Diverging Approach: Be Careful What You Wish For

Thanksgiving has come and gone, the Christmas season is here, the world’s on fire and we’re all doomed, and Chicago’s looking at the business end of the first winter storm of the season. Ho Ho Ho!

It’s a great time of year to take stock of everything we have to be thankful for, to catch up and spend time with friends and family, and to get rip-roaringly drunk because, yes, the world is on fire, and our federal government’s response is to drop the report quietly and unexpectedly on Black Friday when no one is paying attention.

With New Year’s on the horizon, a concerted effort to minimize our carbon footprint will undoubtedly float to the top of a lot of people’s resolution lists. But while people will bicker about saving the world by going vegetarian or nothing mattering because a handful of companies belching out most of the greenhouses gases anyway, the absolute easiest thing you can do to shrink your carbon footprint is to simply drive less. Plus, while well-minded people will continue to walk a fine line between “every little thing helps” and “some changes are actually worse for the environment than just doing things the old way,” spending less money on fuel and oil changes directly goes to your personal bottom line and makes the savings more apparent.

For city folks, this is nothing new. Most city-dwellers in transit-rich areas know car ownership is more folly than freedom, given high costs of parking, urban traffic congestion, and so on. But for those of us out in the suburbs, driving is more than a way of life: it’s how our communities were constructed.

Take, for example, the RTA’s Halloween promo, asking commuters how scary Chicago would be without transit. A fun little reminder of the important role transit plays in our region, and part of the constant drumbeat to get more funding from Springfield. But here’s an important thing to consider: that video was shot just outside the Blue Line subway, likely interviewing transit riders who just got off CTA trains. Transit riders know how important transit is, for obvious reasons; people in downtown Chicago, an area literally built around the Loop Elevated and hemmed in by commuter rail lines know it more than anyone.

But out in the suburbs? I’d like to see the RTA do a similar video out at Woodfield Mall or along Randall Road or any of the other suburban shopping meccas. According to the Active Transportation Alliance, a whopping 92% of suburban workers don’t use transit. Imagine life without transit, the RTA asks, not acknowledging that for the vast majority of our region, life without transit is the only life they know. I’ve personally been very disappointed – and if you follow Star:Line on Twitter you already know – how the RTA and Metra frames suburban transit as something that makes it easier for drivers to drive in an effort to get drivers to support increased funding for transit.

It’s 2018 in the Chicago suburbs. We treat driving as this immutable fact of life, as if we didn’t build a massive highway and freeway infrastructure from the ground up only within the last sixty years or so. Railroads and surface transportation companies, which transformed Chicago from a marshy trading post at the mouth of a small river to the second-largest city in the country in a century, now have to go to voters, hat in hand, begging for a few extra scraps under the guise of congestion relief on roads and freeways that were farmland a generation ago, and we all just go along with it. We use metrics like “delay” and “level of service” to define “acceptable” highway facilities, where the implication is that unless I’m hurtling down a concrete ribbon at speeds multiple times higher than what the human body has spent thousands of years evolving to handle in my two-ton metal death box, a solution requiring significant government intervention in funding and engineering is necessary.

Driving is unnatural. Obviously, you can make the same argument about riding a train or a bus, but we become different people when we’re driving a car. The human brain literally behaves differently when driving. And it makes sense: riding transit, or even getting a ride from a friend or an Uber, has an implicit handover of control that we do as a compromise to get to wherever we’re going. The train comes at this time; get on or get left behind. Your Uber is nine minutes away; your journey will not begin until then, and then someone else will drive you to your destination.

But when we drive? I’ll drive my car whenever I want, wherever I want. I control how fast I go; I control what route I take; and when I get there, I can leave whenever I want because my car is waiting for me right where I left it. This is the freedom our grandparents dreamt of growing up in crowded cities and the freedom our parents came to expect in new suburban subdivisions built just for them. But then, when congestion happens, it’s a personal affront to the driver. The other people in front of me are preventing me from doing what I want, and it MAKES ME MAD! I’m complaining to my village board and I’m calling my state representative: they spent all this money building me these roads all over the region and they don’t even have the common courtesy to keep them free of traffic.

In the meantime, as I write this post, I’m currently riding on a crowded Metra train that comes once every two hours on Saturday nights. I took a Pace bus that doesn’t have timed transfers to the train, so I sat by myself in a modest shelter waiting 20 minutes in 40° weather for the train. I do this because I prefer not to drive (and, let’s be honest, it’s an extremely on-brand thing for me to do). I’m heading to a bar back in Itasca to drink and be merry with close friends. One of said friends – who shall remain nameless – lives two blocks away from the bar and drives to the bar every time. He works out religiously and brags about how far he runs through the neighborhoods, but ask him to walk to the bar and he stares at you like you grew an appendage in the center of your forehead.

If the RTA is going to refine their pitch to suburbanites, they should stop asking people to imagine the region without transit, but to start imagining the region WITH transit. Imagine a suburban Chicago where you don’t need a car. Imagine a transit network that did more than take people downtown on weekday mornings and back to the suburbs on weekday afternoons. Imagine living in a region with enough transit that you don’t need to plan your entire night around when the trains come. Imagine a bus home waiting for you when the train stops. Imagine not having to do the suburban drop-off-of-shame, when you have to find a ride back to the bar at 10am on Sunday to pick up the car you (smartly) left there the night before.

It’s Christmas time, a time of year to dream and believe. And it’s Chicago: dream big.