The San Diego Union-Tribune, my local paper, printed selected facts from the 2012 Census Bureau this weekend. One of these stated that only five percent of American workers use public transportation. And people who use public transportation in San Diego can save up to $11,000 a year. I’m not at all surprised the figures are so low despite the financial incentive. Using what qualifies as public transportation in San Diego is almost guaranteed to shorten your life. Only one person I’ve met has even attempted to work out the complicated bus routes that take twice as long to get you anywhere. Meanwhile, the San Diego trolley seems like a good idea until you see some of the people who ride it.
All of this is the polar opposite extreme to London, where those who drive to work are very much the exception. Everyone else has to schlep around on the tube (the Underground system) and use the buses which go to every destination imaginable. To get to work, I had no choice but to take a 10-minute bus ride to my closest station, Finsbury Park, and then get on the tube and negotiate a ridiculous number of tunnels while dodging people holding briefcases and huge handbags. Hesitate for more than a second during rush hour and you will have someone either step on you by mistake or tut at you. It would take about 45-50 minutes on average to get to work. I’m not saying it was ideal – it could get very tiring – but I did get to read a lot of books. In the 15 years I lived in London I never once drove a car. Not once. And, honestly, I didn’t really need to.
So, it comes as no surprise that one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make since returning to the United States nearly three months ago is getting used to the car. When I was 16 years old, the car represented freedom from my parents, a chance to strike out on my own. Fast forward 22 years and I’ve come to regard the car as a necessary evil. While I recognize the convenience of the car, especially in southern California, I detest having to use it for absolutely everything. Gone are the days when I used to nip to the shop, five minutes from the flat, to buy a pint of milk, cheese and bread. Instead, I now have to strap myself into that hulking great piece of metal and drive to – I shudder to say it – my local Vons, a supermarket so cavernous and dark that even an experienced explorer from the South Pole could get lost in there without a compass and flashlight.
But the worst part of driving everywhere is the school pick-up and drop-off. The British call this, rather neatly, ‘the school run’. The race starts at about 7am, as I rub my eyes and try to rouse my five-year-old from the bed we now share together. (An aside: never in my wildest dreams did I think I would share a bed with my child and not my husband. At 16 I didn’t even think I’d have a child.) If it’s hard to wake her now, I’m trying to imagine what it might be like when she’s 13. Luckily, my imagination fails me.
Because I am one of those unfortunate souls who doesn’t own a car in SoCal, I have to share my mother’s. This means dropping her off at work before dropping the Chatterbox at school. The whole journey takes an average of 45 minutes, the amount of time it took me to get to work in London. In the afternoons, the whole thing is considerably more harried, because it’s impossible to drive into the school without negotiating an obstacle course of cars, cones and frustrated parents. I prefer to park on one of the surrounding streets and then walk, passing kids holding stop signs and well-meaning parents wielding whistles.
In London, I used to walk across the street to my child’s school. Journey time: 5 minutes on foot. I realize how lucky that is, and I know what I prefer. I’m not trying to say that a car wouldn’t have been nice in London sometimes. Try negotiating a stroller up a hill in driving rain with about 10 pounds of groceries hanging off the handles. But I’d rather have the choice to do one or the other: take a car or go on foot. It’s a shame that more Californians don’t have a choice but to use the car.