Cars rule in California. But many of its inhabitants are thinking about the broader use of mass transit systems, electric vehicles, and bike and walking trails that lead to community hubs. Are such ecologically friendly goals reasonable in a state that holds 40 million people within its 163,000 square miles?
I thought about this on a recent vacation to the eastern United States and Canada, where I had the opportunity to see how some non-Californians move about.
In Boston, my brother, niece, and I took the subway from Harvard Square to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, an easy 30-minute ride. At one stop, a middle-aged man boarded the train, stood in front of us, and began flapping his folded newspaper. For either our pleasure or perturbation, he launched into his version of a presidential theme song: the chorus of “Super Freak” by Rick James.
The three of us looked at each other, stifling our laughter. We weren’t sure if the guy was crazy or bold. Whether we agreed with his politics or not, it didn’t matter. We sat in our seats politely, accepting his need to present us with a comedy show. Mass transportation is an equalizer. Wherever this man was going, he had a right to get there.
Ten days later, some friends and I took an almost empty Amtrak train from Albany, New York to Niagara Falls. I would have booked the next leg of my trip on Amtrak too, but the 3 a.m. departure time was untenable. Canadian mass transit solved the problem.
As I made my way into Canada, the border agent was gruff, peppering my taxi driver and me with numerous questions. “Are you traveling with any cannabis?” he finally asked.
“Nooo,” I replied earnestly. “But I do have chocolate-covered raisins from California.” I wanted to cover all my agricultural bases.
At a small bus station on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, I boarded a bright green double-decker GO Transit bus. Part of a regional public transit system that serves the greater Toronto area, the GO bus would take me to a GO Transit train, which would ultimately take me to Canada’s national rail line, VIA Rail, in Toronto.
As the computer screen at the front of the cabin checked off each pick-up location — a small college, a shopping center, a park-and-ride lo t— average people hopped on the bus. I kept thinking: why couldn’t we develop a similar system in Central California? GO Transit serves 7 million people within a 4,200 square mile area. In the eight-county region of San Joaquin to Kern, 4.2 million people live within 27, 000 square miles.
That afternoon, I rode the VIA Rail train from Toronto to Montreal. The university professor who was seated next to me spent her time evaluating a PhD dissertation. Another woman stopped in the aisle beside me to lean over and share how much she liked the novel I was reading.
While our mass transit systems in California are good, they aren’t good enough. Earlier this summer, I wanted to take Amtrak to Sacramento for a quick day trip. My idea was squashed when the only way I could get back to Fresno was to board a train at 6 p.m.— and I wanted to attend an early evening event. I love using the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to get into San Francisco, but I’m irritated that I first have to drive 2 ½ hours to get to the Dublin parking station.
As Californians, it’s doubtful we will ever lose our need for cars. Even during my vacation, I rented a vehicle so that I could travel to rural destinations. But maybe we can begin to use our cars less often, integrating new modes of transportation into our daily lives. This can’t happen until we build convenience — a compelling reason for folks to ease up on the gas pedal.
I know I am part of a collective “we” that will either make or break the sensible goals of creating cleaner and more efficient travel modalities throughout the heart of our state. Establishing better mechanisms for riders to get to mass transit terminals from smaller feeder cities is one idea.
California High-Speed Rail is on its way. Whether you supported its genesis or not, the train has already left the station. Synergistic possibility is now ours to create. New tracks are now ours to lay.
Danielle R. Shapazian is a nurse and writer who lives in Fresno. She can be followed on Twitter @DShapazian or reached at Danielle.Shapazian@sbcglobal.net.