A Realization in Transit


I’ve never used public transit for any other purpose than during a vacation to NYC or a shuttle or bus at an airport. Making it apart of my daily routine was never an option where I live, but I was always interested in the idea of it.

So it was an exciting event for me yesterday as I got the opportunity to actually take a train for a commute. And off of that experience, I’ve gleaned a few positives from it.

Firstly, and as I suspected, free time on the train to do other things is a huge benefit. As much as I love driving, commuting is mundane and ordinary. It’s nothing like a road trip or cross country tour or pushing your car to its limits on some random road. It’s exhibiting the vehicle at it’s extreme base level of utilitarianism:  an appliance. Instead of saving time driving, which requires you to be attentive, concerned, pre-occupied, and any other manner of distraction, a train allows you to sit back, maybe nap or read a book, meet a new person, see the sights as they go by, etc.

Secondly, as I’ve recently explained in my original post, going down to a single car requires additional transportation planning, and it limits the abilities of one of the two parties in a marriage; either me at work, or my wife and kids at home. This is obviously more of a nuisance to the latter as they are the ones usually in need of a vehicle during the day for things like errands or play dates or doctor appointments. Relegating myself to public transit would allow my family access to our only vehicle any time they’d like.

Lastly, a key in my emotional and mental stability and health that I’ve discovered lately is the amount of time I have alone. Being an only child has conditioned me to expect a higher amount of personal time, away from dealing with people or stresses. Now, while the train is definitely not bereft of people, it does allow an opportunity to not talk to anyone if I choose not to. I could just as easily put earbuds in and listen to music or a podcast as I could choose to start a conversation with a friendly person next to me.

Through all this, I’ve concluded that if I ever find myself in a situation to use public transit for my commute (meaning moving to a city that has an established intermodal network), then I would seriously consider doing so. But there is an ideal that needs to be met for me to buy in. Let me explain my experience yesterday, first.

Traveling to Philadelphia for a workshop in our company’s office there required a 6:30AM departure from Harrisburg, resulting in a trip of 1 hour and 40 minutes. Getting into the building at 8:30AM would mean I’d need to leave at 5:00PM to get my full eight hours in for the day. Routine trains run to Harrisburg from Philly at 4:45, 5:35, and 6:20 every evening… or at least those would be the most logical for me to take. Now, I’d have to be willing to have routine 14 hour day (from the time I get up to the time I get home) every day of the week. This is unrealistic given my lifestyle which means it’s a non-ideal situation for me right now.

Of course, if my train ride wasn’t 90 to 100 minutes every day, it wouldn’t be so bad. So, now to what’d be my ideal format for me to buy into every day public transit —

Distance between work and home:  right now, I live 3.5 miles from my office. Spending money on public transit is foolish to me because why would I spend money on it if I could spend the commute biking or walking and getting exercise out of it instead? Biking takes me 15-20 minutes, walking takes about an hour, 45 minutes if I run sections of it. Then again, traveling to a city like Philly which takes 90 minutes is too far. Fourteen hour days is not practical for me or my family. So I would say that if the time spent getting to the station as well as the time spent on the transit line was between 30 to 60 minutes, it’d be optimal.

Cost:  traveling Amtrak from Harrisburg to Philly cost me (or, rather my company) $50. To spend that every day for a regional line is too much, even if my employer picks up a portion of the costs, as they probably would. Having a route that took only 30 to 60 minutes, however, could see that price reduced to $30 or $40, but I hardly consider that a “good deal”. Rather, If I could have my ~80 minute round trip commute cost about $20, I think I’d bite. Having an option for some kind of “frequent rider” card and related discount would entice me even more.

Quality:  I couldn’t care less about what type of seats or how many seats or even a high level of cleanliness on the train (or bus). Instead, I’d like more creature comforts and dependability. Amtrak had wi-fi, which should be a virtual standard feature of many businesses nowadays. It had 120v electrical outlets. It had an electronic ticket kiosk, so I didn’t have to stand in lines or deal with rude ticketeers. SEPTA had an issue yesterday which caused whole lines to be down, diverting commuters to Amtrak. That’s unacceptable for SEPTA to have to shut down whole swaths of track because a train broke down. I want my transit to be reliable and dependable.

All in all, I enjoyed my experience yesterday. And, given the right circumstances, would be willing to make public transit a part of my daily routine. Unfortunately, I really doubt all of this criteria would or could be met. An article explaining my reasoning for this is a possibility, but suffice it to say that I think the subsidization of transit has manipulated the entire industry so much that it’s under-priced for what you receive. Anyway… my point is that I was delighted at the idea of being able to use the train, and I look forward to it again if it presents itself.

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