DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO: As a political animal, I have focused my energies on causes that require other people to change their behavior so that I don’t have to. This approach, I recognize, may not be for everyone. But until recently, it’s worked for me. When stuck in gridlock — driving invariably alone — I rail in futile rage against the imbecility of a system not calibrated to regard my convenience its top priority. “Why aren’t all those other drivers using the bus?” I demand to no one in particular. “Don’t they know they’re killing the planet?” And, of course, they really are. Likewise, by “they,” I really mean you. Recent NASA studies, in fact, have conclusively demonstrated that if you weren’t in my way, 2012 would not have been the hottest year in recorded history, spring flowers along the Eastern seaboard wouldn’t have bloomed three weeks sooner than ever before, and the Andean ice pack would not be shrinking faster than any time in the past 300 years.
Recent events, however, have forced me from the cocoon of my car. I caught a case of whiplash going over my handlebars in a recent bike accident. This has made looking over my shoulders prohibitively uncomfortable. As a result, I have just discovered the joys of Line 37, otherwise known as MTD’s Crosstown Shuttle. It is both amazingly and ridiculously convenient. I can get from my home on the Westside to downtown where I work in 10 minutes with minus-zero parking hassle. From the bus, you get to see the world from a whole different vantage point. Who is that guy you pass every day by Harding School who insists on wearing shorts even when it’s freezing out? Oh, he’s making sure his daughter — so proud and spectacular on her pink bike with white plastic streamers exploding from her white plastic handlebar grips — gets there safely. And you’re prodded beyond the self-selected sameness of your normal social encounters. You meet people, like the guy who hadn’t had a night’s sleep since his motorcycle accident from which he never really healed. He knew firsthand, it turned out, which halfway houses in town were worth a damn and which ones weren’t. He also knew from personal experience how the jail had become so jammed they were cutting everyone loose, even residential burglars.
After a couple of days enjoying the rolling hospitality of the shuttle, I became a born-again convert. Why wasn’t everybody riding the bus, I wondered with all the obnoxious fervor of someone who only just discovered what everybody else knew long ago. Some days, it’s so crowded I have to squeeze to find a seat. Mostly though, it’s not, and I can pester the driver with the most boring of small talk without fear of interruption.
I have since learned that ridership is all a matter of perception. In a typical month, the shuttle has about 9,000 riders. But it has the capacity to carry 20,000. How much gratuitous, self-inflicted congestion could be alleviated if more people rode? How many hours stuck in traffic avoided? How many microscopic airborne particulates kept out of my lungs? But after consulting with the higher-ups at MTD — plus some independent-minded traffic-engineer types I know — I have since learned not to look at the glass as 92-percent empty. The really big news is that it’s 7.4-percent full. That’s the percentage of Santa Barbara workers over the age of 16 who take the bus on a given day. To a novice like me, that sounds appallingly low. But compared to other American cities, it turns out, it’s phenomenally high. Santa Barbara, I’ve been told, ranks in the top 10 of its size in terms of mass transit numbers. In fact, our transit system is on par with what you’d expect for a city with one million people.
Such exclamations notwithstanding, that leaves 62.3 percent of all workers who drive to work alone. (Another 6.8 percent work at home, 5.6 percent walk, 9.5 percent carpool, and 7.6 percent get there by “other,” which is generally translated to mean bicycle.) The fact is most of the 26,000 people who ride the bus each day are what’s known as “transit dependent.” Traditionally, that’s been a bureaucratic euphemism for poor people or Latino and frequently both. But now that the Swedes have invaded City College — following previous mass migrations from Ireland and China — the term has come to encompass a broader array of ethnic and demographic stereotypes. Still, bus ridership in Santa Barbara stubbornly remains a class thing. Middle-class and affluent people, as a rule, are bus averse. That’s not to say ridership is unbudgeably static. When gas prices went up, so did ridership. When gas prices came down, many of the new riders stayed on the bus. And a few years ago when MTD reduced the time interval between buses — known as “the headway” — down to 10 minutes, ridership skyrocketed almost overnight by nearly 20 percent. By contrast, prior efforts to encourage ridership by giving away free passes did absolutely nothing. It should be noted that some of MTD’s main lines are positively slammed, and it’s not uncommon — especially in summer months — for would-be passengers to find there’s just no room on board.
To make the next leap in mass transit, I have been told, we need to invest in light rail. Studies apparently demonstrate that light rail is irresistible to all but the richest and the whitest among us. Sure, it would cost a fortune to build, but the price tag is still considerably less than what we’re shelling out to expand the freeway. And that work will reduce congestion for people commuting into Santa Barbara from Ventura, but do very little to relieve the really nasty congestion making commuting a living hell between Santa Barbara and Goleta.
That, I know, won’t happen ’til pigs fly. In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to settle for the shuttle. Could be a lot worse.