Natural disasters are a study in adaption.
Between the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides, nearly every person in Santa Barbara’s South County had their lives disrupted and their daily patterns altered.
For me, this hit home when I found myself waiting at the Carpinteria station — a quaint little slab of concrete, where there are generally more tumbleweeds than people — and it was utterly slammed. I thought to myself: Who the hell are all these people?
They were and are, of course, my Carp neighbors, similarly trapped by the shuttered 101. We stood there awkwardly, smiling, making small talk, like we were on some communal first date. Apparently it took a mudslide to finally get out of our cars and meet.
When Amtrak started operating, it provided a skinny little lifeline to a region paralyzed. So instead of staying home for another day of KEYT disaster coverage, we thronged our way to the stations. We adapted.
Instantly, a pop-up train culture commenced, replete with inside banter and jokes. Everyone was an expert: Oh yeah, the trains are always 45 minutes late. And no, they never check tickets between Santa Barbara and Carp. And yes, we all know there is one slowdown in Montecito where an Amtrak worker has to jump out to check a road crossing. Duh.
There became local celebrity train conductors, whose voices would fuzz their way through the rickety loudspeakers. They had personality. They had verve. My favorite was the woman on the 4:40 p.m. train who, like a minister speaking to pack of sinners, would say over and over something to extent of: Whoever snuck on this train without a ticket should be absolutely ashamed of themselves!
My second favorite was the gentleman on the 9:23 p.m. who refused merely to say “Goleta” in tidy fashion, but rather stretched it out to “Gooooooooooleeeeeduh!”
But beyond all of this, an unexpected study in public transportation was taking place.
In 2008, Santa Barbara County residents voted yes on Measure A, which would widen the 101 and create a commuter rail: “A lane and train.” The underlying idea was that at least some of the roughly 15,000 people who drive into the City of Santa Barbara each day would be willing to hop on the rails instead.
These past few weeks may have provided a litmus test for whether or not this would work. Of course the circumstances were not exactly representative of everyday commuting — the crowds, the stress, the newness of the whole thing.
But, it at least gave people a taste of what it could be like. Could they feasibly alter their schedule to commute by train? Would it be any better than driving?
For me, the answer was yes on all fronts. Granted, I work eight blocks from the S.B. train station, so my commute is relatively simple. That being said, all the clichés about the merits of public transit seemed … I hate to say it … true:
I walked more than I normally do. I discovered new shops and restaurants in the downtown corridor (did you know there is a new German fast-food shop on lower State? And that German fast food is actually a thing? ). Perhaps most importantly, I met and conversed with people I would never normally see. And this is maybe the most important point.
Southern Californians are a tribe of car people. There are no vibrant public squares. There are very few marketplaces catering to diverse audiences. In other words, the spaces to encounter the other are few and far between. We hop from homogeneous silo to silo.
Studies show that there are lower levels of racial tension when people of different backgrounds are forced to encounter one another on a more regular basis.
This is not to say I was suddenly making brand new Latino friends, but I can remember multiple moments where we would laugh at the same jokes made by train conductors, or shake our heads when we realized the train would be 45 minutes late again. There was this feeling that we were in this mess together.
So do I have idealistic visions that these past few weeks will suddenly transform the region into a thriving train commuter hub? Not really.
We’ll get back into our cars. The silos are more comfortable anyway. But it’s worth recognizing that with comfort comes isolation and echo chambers.
And if America has one major problem right now, it is this.