Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Planes, Trains and Automobiles


We make our home on the crowded San Francisco Peninsula. Our houses and shops press together like clothes in a too-full closet. Our streets are a flurry of trucks, cars, bicycles, and buses. Farmers markets abound and a pristine, double decker train, CalTrain, totes us up to the City or down to San Jose. When I worked in San Francisco, years ago, I took the train regularly. On the ride, I'd prepare for work, read a book, or close my eyes and listen to the rails click gently past. More recently, I've turned to the train for regeneration as another year ticked by or loaded my boys on it bound for adventure and ball games.

CalTrain is tame. It is less empty than it once was but the seats are spacious, the upper decks peer over the Bay, green fields and scrap yards as the train lumbers toward San Francisco. In Disney-speak, CalTrain is the Monorail. It is clean, considerate, conciliatory.

If CalTrain is the Monorail, then BART is surely the Matterhorn. At least, that is what my boys dubbed it when we boarded BART for the first time last weekend. BART is dark and jerky. It screams and hollers - like the Abominable Snowman - as it rockets through black tunnels. Riders are stuffed together, packed in like thrill-seekers on a roller coaster ride, jolted at each stop and corner. Stations are dimly lit and hint at the dark, mysterious trip ahead. The tunnels stretch further and further until you are thundering under the opaque waters of the Bay and then, mystically, emerge into daylight. Your ears pop and your children wonder when we can ride the BART train again.

It is difficult, after such adventures, to usher everyone back into the car, the strapped seats, the smooth rolling ride where only other cars, not legendary monsters, lurk out of sight. Here, we are shielded from one another with closed windows and separate lanes. There is no people watching, no shared smiles as a boy on the opposite side of the train waves his Thomas toy in your direction, no reading books with two boys snuggled in your lap. You simply move from destination to destination. The journey is not worthy of mention.

Our trips by CalTrain and BART take only moments longer than by car. They yield much more though: gas saved, carbon emissions curbed, a sense of peace that cannot be located behind the wheel, and days of discussion about planes, trains and automobiles.

17 comments:

Robj98168 said...

WOW! The way you describe the Caltrain and Bart is fantastic. They could use you in their PR department!

Joyce said...

This sounds like so much fun! Do mind my asking how much it costs to use trains instead of the car? I hope the day will come when that is the cheaper alternative.

Michelle said...

I loved the efficiency of the BART when I was in the bay area!

eco 'burban mom said...

Sigh - How I long for public transportation. Here in detroit the only thing we have is a very, very unreliable bus system that doesn't reach the suburbs. I have a friend with a husband who doesn't drive (epilepsy) and his bus commute? 1 hour and 5 minutes for what would take you 15 by car. And, he regularly stands and waits for a late bus, which sometimes doesn't even show up when it snows.

I would love to take my boys on errands (and to their baseball games!) courtesy of real, exciting public transportation. Whenever we travel, they are so amazed to see El trains, subways and commuter trains! Again, you west coast girls have all the fun!!

Rosa said...

This is an awesome post.

One thing I noticed after I had my baby is how much kids *like* trains and buses, especially compared to carseats.

And yet, whenever someone takes a bus or a commuter train in a movie or on TV, there's a screaming baby. It's like a conspiracy against public transit.

arduous said...

Heh. I love this post. I can just imagine how excited your boys must have been to be on the train. It's funny because now taking PT is so part of my routine that it loses some of its mystique. But when I am running late and opt to drive, I realize later that I missed my walk and my reading time.

Green Bean said...

Rob: Why thank you! Do you think they'll offer me a job. ;-)

Joyce: I can't remember off the top of my head for CalTrain. BART was free for my youngest but my oldest and I ended up paying about $17 for a round trip. To get there and back, in my car and our current price of gas would be about $13.60 (not including maintenance costs, etc). So it is still a bit cheaper and a bit quicker but the gap is closing. It certainly is more pleasant!

Michelle: Isn't it wonderful. We don't have much access to it on the Peninsula and CalTrain is not as useful for shorter journeys but I think more people would take public transit if it was as easy as BART or the Undergound in London.

EcoBurbs: I grew up in the LA suburbs and there is no such thing as public transit there. Even here on the Peninsula, we're mostly limited to shorter trips unless I resort to the bus - which I haven't yet. I'm not sure I'm up for dragging the kids around on the bus, though, now that I think about it . . . they'd love it!

Rosa: Thanks! You are so right. Kids much prefer something more exciting than being strapped into a five point harness and made to look at the back of mom and dad's heads. Let's spread the truth about PT!

Arduous: Hi PT queen! I do remember that when I took the train regularly. It becomes less romantic and magical. But I still always felt very European and, at least as I always thought, Europeans are soooo cool.

eco 'burban mom said...

GB - when you go to Disney - ride the busses. My youngest, the 4 year old, STILL talks about riding the busses around. If you want to know the truth, it was his favorite part of the park! While his brothers were off riding space mountian, I was riding with him on a bus! They have giant Mickeys and Donalds on them and he just thought they were the best. His one little present he chose to spend his money on? Yep, you guessed it, a replica of a disney bus. Which we had to search through countless shops for... But he still loves it today, 5 months later!

Donna said...

This will date me, but I remember when BART opened. We took a special trip to SF just to ride on it. I had a blast! Can't remember how old I was, but I was young enough that it was a really big deal.

Melissa said...

When I first took Caltrain, I remember being shocked at how clean and comfortable it was! I definitely have trips that end up being cheaper for me to use PT. The other cool thing out here is that not only is there BART and Caltrain, but it also all connects to the VTA, which is the San Jose train system. Also, have you checked out Google trip planner? I don't think it's nationwide yet, but it you ask for directions for a Bay area trip, there is an option to click for public transit - it tells when the trains, buses, etc. are coming and which is the best way to get to your route. I love it!

arduous said...

These boys and your boys clearly need to hang out.

Green Bean said...

EcoBurbs: Actually, we've already been and boy are you right. All the boys wanted to do was ride the buses, the train, the vintage fire truck. We could have spent the entire visit on Main Street but we did force them on to the Matterhorn for a ride. Hey, Mom and Dad have to have a little fun!

Donna: Ahh, cute! I have no idea when BART opened so I'm going to guess you are 29 . . . just like me. ;-)

Melissa: Awesome! I need to check into the trip planner. You know where we live and for getting around town (places further than a bike), we can't rely on PT but for those slightly longer adventures, it is PT all the way. Thanks for the trip planning tip.

Arduous: Oh yeah! Hey, they're even the same age.

Wendy said...

That sounds like a blast!

We don't really have much choice with regard to public transport here. I could take the train into Portland, but I'm not even in Portland very often, and there's no train to the places I do go - no busses, either. *sigh*

Leila said...

Do you mean I can continue to put off going to Disneyland and keep taking my kids on BART and the bus instead?

They're in day camp in a beautiful park with redwoods, steelhead-populated creek, valley oaks, heated outdoor pool - and it's next to four major bus lines. For outings they always take transit - they've been to SF via bus and ferry, and tomorrow they're going to Children's Fairyland (Disney took his basic idea from this place) via bus.

I take them to the farmers market and the Mexican artisan ice cream place at Fruitvale transit village - by bus. I've also ridden the bus with them to get their hair cut on the other side of town -requires a change.

Back to the day camp - the director told me she believes it's an important life skill for them to use the bus - since she thinks cars will be so expensive by the time they're grown that most won't drive them. She wrote a grant and got $500 for bus fare for the summer. How cool is that? Meanwhile they were picking blackberries along the creek yesterday. All this, two blocks from the 'hood where we buy pizza, gourmet coffee, artisan French bread, Mexican food, and use the branch library.

Urban life is looking pretty good here in Oakland, despite the bad news you hear.

Heather @ SGF said...

That sounds so nice. I wish we had something like that here, but every time we try to get a rail line in, all the landowners freak. Why they can't run it next to the highway where the state owns land anyway, I don't know. Maybe when gas is $10 a gallon there will be enough of us asking for it, they'll give in - of course then it will take 10 years to build :(

I love California!

organicneedle said...

My boys have lived their whole lives in NYC and trains have been there everyday. You know what? They still love them. We even have some double deckers that go to the far end of LI. My 2 year old still goes, "Ooooooooooooeeeee," every time we go through a tunnel and come out. Hell...my husband just stopped doing it a couple of years ago and he has lived here his whole life too.

Green Bean said...

Wendy: There just aren't enough PT options around, are there? We can only really take the train and BART for special trips because they don't go around town.

Lelia: Yes. You can totally avoid Dland forever by taking public transportation. Your kids (until the age of 11 - EcoBurbs, correct me here?) will be satisfied with buses and BART. BTW, you totally inspire me to try the bus out on the Peninsula for around town stuff. I'll have to look into where it drops off and such. My sister lives very near you. Urban life is vibrant and in many ways much more sustainable than for those of us stuck in the burbs. I wonder if we'll start seeing more folks moving back to the city's with high gas prices and such.

Heather: I always had the same frustration growing up in Southern California. There was no PT anywhere near where I lived. Demand has got to spark more PT options and make the existing ones run more.

Needle: Ha! I love that about your husband. I will refine my comment to Lelia about the age when kids stop love riding the train/subway. Personally, I really enjoy it too. It's not just for the kids!

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