I grew up in the Twin Cities and have spent the last nine years living on the East Coast. I've just moved home and am thrilled to be back, except for one thing: the driving. When I left, I thought I loved driving, but nine years without a car, relying on excellent public transportation, has taught me differently.
I am, of course, extremely concerned about the environmental toll of a car-dependent transit system, and I'm delighted that we're investing in our infrastructure and creating jobs through our development of light-rail transit (in fact, I have just completed a job on the Central Corridor that would not have existed were it not for light-rail construction. Check out happymn.com for details). However, there's one argument for investing in mass transit that I find more compelling than all others put together, and which I don't hear expressed much: It makes life better.
Driving is expensive. Gas is expensive. Insurance is expensive. Parking is expensive. Car maintenance is expensive. Cars are expensive.
Driving is unhealthy. When I lived in Boston, I walked a quarter-mile to the nearest T station every day (the T is what we call the subway in Boston), and another quarter-mile home. I also walked from the nearest stop to my destination. I got out in the fresh air every day; I carried everything I needed with me, and I relied on my own body to get me where I needed to go. I was in better shape when I moved than I am now after only three months of driving everywhere.
Driving is isolating. By walking everywhere in my old city, I got to know different neighborhoods. As soon as a new business went in along a familiar route, I knew about it -- usually before it opened -- and I made a point to stop in. City rambles became one of my favorite pastimes. While riding the T, I saw people from all walks of life going about their days, and I got into conversations with people I could meet only on public transit. (I've got a great story about a neuroscientist I met while commuting to work one morning.) Most important, by stopping in for coffee most mornings at the shop on the way to the T stop, I got to know my neighbors. The walk home late at night went from being a source of trepidation to an opportunity to catch up with friends I ran into along the way. We had nothing more in common than that we lived in the same neighborhood. And we met only because we went to the same coffee shop on the walk to the T.
Driving is boring. Nothing against the radio stations here (and we've got some good ones), but I'd rather spend my commute doing what I want to do. I read the entire "Sherlock Holmes" canon (and countless other books) while sitting on buses and subways. I've prepared for meetings while on the way to them. I've closed my eyes when coming home late at night without fearing that my exhaustion was going to result in a fatal driving mistake. And the good news about light rail and buses is that they're above ground. When you're driving across the Mississippi, you can't really look out and see it, because you've got your eyes on the road. If you're not driving, you can gaze to your heart's content. You can even stream radio on your smartphone while commuting if you want -- no need to miss your favorite programs just because you're not in your car.
I've become a mass-transit fanatic and a reluctant and grumpy driver. Of course I see the benefits of having a car in a city this geographically sprawling, or on a cold day, or when you've got a lot to transport, but on the whole, driving is miserable, and there is a better alternative. I encourage everyone who drives in the Twin Cities to imagine what your life would be like with a clean, reliable and comprehensive mass-transit system in place.
Emilia Allen is a theater artist who currently lives in a basement in Edina. Also, the Opinion section is launching a newsletter this fall. Please sign up here.