Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tourist Season on CARTA

Charleston's economy relies in large part on tourists. On a daily basis we now get to experience the surge of tourism by observing tourists on the bus system. Since this is our first full tourist season riding CARTA (it's almost a full year since giving up the car) as our main source of transportation, we are meeting all kinds of tourists who have apparently flown, or ridden into Charleston via Amtrak without a car waiting on the other side. Many of them have been boarding the bus system as a means of getting around our lovely city.

In the last few months we have become minor tour/direction guides of sorts as CARTA's tourists populations have risen. The one of us who has had a little German language training in the past even oblidged to give directions auf Deutsch (in German). Oh, don't be was horrible, the Belle says. One afternoon a handsome, older couple hurridly discussed the number of stops and recognizable landmarks, in German, of course, as they fumbled with Charleston's 'difficult to interpret even for locals' bus schedule attempting to figure out where they should exit. Understanding only about a quarter of what they were saying, the Belle was able to gather enough to know they were concerned, and volunteered, "Ich spreche Deutsch, ein bisschen. Wo willst Sie...uh...?" [All Germans are welcome to correct this chopping of your language in the comments (please be kind...she tried)] They said, "Mary Street", and she counted, eins, zwei, drei, vier. Ah, vier. Luckily, they got it from there. Four more streets. They thanked her profusely and bid her a warm, "Auf Wiedersehen" as she got off a few stops ahead of them. The Belle reported afterwards that she felt all "Chamber of Commercy" and hoped that her interaction upheld Charleston's tradition of excellent hospitality.

Next, there was a couple from Seattle. Upon my walking up to the stop, the guy asked if I knew when the bus was coming. "In a few minutes," I told him. Then he inquired about the Tel-e-Ride service (the one where you call in). Unable to help because Tel-e-Ride is not part of either of our daily commutes, I couldn't offer much. But what he said afterward was worth it in spades. "You guys have the strangest bus system I've ever seen," and he then gawked at me as if holding me personally responsible as he reiterated flatly, "I've never seen anything like it." I gave him the short history of the bus system, telling him it was hopefully going to experience a Renaissance, so to speak, as soon as demand, well, demanded it.

Sadly, even at four bucks per gallon, Charleston, for the most part, is still stuck on driving her cars and hanging onto a dream of the past.

Last, the Belle reports two fellows attending some kind of conference bussing into town on their free time. One was from New York, the other Detroit. They were touring Charleston and compared notes on public transportation as they rode. At one point, the Detroitian said to the New Yorker, "Yo, what'dya think of how clean this bus is? Are they this clean in New York?" "Pfffffffff! Noooooo waaaay!" the New Yorker replied.
"Do you take the bus or the train every day?"
"Bus. It's diesel, loud and stinky, but it works."
"What do you do with your car?"
"No. No, nobody wants a car in the city."
"Wha, why not? Is it the parking?"
"No. It's just a hassle. Who wants to make a payment on something you can't use much? Then you have to pay ten to fifteen bucks a day to park it. It just makes more sense to use transit."

The pair went on for quite some time about all the transit comparisons in between gasps and elation for the trees. Yes, these city-goers were exceptionally awed by the trees as a part of Charleston's natural landscape - an amazing detail to the ultra urbanites. As usual when people are in awe of Charleston's beauty, the two ended up pondering real estate values. They lined up one bedroom rentals in their speculative discussion. The Belle, closest to the guy from Detroit, chimed in there. "Listen," she said, "I read that you could buy houses in Detroit for $5,000 on auction. Is that report even remotely true?" The guy from Michigan laughed, shaking his head, and said, "It absolutely is." After a long pause, he squinted and smacked his lips in disgust. He said, "My neighbor's house went into foreclosure last year. The bank wanted to sell it for one sixty. You wanna know what it went for just a few weeks ago?" "Well, of course. Of course, how much?" "Eight thousand dollars," he replied. The New Yorker nearly jumped out of his seat. "What did you say? Eight thousand, man?" "Yup." The three of them all looked at one another. The Belle finally said, "Well, guys....Buffett says invest when the blood's running in the streets. Sounds to me like it's time to buy in Michigan!" The New Yorker shook his head, remaining in a state of disbelief. Other topics arose, and the encounter ended with the usual good tidings and hopes the guests would have an excellent stay in Charleston. Hopefully they did.

It has certainly been interesting meeting all these visitors. Our viewpoint is this -our eyes have been opened to the importance of public transit not only to move local people and goods, but the tourism industry as well. Charleston cannot allow her tourism industry to wither under the influence of gasoline prices. An inside source says the train business is better than ever. Record numbers. Tourists are coming. And they are coming without cars. Let's begin to think about being more prepared to accommodate our guests. For Charleston is historically known for her fabulous hospitality.