UrbSanity: You’re going to take public transit?

Originally published in Centretown Buzz
by Jeff Salmon
December 11, 2014

It’s funny how a few words or a sentence can stay with you.

On paper it reads as a simple question—“You’re going to take public transit?”—but it was the inflection with which it was said that indicated both surprise and a little confusion. This has been one of the lasting memories from a recent trip to New Orleans, where our hosts asked how we would be getting around.

The question caught us off-guard because public transit seemed like the most logical and obvious way of getting around, aside from walking, which we would do plenty of anyway.

We came to realize that the public transit system in New Orleans was extremely limited and, at times, inconsistent. However, it was more than satisfactory in getting us around the city.

We discovered that the three streetcar lines were used primarily, though not exclusively, by tourists as a “kitschy” thing to do and the busses were for those with limited means—and us! Because of this, it seems that the residents of New Orleans have attached a stigma to taking public transit, preferring instead to drive or take a cab.

Reflecting on the trip, I considered how my views on public transit had been unconsciously shaped over the years. Truthfully, aside from trips abroad, my first experience with public transit came when I moved to Ottawa for university.

Growing up in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto, where cars remain the dominant form of transportation by design, I was conditioned to drive everywhere.

The city planning of suburbs makes it very challenging for public transit to compete with personal vehicles because of the distance between destinations and the connections required to get from Point A to Point B.

At the heart of the suburbs is a car-driven mentality where you don’t even think twice about grabbing the car keys to pick something up at the corner store—even if it is only a seven-minute walk away.

I fell victim to my environment growing up; however, my mentality quickly shifted when I arrived in Ottawa carless and living on a student’s budget. I began taking public transit out of necessity, but it wasn’t long before I realized that my OC Transpo adventures (and misadventures) had given me a thorough understanding of the city.

Not only did I know how to get to key destinations but I also knew what was on the way. For me, public transit was a great icebreaker, allowing me to get familiar with a new city, and this has held true on my travels as well.

I have encountered and seen people on public transit from all walks of life in Ottawa. In that sense, I have come to know public transit as a great equalizer where you may see “suits” sitting beside individuals of limited means.

This is a byproduct of suburban living, where the congestion of traffic at rush hour (not to mention the cost of parking) tips the scales in favour of public transportation.

There are very few places in a city where you will find such a diverse mix of individuals in one place.

For example, the #14 bus, which runs across the city and right through Centretown, always boasts an eclectic mix of characters.

For a resident, public transit is a reminder that the density of cities requires us to share spaces with our neighbours. For a tourist, it offers the opportunity for an authentic experience where you will see and discover parts of a city not covered in a travel guide, in addition to meeting a cross-section of the people from the community.

So, when we host a guest from out of town, don’t be surprised if we look a bit shocked and ask, “Why aren’t you taking public transit?”m

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