It has been several years since I was a regular on public transportation. Though I have for more than a decade now been rooted in the Cheeveresque suburbs, for a period of several years prior to this I lived in a filing cabinet apartment complex designed for singles on Chicago’s North Side, and held a job at a law firm in the city’s Loop, just outside Millennium Park. Apart from briskly and defiantly doing the four miles from office to home on foot during the warmer months, I was a public transit devotee—out of necessity, if not affection.
I have little reason or opportunity to take transit these days, despite my travel demands as an editor. Often—which is to say always—I am on a time-crunch and Uber wins out. I am also older and, admittedly, my patience is not what it once was. I mention this because I was recently talking with my wife about how much more open to experience we were when we were younger, how much more willing to stand for hours at a concert or muscle through unnerving crowds to experience some event or other. Now that we are parents we have less time for such things, but while parenthood is a mitigating factor, it is not an excuse. Plenty of nuclears are far more social than we are. We began to wonder out loud what caused this shift in our tolerance for the social. We are now both less willing to brave traffic, crowds, lack of dependable bathrooms, the social need to care about other people’s experiences and so on—not when it’s so much easier, and frankly better, to watch Netflix and drink wine.
Is this a symptom of age? And why does it extend to certain aspects of life and not others? For example, we regularly drive 7+ hours to our family’s summer cabin for vacations, a space crawling with family and friends of family and even neighbors, not to mention the insidious introduction of wildlife (from spiders to owls to bears outside your window). We also love the low-grade energy of a crowded restaurant, a kind of electrostatic contact high. There seems to be this weird dichotomy between the tolerable and the intolerable.
About a month ago, I took my daughter into the city to visit her aunt, who keeps a studio space on the northwest side. We needed the El’s Brown line to get there. It was a Saturday, the Cubs were in town and it was crowded, noisy, pungent, and shaky. I was jarred (my daughter loved it). As we exited and made our way through the exiting turnstiles and made ready to walk the four blocks to the studio, I wondered if mass transit could survive against the TNCs for a rapidly aging generation of folks, who like me, might well value getting dropped off exactly where they want to go, tolerating only (possibly) having to listen to a radio station they wouldn’t choose for themselves. Will there ever be a symbiotic relationship between transit and ridesharing/on-demand transportation? I mean a truly harmonious partnership, not just a kind of ‘friend you tolerate socially’ type of thing? Because transit’s value is, I also believe, an absolute. Would it make sense to bring the TNCs and their troves of money to the planning table when it comes to expanding or improving transit in a city? What if they had skin in the game? What might come of it?
At a conference a few months ago I overheard (eavesdropped on, really) a pair of guys talking about their Ubers to the venue, and one of them said something to effect of “It beats the hell out of not knowing what you’ll get on a bus.” It was an interesting, if obvious, point. And it was one he could afford, I imagine, in his Ralph Lauren oxford and madras tie. But there are loads of folks without the fiscal luxury of even considering Uber a viable means of travel, even though the time and distance savings might be huge for them. So, again, what if the TNCs had a hand in transit development in order to create a seamless, first/last-mile, door-to-door, and—crucially—affordable system? It might be the best of both worlds.