Why I’d rather take a train than drive

Gloria Steinem’s new memoir My Life on the Road has a chapter entitled, “Why I Don’t Drive.” In it she writes, “I had learned that being isolated in a car was not always or even usually the most rewarding way to travel: I would miss talking to fellow travelers and looking out the window. How could I enjoy getting there when I couldn’t pay attention? I stopped making excuses for being the rare American who didn’t want to own a car.” This chapter hit home powerfully for me—the person that loves to be a passenger but avoids driving at all costs. Unlike Steinem, I do drive a bit out of necessity; but when the option of pubic transit is available, I will choose it every time.

I have been fearful of driving and generally reluctant to do it since I first started having to do it—in Illinois’s in-school Driver’s Ed. Program, which consisted of exams full of trick questions, pretend-driving in “simulators” accompanied by a filmstrip of traffic scenarios (likely from the ’70s, judging by the high volume of Chevy Impalas and Cutlass Supremes), and watching videos of young people thrown from cars, pinned by trains, and bleeding out on busy highways due to their own stupidity and/or drunkenness (Anyone else remember Red Asphalt?). Oh, and now and then a few minutes of actual driving.

Though I’m typically a calm person, driving always brings out my nerves and insecurity; I constantly fear that I’m doing something wrong, or that there’s a rule or convention that I don’t know to follow. And there’s also the fear of sudden death—likely stoked by those haunting films we had to watch in Driver’s Ed. (Growing up in a railroad town, I was always be irrationally afraid of being stuck on the railroad tracks with a train approaching.) The standards for a driver’s license in my small town were pretty low: log some hours with an adult driver (my patient father), pass the class, then survive a rote driving test in which you’re asked to back around a corner but not to parallel park. I did all these things, though the class itself managed to bring down my high school GPA (when I mentioned this seriously to a college interviewer, she responded with robust laughter). But I still never really learned the most important thing: the ease and confidence of the experienced driver, of the person who feels at home on the road and behind the wheel.

So I turned to public transportation, which in the cities I found myself post-high school, was an available, if not always easy, alternative to driving. Surprisingly, I took to it with that same ease, that same feeling of home that I lacked as a driver. Learning to drive and getting your own car is a rite of passage in the U.S. due to our association of driving with independence. But personally, I’ve never felt more independent than when travelling alone via public transit, memorizing routes until they grow familiar, taking my place among strangers and blending seamlessly into the urban milieu. Part of this is due to the fact that when growing up, I dreamed of living in a city. On my visits to New York or Chicago as a teenager, what I enjoyed more than anything was walking the city streets surrounded by people, feeling their energy and their conversation buzzing around me. At the time I felt like an observer or even an imposter, as though they would recognize I was just a tourist. But I longed to live within that throng, to become part of the heartbeat of a city.

Throughout college, I was initiated into public transit via the Minneapolis-St. Paul bus system, easy to understand but not all that reliable. The sprawling twin cities make public transit an adventurous pursuit—you never know how close to civilization your stop will be (to get to a minor league baseball game, a friend and I were once dropped off on the side of the highway and forced to traverse a steep embankment and swamp-like, deserted field), and it took about an hour to get from my college in St. Paul to my favorite movie theatre in Minneapolis. But few things felt more cinematic to me, a small-town transplant, than sitting in a window seat watching bustling neighborhoods whoosh by.

But I didn’t become a daily transit rider until I moved to New York after graduation and became a part of the millions commuting to work on the subway. The subway is a truly unique space (about which much has been written): at times uncomfortable, dirty, and scary, it is still one of the most strangely enchanting experiences I can name. (Eleanor Friedberger wrote a great song about this, “Roosevelt Island,” that features the refrain, “It doesn’t seem like anything could be better than that/ riding that train.”) Riding the subway in New York City was my first public transit groove, as it were—I boarded above ground in Queens each morning and watched the sun glinting on skyscrapers before hurtling under the East River, and back again in the evening. Not only does the subway provide some of the best people watching in the world, it was here that I became introduced to the meditative nature of public transportation. It became an opportunity to dream but also generate creative ideas and make important decisions. It’s a trance that’s always hard to break when you reach your stop.

This introspective daily commute continued when I left New York for Pittsburgh, the city where I spent most of my twenties. I took the notoriously unreliable and underfunded city bus system daily. Unlike the subway in New York, Pittsburgh is small enough that fellow commuters begin to form a recognizable community. Particularly in the morning, there is little conversation to be heard on the bus. Instead, we’re content with watching each other, learning a bit about people’s lives based on where they get on (home), where they get off (work), what they wear (casual or professional? Scrubs? Uniform?), and what they’re carrying (briefcase, backpack, package, tray of cupcakes?). I once met a guy at a party that I immediately recognized from my morning commute. I already knew roughly what street he lived on, where he worked, and that he was a consistently sharp dresser (though of course I didn’t let on, for fear of appearing stalkerish). It broke the spell a bit, but there are always new strangers to follow. A sort of constant déjà vu accompanies public transit riding in a mid-sized city.

Two and a half years ago, due to a job in academia, I moved with my fiancé to Oklahoma. This meant, unfortunately, that I had to improve my rusty driving skills. We live in a small city where driving is easy enough, trucks and SUVs are de rigueur, and the use of fossil fuels is widely celebrated (fracking earthquakes, incidentally, are also the norm). I’ve gotten used to driving my fiancé’s car around town and eased up my white-knuckle grip, and I live close enough to work to ride my bike. It’s a peaceful lifestyle. But I didn’t realize how much I missed public transit until, after living here a year, I traveled to Minneapolis for a conference. The city now has a light rail, which I rode daily from my friend’s apartment to the convention center. Everything about it—waiting in the cold, people-watching, looking out the window with headphones blaring, scenery flying by—was all so familiar and so lovely that I could’ve ridden it forever.

As Steinem notes, “I didn’t decide on not driving. It decided on me. Now when I’m asked with condescension why I don’t drive—and I am still asked—I just say: Because adventure starts the moment I leave my door.” For me, as for many Americans, driving is now a necessity in my life, due to culture and geography. But when I’m traveling, I still use public transit. And when I’m settling in for a bus or train ride, I always feel that familiar energy, that inspiration. It takes me back to all those years ago as a teenager, standing on a busy city street and thinking this. This is where I belong.