September 12, 2005
A new kind of power
Allison Adams is managing editor of The Academic Exchange.
Until five years ago, the last time in my life I had depended on a bus for my daily commute was when I was 15 years old. I hated every second of it.
Twice daily, I rode a lumbering, orange monster on wheels over the meandering, 40-minute route from my home at the north end of Rabun County, Ga., to the county high school at the south end.
And every day, an older boy I’ll call Roy Jones would sit near me and torment me, leaning over to grab and insult me. My attempts to fight off his bullying left me feeling trapped, powerless and afraid. At 15, I was too naive to know how to stop him.
That sense of powerlessness ended when I turned 16, got my driver’s license and began driving myself to school. Having a car meant having control and self-protection—an escape hatch if I needed it. The thought of giving that up was a frightening prospect.
But I did, and unexpectedly,
I gained a new kind of power.
In 2000, I traded my Emory parking hangtag for a free MARTA transcard and began riding the bus. The commute from my Decatur home to campus required patience and effort; it took 35–40 minutes each way, as opposed to the 15–20 minutes I had spent in my car. Errands and off-campus appointments during the day were virtually impossible. The bus home sometimes ran as much as 35 minutes late.
In spite of the inconvenience, however, riding the bus gave me new power—over my own time, money and general well-being. The hour-plus I spent on the bus daily was a gift. While someone else worried about traffic jams and angry drivers, I was free to read, gaze out the window, or close my eyes and clear my mind. I no longer succumbed to road rage. I saved significant funds that would otherwise have gone to parking permits and gasoline. And by keeping my car out of rush-hour traffic, I was doing one small thing to improve the quality of the environment, and the quality of life, in our community.
I also gained a certain nimbleness from riding the bus. I traveled light. Instead of lugging around a ton of metal, I carried a satchel with little more than my wallet, a note pad, a good (paperback) book, and a Thermos full of coffee that was still steaming when I got to work. Some days, I even carried a change of clothes and walked or jogged home.
Most automobile commuters, especially white commuters, remain as trapped in their cars as I once was by Roy Jones on the school bus. We avoid transit, in large part, out of fear of releasing our white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and letting someone else drive. We cling to our symbols of power and prestige because we think we would be vulnerable and out of control without them.
And many of us stay locked in our cars because we are afraid of boarding a bus full of faces and voices unlike our own. But gradually, I grew accustomed to being, on most mornings, the only white person on the No. 36. I became more comfortable riding with fellow passengers from a broad range of humanity. I became less likely to let fear dictate my decisions. And while
I now know how to deal with the Roy Joneses of the world, not once did I feel unsafe or threatened on the No. 36.
In fact, I became part of a community. Every day, other riders and I helped a woman with an infant load her stroller, baby and all, onto the bus. Once, after I had been out of town for a week, the driver greeted me with a huge smile and asked me where I had been—she had been worried about me. On one windy morning, a kind woman at the station saw me struggling with a wrap-around skirt and gave me a safety pin.
I also came to believe that commuters who have a choice opt for their cars over MARTA because of the inconvenience. The buses, trains and shuttles do not go where we need them to go, when we need them to go there. But we often make it impossible for MARTA to become more accessible to us. According to an analysis conducted as part of the city of Decatur’s strategic planning process in 2000, traffic on South Candler Road (a main artery from south to north Decatur) grew 25 percent from 1989 to 1998. This congestion has only gotten worse.
In 1999, however, Decatur flatly—even angrily—rejected a proposal for a light-rail line up South Candler Road. No More MARTA, we declared. Decatur has its share.
Did we let the short-term view kill a promising solution to a long-term problem? Which do we prefer—25,000 cars a day on South Candler, or a trolley line that would have significantly reduced current traffic?
Three years ago, my office moved to a new campus location a mile away from the No. 36 bus route. I decided to try something else new and a little scary. I bought a used bicycle and began to ride to work. I wasn’t sure I could manage it; the automobile traffic I rode in was as intimidating as Roy Jones was when I was 15—not to mention the leg-busting hills between home and campus.
But I have become a savvy commuting cyclist. I have learned how to hold my own safely and confidently on the road. A set of panniers for my bike enables me to carry a change of clothes. My commute takes usually 15 to 20 minutes each way. I enjoy the rides themselves and the camaraderie with other Emory and CDC bike commuters, and occasionally we ride to work together in a “bike train.” I know I am healthier and stronger—more powerful—both physically and otherwise.
These days, with soaring gasoline prices and 1970s-style shortages, we are feeling more pressure than ever to seek out new kinds of power—literally, energy to move us around the landscapes of our lives. I was not surprised to hear that bicycle shop business and MARTA ridership both boomed when gas prices topped $3 per gallon. But long before the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, we knew that cheap oil would not last forever.
You do have power. Your thirsty automobile does not have to control you with its increasingly outrageous demands. If you can get to the store on a bicycle or on foot and carry home a gallon of milk in a book bag, you’ve done yourself, your community and the world a bit of good. If cycling to your local Publix would be like rollerblading on I-285, then start conversations with your neighbors, local public officials, and civic leaders. Join organizations like PEDS for pedestrian advocacy (www.peds.org) or the Atlanta Bicycle Campaign (www.atlantabike.org). Have you ever ridden a MARTA bus? Look over the bus schedules (www.itsmarta.com). You never know where they might take you.
Using transit and other alternatives should not require an upheaval of our lives. Rather, our personal assumptions and community transportation systems both must adapt. Structural changes are necessary—traffic calming; bike lanes; safer sidewalks; better transit; communities designed so that we can live, work, shop, and play without having to drive—but we must become more open to their unexpected gifts. These revelations in our landscapes and our lives are an invitation to a new kind of power.