Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Charleston's Talking Public Transit

Before the Memorial Day weekend holiday, we were cruising through our feed reader and noticed a post on Go Green Charleston's blog referencing CARTA, Charleston's public transportation system. Go Green was experimenting with a few bus rides. Since we have given up our car and have taken to full dependency on CARTA, we commented on Go Green's site to give our fellow bloggers an attaboy. Our comments naturally invited the thoughts of another local opinionator, Joshua, as he jumped in to express disappointment with local public transportation. BTW, Josh and his family are also using bio-diesel (see way below)Click here for original comments at Gogreencharleston.org.

Joshua's disatisfaction with CARTA is important. He says simply, "fix CARTA." So after receiving the appropriate permissions, we've copied the greater portion of the discussion here for anyone interested in this issue. We get thoroughly into the limitations and difficulties facing cities like ours where public transit has been largely ignored in an age of cheap, cheap oil. Ultimately, it's time to transition, so please enjoy! Joshua's comments are italicized. He can be found at jdm843@gmail.com or www.citizencollaboration.org

“Y’all, I have to chime in to this! I think it’s great you’re riding CARTA. I think it’s great to fantasize what CARTA could be like. But don’t you think it could be better? Don’t you think it should be better? Shouldn’t the City be trying to make CARTA better every single day; more rideable, more transparent, better advertised? With our traffic problems getting worse by the day, gas prices skyrocketing (and proving they’re here to stay), and climate change showing its face now more than ever, shouldn’t the City be using public transit to save the day? It’s an easy fix to so many problems!! I know it’s not a cure-all, but boosting rider levels and expanding CARTA encourages sustainability, stimulates the economy, generates revenue for the City, reduces traffic problems, and just plain makes for a higher quality of life!”

Josh – although you make a lot of excellent points, getting people to change as quickly as we would like is a challenge. A lot of people don’t think like you, us and the GoGreen folks. We are a society of people raised up in the OIL AGE. The car is pushed in our faces day in and day out (via our friend, the Tellie) as not only a modern convenience, but a status symbol; an extension of the self. Large numbers have never even heard of peak oil, may not believe global warming is real and cannot even begin to understand the benefits of not keeping a car. The mass car market is so engrained in the average American’s head that things like standing at the gas pump once a week, running around to maintain services, i.e. buying tires, waiting for the oil changes, shopping for insurance, etc. are viewed as inherent parts of life. Rarely does anyone question that “lifestyle” or sit down to take a full accounting of the true costs of driving, including the value of one’s own time. Americans are now spending so much of their personal income, time and energy taking care of big pieces of metal and wiring that it is no wonder the auto becomes something the ego identifies with. And egos don’t like giving up their identities.

The City should save the day, should encourage sustainability, and should stimulate the economy, etc., etc., however, everything is connected to money and the making thereof. The half cent sales tax hardly passed a few years back when CARTA was in the red. Money was then, and still is today, the main issue behind CARTA’s failures. A necessary part of infrastructure has been largely ignored in Charleston. Now, when it is needed due to the price of gas, public transportation in the city is sub-par and inefficient. Financially challenged CARTA just didn’t get much community love in a world dominated by a personal auto mindset. When we consider that oil was super cheap a few years back when finances came to a head for CARTA, it is evident that we got the system we already demanded.

“I can’t help but complain about CARTA as I’ve experienced it so far. The services are confusing, the routes are inadequate, the pickup times are infrequent, and information on CARTA is hard to find. I demand better. We should demand better as a community. I’m sorry to sound like a Negative Nancy amidst y’all’s praise, positivity, and optimism, but I just can’t help but feel like there is a better way. I know no one in my life who sees CARTA as a viable option for getting to work, school, or the store as a primary means.”

Again, all good points. Service routes must be increased while connections are refigured and better coordinated to reduce wait time. Sub-routes must be established to move users from neighborhood pick-up/drop-off points and connected to main routes. CARTA will have extreme challenges attempting to overcome our city’s sprawling, secluded neighborhoods. The entire planning process must now be rethought. Maps and routes could be re-tooled for greater ease in personal trip planning, and last, improvements of the call in and nighttime bus services must be made. Again, much of the problem is that too few use the service, have the means to make demands, or even view the service as an essential part of a community’s ability to function. Without a lot of investment, CARTA can only do so much with what they can collect.

“Jennifer, you take the bus occasionally as a novelty on the weekends, right? Harry/Stacey, you live downtown, right? Can you honestly tell me y’all would be riding CARTA to work/school every morning and home every evening if you had to get on and off the peninsula?”

Yes, we can honestly tell you that. One of us rides to work every day off of the Peninsula to Mt. Pleasant while the other takes the bus about three times weekly into North Charleston in the pursuit of higher education. Even though we live downtown, we work and study off of the peninsula. Living downtown, though, means all the periphery services are within walking distance (grocery stores, hardware stores, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, museums, cultural events, farmers market, etc.). Thinking about oil supply and demand in advance, we wanted our home to be in the center of things regardless of where we worked. When we gave up our Jaguar to make a real attempt at a car-free life, we really took the plunge! We have no car, none, zip, zilch, nada. We walk, bike, car-pool and ride the bus. That’s it.

“Or if you had to get from Mt. P to W. Ash, or if you had some other sililar commute?”

Yeah, one of our doctors is in West Ashley….but we got the route down after two tries

“Think about how early would you have to leave you home in the morning to get to work/school. I live on James Island. I have to be downtown at 8:45AM on weekdays. I’d have to bike/walk 3 miles from my house, leaving at 6:30AM to get to my closest stop by 7:01AM. The next bus doesn’t arrive for another 90 minutes. To get home, I get out of work at 5PM, my bus picks me up at 6:26PM (almost 90 minutes to kill in b/t), I get to my closest stop at 7:16PM, I walk/bike 3 miles home by 8PM. I have 2-3 hours to spend with my wife (my newborn would be asleep already) until I have to go to bed to get enough rest to spend 13.5 hours away from home the next day. Think about that! If I want to take the bus, it adds 5.5 hours to my work day! That sounds miserable to me.”

Understood – see sub-route idea above. In my case, my commute off and back onto the peninsula adds an extra 15 minutes each way. However, I read a lot and sometimes take extra work on the bus as well.

“Can you rely on CARTA to get you home after a night on the town? The latest I can get back to James Island on a Saturday night is 8:46PM! Then I’d have to walk/bike 3 miles home! Not to mention I’d have to be picked up downtown no later than 7:56PM–before the sun even sets in the summer! Kinda takes the fun out of getting dressed up with your wife and going out to eat, ya know? I’d have to leave my home at 3:45ishPM to be make dinner reservations downtown by 5:30. We’d have exactly 2 hours downtown. YAY! Once you consider the extra hours we’d haveto pay the baby sitter, that $1.25 oneway fare doesn’t seem so inexpensive anymore.”

Although it may not solve every problem it might be worthwhile for you to look into CARTA at night and the call-in service for special trips. CARTA offers these as supplemental services to the regular, limited routes.

“Once again, I hate to complain. I know y’all are focusing on the positive sides of all this. I don’t want to offend anyone–lease don’t see it that way. But let’s really look at things. There has got to be a better way. How do we speak up for this? How do we demand meaningful change? Any ideas?”

No, you haven’t offended anyone. I don’t think either GoGreen or we are avoiding the negatives of CARTAs services. CARTA has been ignored until now by the middle classes and deserves deep attention before the service will meet the needs of the majority. Opening discussions and looking at the positives might help people appreciate CARTA as a service they are willing to use a few times per week to offset fuel costs, cut consumption or reduce greenhouse gases. More riders equals more voices to set CARTA finally on a better path.

You asked what we could do. We can attract the attention of the Post & Courier, write to our Mayors, attend council meetings, call on Congress and such, but honestly, this country requires MAJOR investment in its internal infrastructure to impart real change. We need like a New Deal kind of structure and REAL LEADERSHIP to advocate change via federal and state structured funding. Our infrastructure is old, becoming dangerous due to ill maintenance and so overly oil dependent that we are now at a critical juncture as a country. We speak up by not daring to put another President in office that wastes trillions chasing foolish ideologies. We speak up by getting serious about creating jobs for the production and maintenance of alternative energy systems. We speak up by spreading the word among friends and neighbors, forming community solution groups and holding ourselves to a higher standard of excellence. We speak up by acting.

With no national energy policy and guidance to rely upon at this moment we will probably see a few communities (or entire states for that matter) move forward achieving some sense of self-reliance and sustainability, while others bump continuously into walls and slowly go broke as they stubbornly resist change. Which one will Charleston be?

A few thinkers, city planners and analysts suggest user fees to fund road and highway expenses and re-development funding initiatives to energize infill development, fund connectivity programs and incentivize reductions in consumption. User fees, for instance, would add up the ACTUAL cost of highway and road use by formulating true expense as derived by the size of the vehicle driven to length of commute, to a driver’s number of trips, fuel economy rating, time of day traveled and more. Users would be charged according to actual cost with higher fees charged to those who fail to shift their driving habits.

At any rate, Americans may be forced to deal with an aging, dangerous, and highly subsidized transportation infrastructure in 2009 when the Department of Transportation’s coffers run dry requiring refunding by Congress. Considering our nation is essentially bankrupt while oil has hit a new record of $127/bl, it is doubtful there will be a lot of money for road expansion in the near future. Some planners are saying the entire system is going to be turned upside down. We will all need to pay vigilant attention to the proposals and recommendations made for DOT funding next year as it will be an important time to make your voice heard.

Personally, we are also beginning to get involved with organizations like the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) to advance support for public transportation initiatives. Admitting that we too grew up in the oil age we’re mostly trying to educate ourselves at this point to gain a better understanding of how to adapt to the coming challenges. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of sure fire major solutions just yet. Fixing our systems will take bundling of solutions where development and energy production become an eventual mashup. We’re predicting some turbulent times, so opening the platform for discussion is important because we have to start somewhere.

CARTA’s board will have to figure out where to draw funding for any potential expansion. This will take time and the involvement of a lot of different players. CARTA’s gonna need some good marketing a few big public events, for sure!

Hope this thoroughly addresses your very thoughtful, honest comments.

Harry and Stacey

Joshua Mueller wrote
May 19th, 2008 at 1:48 pm
Harry and Stacey–

Thanks for the response! I love to hear you guys have truly taken the plunge into no carville. I cannot say I’ve done that–but my wife and child and I have committed to no fossil fuels. We own two vehicles–a benz that drives on 100% waste veggie oil and a VW that runs on a 50veg/50biodiesel blend. I’d love to hear more about your personal efforts more sometime!

You are right on so many levels! We need monumental change. It’s not gonna happen unless people take ownership of their lives, their local communities, and their country. I, too predict turbulent times, I just hope that doesn’t involve global poverty, and a third World War! I often grow pessimistic, but I usually just need a little R&R boost–then I’m reminded that I just have to keep kicking and screaming! I kinda feel like society’s on a giant bus heading for the brick wall of global economic and environmental collapse, and we just step on the gas pedal (unsustainable economic growth) instead of turning the wheel to avoid the wreck!


Keep up the Good Work!!!


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