally awesome.

    If you think that this site is good, you should try the one that I participate in.

    And for a good overview of the Mormon Blog space, try my aggregator, LDSelect.

  60. January 13, 2007 at 3:52 am

    DKL is a pirate. The true and living blog is here, and the original and best aggregator is here.

  61. Aldo Edwards
    January 13, 2007 at 4:26 am

    Norbert, we feel you on being the odd-duck car owners in a mass-transit society.

    When we first moved to Tokyo we agreed we would wait for a year to buy a car because the public transportation here is absolutely amazing. If the trains are ever late, the transit authorities provide you with a note for your job since otherwise your boss will not believe you that the train was delayed. However, with 4 kids we found it quite trying to go to the grocery store daily just to try to keep up on our food needs (not to mention being unable to purchase goods at a lower price outside of the city) and more time consuming to get places (particularly to church, which is at most 10 minutes by car and 30-40 minutes via train). In addition, we found that we left our kids at home frequently since they didn\’t want to join us for the never-ending grocery shopping expeditions.

    With that said, we were ready to stick it out until we discovered that the \”bullet train\” (which is how Tokyo-based people visit the rest of the country) is approximately $300-$1,000 per ticket. What that meant was that without a car, we could not easily afford to take our family outside of Tokyo and, for the price of one family trip on the Shinkasen (bullet train) to Kyoto, we could actually purchase a car. Thus, we now are the proud owners of the \”ugliest car in Tokyo,\” a 1997 Toyota Ipsum painted in a shade of radioactive green that could make the blind aquire sight.

    So why doesn\’t everyone drive here in Tokyo? The cars are cheap (our used Toyota, with an english-speaking Navi and a year\’s worth of liability insurance, was a bit over one month\’s \”cost of living adjustment\”), well made and generally immaculately maintained. The reason (for Russell and other public policy wonks) is that, in the greater Tokyo Metro area, you need to prove that you own the rights to a parking spot before you are allowed to register a car in your name. While the cars are affordable and plentiful, these parking spots are not. They come standard with most expat housing (which is double or triple the size of typical housing), but comparatively few middle- and even upper-middle-class folks have parking rights. Consequently, Tokyo has a disproportionate number of luxury cars, especially \”poodle cars\” such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc. (A BMW or Benz is more or less ho-hum here in Tokyo.) Moreover, most people of all class levels are perfectly content to take the excellent, safe and clean public transportation. Since so many people eat out frequently, constant shopping isn\’t as much of an anguish for them as it is for us. And if they need to get somewhere in a hurry, cabs are plentiful. I guess the bottom line is that a mass-transit society works well for people who abide by the norms of that society (ie – few kids, not much need to travel outside the local region, willing to engage in frequent outside dining and entertainment), but not so well for Mormons from the States.


    PS — Norbert, I don\’t know if you remember, but you baptized me 17 years ago next Friday. Thanks.

  62. Jonathan Green
    January 13, 2007 at 4:48 am

    Manaen, we loved our ’90 Nissan Sentra. There’s absolutely no way to fit four kids in the back (legally) though, and there was one year when we probably spent double it’s Blue Book value on keeping it running. But the motor ran great, and probably still does–we gave it to some car-less friends just before moving out of our ward after we bought our soulless minivan. After the Nissan, driving across the country and back at 20 mpg was painful. With the Nissan, when gas prices went up, we barely noticed.

    Aldo, thanks for describing your situation, that’s fascinating. I think you’ve hit on an important point with your observation that how we get from place to place is strongly affected by the surrounding culture, and not living according to cultural norms makes everything tricky. We’re not living in expatriate housing exactly, but rather in what was until 1992 American military family housing, which entails built-in closets and more parking spaces than the current residents know what to do with. The apartments tend to be cheap for the size, which has made this place something of a family ghetto. For our son’s birthday, we invited the three kids from his class at school who live on our street. Two of them, it turned out, come from families with six kids, and now we feel like underachievers. What probably sets us at odds with local culture the most, though, and what makes public transportation so valuable for us, is the two-year duration of our residency here. It’s very handy for us that we don’t have to invest thousands in a car that we’ll have to sell when we leave. Most Germans would get around to buying a car sooner or later, even if they continue to take the bus to work sometimes. Car drivers outnumber bus drivers in Germany many times over.

  63. Peter
    January 13, 2007 at 7:39 am

    #58 “#48 is nonsensical. We can only reject or accept the public transit system where we live. I suppose I would commute on the NYC subway, but for the fact that I live in Orange County, California”

    You’re right–we go to war with the army we have. My post was directed at what seemed like an outright rejection of public transportation in general, not the local conditions in most areas of the US.

    I grew up in southern CA and and am well aware of the limited options there. And I admit, when I’m not sitting in a comfortable Mercedes bus on my 7 minute commute to work, I go dump gasoline on the ground with my lifted Jeep.

    Anyway, your argument seems fairly disingeneous coming from a culture that prides itself on its mobility. Marathon commutes are a staple of life in CA as people try to balance their interests, priorities and income to yield an acceptable quality of life. So with people moving heaven and earth to get around as it is, I don’t accept the implicit argument that Americans are chained to their 40 acres and a mule with no other options.

    One could criticize broken down, inadequate, barely functioning local systems while still accepting in principle the potential value of a well implemented public transportation system, and maybe even work toward the latter.

    But instead, we see posters rejecting PT out of hand while swearing on a stack of the Good Book that they will never give up the horseless carriage. As I said, it’s like cursing cars because you have to drive a rutted road to work without bothering 1) to find a different route or mode of transportation and/or 2) to pave it.

  64. Norbert
    January 13, 2007 at 9:31 am

    I live on a small island with only two bridges off of it with 19000 other people, almost all of them in apartments. And yet there is no car traffic on the island. There is, however, excellent bus service to the city and a supermarket easily within walking distance from almost any home. My sister, in SoCal, lives in a newish suburb. Because the streets were disigned so everyone lives on a cul-de-sac, only three or four roads actually go anywhere, and there is only one route to anywhere. In addition, walking anywhere, including acroos some of the mammoth parking lots, would be challenging.

    I live in a place where public transportation is very good, and thus I use it, but its very good because people want it to be good. And I would strongly argue that it improves the quality of life.

    It seems to me that in the USA, public transportation, like public health and increasingly public education, is not funded or planned for because it ‘doesn’t work,’ and it doesn’t work because it’s not funded or planned for.

  65. January 13, 2007 at 9:32 am

    Aldo and Norbert, my old V-Hall friends, commenting on the same post, while living continents apart! This is too cool. Feel the love, everybody.

  66. Norbert
    January 13, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Wow, Aldo. Great to ‘hear your voice.’

  67. Sarah
    January 13, 2007 at 11:14 am

    I’ve been without a car in Los Angeles, Orange County, Washington DC, New York, Chicago, and Columbus (Ohio.) Some of those cities have fairly excellent transit systems, some manifestly do not. And yet, I have hated the experience almost every single time. I was terrified in all of those situations excepting Columbus (I mean, sure, the main line that goes by my university does stop by the free mental health clinic halfway to downtown, but mostly the actual screamers were too frightened by the bus to get on, and I’m used to scary Los Angelinos and New Yorkers!) I was squished into goo on the trains in all of the bigger cities, my trip took three times longer than it would have if I’d have driven in all cases (and in Columbus, COTA has the rare distinction of being slower than just walking in many instances.) I’ve been stranded in all kinds of “fun” places, and know far too much about relative taxi fares in all of those cities (given that I was taking public transit to save money.) I hate being around a huge number of people, having to stand up, the utter lack of seatbelts, having just enough time to pull out your book and put it away, but not enough to actually get involved, and having to get on and off of public transport where some urban planner thought it wise, rather than where the present situation dictates would work best. As a bonus, learning how to get around in NYC actually took more effort than learning how to drive stick did when I was a teenager. And said knowledge disappeared from my brain far faster — I took two years off from driving and picked up how to drive stick again in a matter of minutes. I’ve relearned the NYC system three times, and I still get lost every time I go.

    And I’m not a fan of driving, either. I resisted learning how to drive till I was 18 years old, and my friends and I always squabble over “who has to drive today,” instead of the reverse. But I’d rather drive than take the bus or metro, thanks. Unless I’m working in the heart of DC or NYC — then I’ll take the train to work, be grumpy about it, and go out driving on the weekends. Having done the “take the train to work, and come home and then have no way of going anywhere without taking the train again” thing, I have no wish to try it even in those cities where it’s supposedly very easy.

    Note: while this probably doesn’t apply as well in NYC as it did in LA/OC, what finally convinced me cars work better than buses is that cars can go on a different route when necessary. My 18 mile commute to Disneyland from Long Beach took 90 minutes by car on the 22/405 nightmare route, 70 minutes (not counting walking time) by bus, 45 minutes driving straight down Katella, and 23 minutes driving straight down Woodruff (which doesn’t have any onramp/offramp traffic snarls for the entire length of that drive.) I suspect the bus ride would have taken less time, if it went down Woodruff instead of Katella, but then fewer people would ride. And while it’s true that there’s not much more directness possible (certainly not on surface streets) than the Orange line from Rosalyn to Smithsonian station, the fact remains that I took the metro a very long distance to reach a non-Whole Foods grocery store every week while I was in DC, because while the nearest (non-Whole Foods) store was only 4 miles away, it required two bus transfers and a ~.5 mile walk, and the far-away store was essentially “upstairs” relative to the metro station it was nearest to.

  68. DKL
    January 13, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Sarah: I took the metro a very long distance to reach a non-Whole Foods grocery store every week while I was in DC, because while the nearest (non-Whole Foods) store was only 4 miles away

    Yikes! That’s awful. I despise Whole Foods. It’s not even a good idea for a grocery store. Before I was aware of what a loathsome place it is, I stopped by the one near our chapel one night on the way to YM/YW to pick up root beer for the dessert for the general activity (root beer floats) and all they had were tiny six packs of “gourmet root” beer for more than they charge at a movie theatre (using the term “gourmet” in connection with soda pop is equivalent to using it in connection to Pixie Dust). It’s not that I don’t appreciate the difference between Hires and Virgil’s, it’s that I couldn’t find a 2 liter bottle of any carbonate soda in the entire place. I’m never going back. That’s just not supposed to happen in America.

  69. MikeInWeHo
    January 13, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    re: 69 Threadjack! Don’t dis’ Whole Foods or prepare for a yuppie counter-attack !

  70. gst
    January 13, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    For some reason there’s a lot of overlap between Whole Foods aficianados and public transit romantics.

  71. January 13, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Whole Foods is a big upscale corporation, as opposed to Wal-Mart, which is a big downscale corporation. Their environmental and socio-economic impacts really don’t ultimately differ all that much. True public transit romantics take the bus to their local butcher twice a week, and to the farmers’ market on Saturday. Small is still beautiful.

  72. DKL
    January 13, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    Russell Arben Fox: Whole Foods is a big upscale corporation….

    No. Whole Foods is a big upscale pile of crap.

  73. DKL
    January 13, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    MikeInWeHo: Don’t dis’ Whole Foods or prepare for a yuppie counter-attack

    Look, you just can’t be a grocery store unless you sell 2 liter bottles of carbonated beverages. It’s un-American, and if they’d have had soda pop at the time this great nation was founded, it would sure as hell be unconstitutional!

  74. Mike Parker
    January 13, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    #71: “For some reason there’s a lot of overlap between Whole Foods aficianados and public transit romantics.”

    Word, gst. Toss in Birkenstocks, long-ish hair, and showering every other day (to lessen one’s impact on the environment), and we’re getting close to developing a profile.

  75. MikeInWeHo
    January 13, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    re: 75 That’s not the Whole Foods I know, Mike. No un-showered hippies there. It’s all about the IS250 vying with 325i for the only remaining parking spot, the $100 hair cut doused with $40-a-bottle conditioner, and the smell of liberal hypocrisy mingling with fair-trade coffee beans. I always find something to laugh about when I’m picking up a quick dinner there. The Birkenstock crowd seems to hang out at the organic food co-op and various farmer’s markets, although we all mingle at Trader Joe’s.

    But hey, it’s it great that capitalism provides for us all? DKL can enjoy his canned vegetables from Save-A-Lot and scorn the Whole Foods crowd, while I worry about the toxins in my swordfish and feel smugly superior as only a hypocritical urban liberal truly knows how. God Bless America !

  76. Julie M. Smith
    January 13, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    “. . . to their local butcher twice a week, and to the farmers’ market on Saturday.”

    Are you not just the teeniest bit concerned about the feminist implications of a statement like that?

    (Say what you will about Wal-Mart, but getting all of my purchasing accomplished in one hour per week is a boon for my non-homemaker-ly endeavors.)

  77. DKL
    January 13, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    MikeInWeHo: DKL can enjoy his canned vegetables…

    Wrong again! Vegetables are for sissies (with the notable exception of tobacco). I get by on Diet Coke and Cheez-It baked crackers, thank you very much. (The white Cheez-Its are exquisite — flaky and light, yet piquant.)

  78. Barb
    January 13, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    There have been times when weighing the pros and cons of moving out that I have thought of freezing on a bus stop. I hate the cold. Things would have to be really bad a great deal of the time for it to be better to freeze. In addition, I have a terrible sense of direction and the thought of having to transfer and also figure out where to cross certain streets could be very difficult. If it were a straight bus route, it would be okay. I have done that just fine. I also would be too afraid to take the bus after dark. I have been conditioned to really fear being out after dark. The bus system is pretty poor here. I just live a few miles from work presently on a pretty major street and yet I would have to transfer were I to take a bus. And it is pretty straight up the major street at that. Also, I would have too many phobias at present to take the bus in my present state so that rules it out.

    Back in the day, I used to take the bus a lot to my old job or to high school. I was always running late so I had to run most of the way to the bus stop. That is a good way to get your metabolism going in the morning at any rate.

    I used to think you would meet a lot of “different” people on the bus. Now I have become one of those “different” people.

    It would be cool to see a family on the bus.

    I was on a bus once when what may have been a Church choir broke out singing one of Whitney Houston’s song. They were awesome! People should have more sense of community and make busing more of a party situation.

    It has been super cold where I live and I have been so very grateful to have a nice heated car to go to work in though.

  79. Barb
    January 13, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    Oh, I didn’t read the post above. It appears the topic has shifted to cheese crackers. Well, I had some pretty darn good nut thin crackers from the health food store in my vegetable soup this very evening.

    Is Popeye a sissy?

  80. comet
    January 14, 2007 at 3:37 am

    Tokyo has an unbelievable public transportation system. Efficient, convenient, clean, and not ghettoized. Over half of commuters use public transit, and over 80% use the private transit lines as well. The rail transit grid is so central that retail, corporations, and real estate values generally peak near the rail stations. My mental image of Tokyo is entirely based on the rail system (whereas in LA it was the 5, 405, 91 highways, overpasses and the few butterflies still left). Anyways, I get half my work done on the commute train and can pretty much rely on train times to schedule meetings and get-togethers. Downsides? Sure, peak times feel like a mosh pit, although you see fewer of the famous “butt-pushers” (station staff who helped squeeze people in) thanks to new renovated train cars. Not many lovefests on Tokyo trains…people find their own comfort zones in books, iPods, etc. Still, I can’t imagine doing Tokyo by car on a regular basis…almost unthinkable.

  81. DKL
    January 14, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Barb: Is Popeye a sissy?

    No. He’s just like every other non-sissy who eats vegetables: fictional.

  82. January 14, 2007 at 10:37 am

    “Are you not just the teeniest bit concerned about the feminist implications of a statement like that?”

    Considering that I do all the food shopping in our family, and have for years, and considering that the farmers’ market we make use of is run by a co-op of Mennonite women…nope, not remotely concerned. Unless there’s something else I’m missing?

  83. Julie M. Smith
    January 14, 2007 at 11:27 am


    What you are missing is how unusual your situation is.

    I don’t have a statistic for you, but the overwhelming majority of household purchasing is done by women which means that anything that causes shopping to take more time (whether it is use of public transit or patronizing small local businesses or both) means more work for mother.

  84. random me
    January 14, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    interesting that i stumble upon this today! we are a two-vehicle family and live in los angeles. while i’ve taken a lot of flack for driving an old minivan (“it’s so FRUMPY!”), we’re just happy to not have car payments or feel that what we drive is an outward expression of our coolness quotient. a vehicle is necessary for my husband’s commute and we frequently take trips in excess of two hours one way, so that’d be a pain without a car.

    anyway, the minivan is busted and husband needs the pickup (small, economical, base model) for work. i spent two days trying to figure out how to get to church by bus. it normally takes us about ten minutes, but only because of all of the red lights. by bus, it involved about a mile walk, a transfer, and we’d have to leave about an hour and fifteen minutes before church. the return trip was worse because we’d JUST miss the bus when church let out and we’d have to sit around for a while to catch the next one. with a bunch of grubby toddlers, that didn’t sound like much fun. luckily (?), the kids ended up with a stomach bug and i was absolved of today’s church attendance. and i didn’t even get into who around here rides the bus…

    i was a dedicated bus rider while living in san diego. wasn’t fun, wasn’t terribly safe, but it got the job done. i gave away two book of mormons, but the rest of my travelling was done sitting in the corner, staring out the window, trying to avoid some of the characters. one of my trolley trips included a group of men walking through the car, demanding money at switchblade-point. we lived on o’ahu, where they have “the nation’s best transit system.” you could get ANYwhere on that thing and i always felt relatively safe.

  85. January 14, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    I’ve got to agree with Julie, Russell. It’s quite likely that you don’t have to take all of your children with you when you do the family’s shopping and a lot of women do. It’s no picnic to take two or more children on foot or on the bus to the butcher and farmers market 3 or 4 times a week. I’ve done it, and I don’t miss it. And didn’t your wife do most of the shopping when you lived in Europe?

    I prefer walking though. I would 10 times rather haul the groceries home and steer the children on a two-mile round trip than take a crowded bus when I’m loaded with children and shopping bags.

  86. January 14, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Julie and Erica,

    Some random points:

    1) I don’t think I’ve written anything on this thread that hasn’t acknowledged that for many people, especially in the United States, public transportation just doesn’t work. As I said right off the bat, we own a car (a minivan even!), and given our callings and where we live, couldn’t do very well without it.

    2) Actually we usually went together shopping together in Germany, since we were walking to a local market about a mile and a half away, and needed all four hands to carry food home.

    3) Exactly how is praising public transportation, farmer’s markets, and local butchers “caus[ing] shopping to take more time” anyway? From what I can tell, our own family’s priorities aren’t exactly driving the nation’s Wal-Marts and SUV dealerships out of business.

    4) Melissa would like me to make the point that obliging husbands to take on domestic tasks usually associated with women, to say nothing of patronizing (whenever possible) local establishments and farms which provide women owners and operators with opportunities and profits often unavailable in corporate America, is arguably pretty darn feminist.

    5) I always take one or more of the girls with me to the grocery store when making a regular trip. Family rules.

  87. gst
    January 14, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Russell, does your minivan have any bumper stickers affixed? What do they say? Just curious.

  88. January 14, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Nope. Melissa hates bumper stickers.

  89. DKL
    January 14, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Julie: What you are missing is how unusual your situation is. I don’t have a statistic for you, but the overwhelming majority of household purchasing is done by women which means that anything that causes shopping to take more time (whether it is use of public transit or patronizing small local businesses or both) means more work for mother.

    Beautiful. I love the way that you don’t give the bleeding heart liberals a free pass on women’s issues. Even so, sometimes I wish that we could just stopp assuming that the world craps on women in enough subtle ways to ensure that life is fun and easy for men but quite difficult in untold ways for chicks. It endangers my fun and easy life.

  90. January 14, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    Should have kept my mouth shut. I actually agree with almost everything Russell has said here and like public transportation and use it whenever I live in a place where it’s available. I just really, really got tired of grocery shopping in Asia when my husband’s back was out of whack and he couldn’t help carry anything home.

  91. January 14, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    “Tokyo has an unbelievable public transportation system. Efficient, convenient, clean, and not ghettoized.”

    On the downside, women do occasionally get “felt up” while riding packed subways in Japan.

  92. manaen
    January 14, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    87 I always take one or more of the girls with me to the grocery store when making a regular trip. Family rules.

    This is why I don’t understand car-pool lanes: I always put a kid in the car for Saturday chores so I could use the car-pool lanes. It didn’t reduce the number of cars on the road; just ruined Saturday for the first kid I found as I went out the door.

    88 Russell, does your minivan have any bumper stickers affixed? What do they say? Just curious.

    My personal favorite bumper sticker — which I’ll have to print up sometime — has a nice Christmasy theme: “I’m glad Mary and Joseph weren’t ‘Pro-Choice’.”

  93. DKL
    January 15, 2007 at 12:41 am

    For the record: Boston’s subway system was the first in the US, and its subway coverage is among the densest. I rode it to work for more than a decade.

    When I first started riding the subway, it cost 85 cents. It was also filthy and smelled of urine, the cars were in terrible repair, the schedule was frequently erratic, and the stations were dilapidated and kind of disgusting. It now costs $1.35. It’s not perfect, but the cars are generally in good shape, most of the stations have been completely renovated from top to bottom, and they come and go at the obvious time. I consider it much more of a bargain at $1.35 than it was at 85 cents. Parking in Boston gets as expensive as $39 per day.

    Before the “Big Dig” was completed here (it’s a tunnel beneath the city that modernized the highway system) it frequently took 45 minutes to an hour to drive into work during traffic (it’s about 15 minutes with no traffic at all). Taking the subway took an hour, and it was a good trade for the price.

    With the completion of the “Big Dig,” I can frequently make it into work in 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, public transportation is great, but it ain’t worth 90 minutes of my life every day.

    Of course, my commute wouldn’t approach 15 to 20 minutes without all those people who take the train (this is what makes me glad that parking is so pricey), and for many people the train route is substantially more direct and faster than even traffic-free driving. My point is that it’s not an either/or proposition. Public transportation is one essential aspect of a workable transportation system, but so are workable roads.

    That said, this cartoon illustrates the worst problem with both cars and subways. Sometimes, a guy just needs a mason jar.

  94. comet
    January 15, 2007 at 2:18 am

    92.”On the downside, women do occasionally get “felt up” while riding packed subways in Japan.”

    Another downside is the occasional puke spill from wasted businessman on their way home from afterhours yakitori schoomzing.. .still, the trains run on time (please, no Mussolini tags here).

  95. MikeInWeHo
    January 15, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    re: 95 Platform Pizza is what they call that, right? Running around on Tokyo’s system is an experience indeed. I’m not sure the women-gropings are that common anymore.

    L.A. would need a system about as extensive as Toyko’s to make public transport really work here, and that clearly isn’t going to happen. So we sit in traffic. You really do get used to it after a while. You go to work with the transportation system you have, not the transportation system you wish you had.

    Speaking of….off I go. Have a great week everybody.

  96. random me
    January 15, 2007 at 10:29 pm

    carpool lanes are highly effective everywhere i’ve lived. of course, i’ve always lived in areas with crazy rush hour traffic. getting to blow by the solos because i’m carpooling to work or have my kids with me saves a load of time. it absolutely chaps me, though, when i see solos in the carpool lanes. major pet peeve!

  97. Mark B.
    January 17, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Carpool lanes? On I-15, when I was last in Utah, they were almost empty, while the single occupant cars jammed the other four lanes.

    Ten months without a car have taught us some useful lessons:

    1. Zipcar–if your city is blessed with it. (

    2. Walk or take public transportation to the grocery store, then a taxi or car service back home. You can get the $250 worth of groceries and get it home without a granny cart.

    3. Commute time a worry? Get a book.

    4. Wanna feel trapped? Go someplace (like Las Vegas, where we were last weekend, visiting family) where there’s no place to go without a car.

    5. Wanna stick it to the man? Don’t drive. How much of what you pay for gas goes to enrich some useless sheik in the Arabian peninsula?

  98. January 17, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    “Go someplace (like Las Vegas, where we were last weekend, visiting family) where there’s no place to go without a car.”

    Back when we lived in Utah, before we had kids, Melissa’s job took her to Las Vegas for a conference, so we both went, where we were put up in a pretty decent hotel on the Strip. We decided, one night, to walk it: actually walk from one end of the Strip to the other, a distance of maybe two miles, tops. It was very possibly the most depressing experience of my life.

  99. Adam Greenwood
    January 18, 2007 at 3:54 am

    I don’t understand the moral weight that people put on transportation. Public transportation is largely given over to Ipods, but if it weren’t, we’d still have roughly the same amount of anomie as before. People who can be cured by sitting on the bus together probably don’t need cured in the first place.

    The romance of the open road on the one side and the romance of public transportation as public space on the other are both largely hooie. And most of you, if you were honest, would admit that you started with an emotional attachment to one kind of transportation or other and the economic and sociological arguments you offer came after. Or else they’re largely excuses for America/Red state bashing or Europe/Blue-state bashing.

    My own take? Well, I like J. Green’s being able to show his family like that. I think there is some real benefit there, and a real loss in not being able to do that. On the other hand, places where public transportation is common are places where density and housing costs are high enough that larger families usually don’t exist in the first place. So I’m not really sold either way.

  100. Mark B.
    January 19, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    A look at the weather cameras in the Salt Lake and Utah valleys today suggests that there should be a moral weight placed on our transpotation choices–maybe it’s not the community building that J. Green suggests (although I think it matters more than Adam thinks)–but all the individual choices that have made those valleys so dependent upon private cars have added up to the dreck that passes for air there.

  101. Bill
    January 19, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    “housing costs are high enough that larger families usually don’t exist in the first place.”

    Apparently a large family is now becoming a status symbol

  102. Mark B.
    January 19, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Re Bill’s 102:

    Neither the Hasidic Jews nor I seem to have been driven (1) out of Brooklyn or (2) to small families (although most of them make my 5 children look like a small family) by the housing costs here.

    But, we don’t have 3,000 sq. ft either. And, we didn’t buy the nicest house on the block. (Since then, though, we’ve made it that.)

  103. MikeInWeHo
    January 19, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    That’s a good point, Mark B. I live and work near a huge (Jewish) religious community. Their Mormon-size families are walking the streets together everywhere, yet it’s about as urban as you can get. They don’t seem to feel a need for huge yards, and maintain their own educational system so the quality of the public schools doesn’t matter. Seems to work fine. Not for me, though; if I were raising more than one kid I’d be out there in a McMansion with the rest of y’all.

  104. bbell
    January 19, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Hey Mike,

    I think there are 2 reasons for the persistance of Hasidic and Orthodox families in urban areas.

    1. Private Schools. Middle class flight was the direct result of the declining quality of urban schools in the 1960’s. In Chicago where I grew up the last pockets of acceptable areas for middle class families are found in heavily catholic areas that are heavily served by local Catholic schools. Most of these neighborhoods are dominated by Cops, Firemen, and city workers who are required by city ordinance to live in the city. Lots of kids in these areas and the Catholic schools are quite good. Really really good. As good as the best suburban schools and even better at Football. My own Grandfather attended one of these schools. There are still small Jewish areas with their own schools like this in Chicago.
    2. Rules on walking on the sabbath restrict the size of the community and it location. You will even see wires up on utility poles to mark how far you can walk on the sabbath.

    I used to live in Skokie Illinois so take my word for the walking thing.

    I think Adam is right. Most LDS families live out in the exurbs far from public transportation so its a non issue for most of us.

  105. January 19, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    bbell: What do those wires mark, the distance from the synagogue?

  106. Mark B.
    January 19, 2007 at 8:01 pm


    The wires mark the outer edges of an eruv, which are described here:

  107. MikeInWeHo
    January 19, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    Hey bbell,
    I thought middle class flight was sparked by race problems in the 60s and that school decline followed, leading to a snowball effect that pretty much cleared Chicago (and Detroit, etc.) of middle class families. And if you think Catholic schools are good, you should check out Lutheran ones. Anyway, my partner is from Skokie originally so we’re very familiar with the area. Did you ride the Skokie Swift? BTW, I think Chicago and its suburbs are actually a great example of a blended public transport/road system that works pretty well. Guess if you were dodging .22 slugs it might not seem so great to you, though!

    There is much good in Chicago’s system. Would love to have a way to get to LAX as simple as the Blue Line to ORD, for example.

    re: 106 The wires are called Eruv. You can read about them and see a photo here:

    You think LDS have strict Sabbath requirements!

  108. Mark B.
    January 19, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    I think Adam is right. Most LDS families live out in the exurbs far from public transportation so its a non issue for most of us.

    At least until oil hits $100/barrel.

  109. Adam Greenwood
    January 20, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    Hasidim or no Hasidim, housing costs are higher in dense areas, public transportation makes more sense in dense areas, and families with kids tend to live in exurban areas where space is cheaper.

    Rising energy costs may make some difference, but probably not. Housing costs are so much larger than gasoline costs that gasoline has to go way, way, way up before it matters. Doubling oil costs probably won’t affect housing patterns too much. What it will affect is what kinds of cars people buy, willingness to carpool, etc.

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