Eat Your Vegetables! Take the Bus!
A Better Way to Change People's Minds about Public Transit
When I was a kid, it was common for adults to scold children to eat their vegetables,1 and to this day some folks, in an attempt at persuasion, will performatively rhapsodize about veggies’ alleged deliciousness. (“Mmmm! Yum! This cauliflower makes a perfect pizza crust!”) Or they will evince mock-horror that the child doesn’t want to try something. (“You don’t like peas?! How can you not like peas?!”) Comments like this have a bit of a gaslighty, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?” vibe to them.
The thing is, kids are capable of seeing and smelling for themselves if vegetables—whether raw and sulfurous or overcooked and slimy—are yucky. Many cooks still boil the heck out of vegetables or microwave them straight from the can or freezer bag. At the risk of sounding tautological, if we want vegetables to appeal to kids, we have to prepare them in an appealing way. (The secret is to cover them in cheese or to cook them with plenty of butter or olive oil and not stint on the spices and salt; see the tidbit for a recipe.)
It is the same for all of us, in all situations. We are rational beings, and unless forced, we will not do something unless it makes sense for us. If we want people to change their behavior—about vegetables, public transit, or anything else—we have to put in the hard work to make that change appealing to them.
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How Transit Ought to Work: My Trip to Klosters
Before I launch into my main point, let me share a little story. Last month, two Minnesota friends came to Switzerland to ski. I figured that if my friends could cross an ocean to come here, the least I could do was cross half the country to meet them for lunch, and so I embarked for Klosters, a mountain village near Davos. The trip required two train changes, but that was not at all stressful, because both of the first two trains arrived exactly on time and I easily made my connections. Along the way I exchanged polite words with the friendly conductors and the people sitting near me but otherwise enjoyed companionable silence. At one point the train raced past some gorgeous scenery. It was a sunny day, and so the shades were partly down. When the man across from me saw me craning my neck to peer out his window, he considerately raised the shade so I could take in the view, even though it meant he got a facefull of bright sun.
Monitors in every train car showed the train’s progress and listed upcoming stops so passengers would know when to get ready to disembark. We were also entertained with news updates, for example about Patrick Mahomes:
I arrived at Klosters a few minutes early and had a lovely lunch featuring beer, Rösti (see the tidbit for a link to a recipe), and conversation with my friends. The trip back home was just as easy and seamless as the way there had been.
You may be wondering why I told you this pleasant but uneventful story. But this is my whole point. I chose the train instead of driving because the train was faster and nicer. If we want to persuade people to choose public transit, scolding and gaslighting won’t work. We need to make public transit pleasant or at least uneventful, as it was on my trip to Klosters.
Who Are You Going to Believe? Me or Your Lying Eyes, Public Transit Edition
I feel like I have standing to discuss this issue, because I drive far less than most Americans. For my entire adult life I have lived in 15-minute cities, in which shops, schools, parks, and libraries are nearby.2 I am a huge fan of walkable spaces and public transit; not only is it a lovely experience to run errands on foot, in our own neighborhoods amongst familiar faces, but getting around without cars is beneficial for the health of our bodies and the environment alike. The world would be a better place if more people drove less, and we ought to be working toward that goal. But what are we doing instead? The following dispiriting examples of scolding and gaslighting about public transit come from the past few weeks. These censorious commenters offer no practical help but instead sound like grumpy adults telling unwilling children to just eat their vegetables, dammit.
The Brian Lehrer Show brought on Janno Lieber, the MTA chair, to respond to concerns about public transit, and crime in particular. Lieber acknowledged that the system needs to work on solutions to crime, but Lehrer minimized people’s worries:
compared to the risks we face in life like your risk of driving, risks from COVID, where a dozen or more people are dying in the city still every day from COVID, if you ask people, “What’s your actual risk of being a crime victim on the subway,” I wonder how many people would know those stats.
A second example occurred in a contentious online conversation in the comments to Freddie deBoer’s Substack. Some people were openly hostile about suburbs and the people who choose to live in them: “Car-dependent suburbs absolutely [expletives deleted]” and “aren’t sustainable. They are too car-centric, and this is bad for the environment.”
In another case, a woman was the victim of a Twitter pile-on because she objected to people smoking on public transportation. (It bears mentioning that these days it’s not just tobacco being smoked.) People called her a racist, a cop, a hall monitor, and a bad mom for even suggesting that the laws against smoking be enforced.
Finally, New York Magazine recently published “Modern Etiquette Rules,” which are so wildly out of touch with the way most of us live that they could have been written by Marie Antoinette herself.3 Apropos this essay is rule “110. Saw someone shoplifting? No you didn’t. Ditto for jumping turnstiles.”
Why People Choose Cars
We can tell people that they are selfish for preferring cars and that they are irrational for worrying about crime and other repellant aspects of public transit all we want, but it won’t change anyone’s mind. People drive instead of taking transit because they’re aware that, in the words of an online friend I’ll call Charles, public transit is “often kind of a [expletive deleted] experience, with smoking, litter, people playing their music out loud or otherwise being noisy, graffiti, harassment, and fighting.”
Public transit can be worse than just a [expletive deleted] experience too. I lived in Chicago from my late teens to age thirty and was too poor for a car, so I had to take the bus and the El. In spite of the efforts of the Brian Lehrers of the world to persuade us that crime on public transit isn’t a problem, those of us who take transit know perfectly well that it is. I have been followed, harassed, groped, flashed, pickpocketed, and purse-snatched on public transit.4 If I had had the money for a car back then, I would gladly have driven. Even people who aren’t victims of crime themselves still find it upsetting to witness it happening around them. And everyone feels like a chump for following the rules when we watch fare-jumpers cheat the system with impunity.
Public transit doesn’t even have to be crime-ridden or dirty and disordered to be less appealing than cars. If it is merely inconvenient, people will choose to drive if at all possible. You will laugh, but I was well into adulthood when I learned that busses and trains have a schedule, because they seemed to come utterly at random. When transit is unpredictable, people can’t plan their schedules, which causes anxiety, to say nothing of missed appointments and lost leisure time. Riders get stuck outside in the rain or cold waiting for a bus that never comes. Or, when it does arrive, it still takes forever. As another friend notes, “I do think they sort of ruined train travel in the Twin Cities. . . . It takes an hour to get between the two big cities. . . . Spending $5 round trip for an hour ride that you can do in fifteen minutes in car . . . isn’t a great trade-off.”
It’s Up to Us
If we want people to choose public transit, we need to quit it with the scolding and gaslighting. It is easy to sneer online; enacting real change takes hard work but is the only effective solution. In both the political and the personal spheres we can help to change transit so it will appeal to more people. In the political sphere, we should vote, volunteer, donate, and advocate for such political solutions as
more funding for public transit, so that busses and trains are actually able to follow the schedule instead of being late all the time;
more funding for services for homeless people;
more enforcement of laws against fare evasion and nuisance crimes;
creating an app for discreetly reporting crime, so that people can summon officers to remove and cite offenders without risking their own safety;
dedicated bus lanes, so that busses are faster than cars in city centers;
permitting reform, so that more transit can be built (even though Joe Manchin supports permitting reform, we should stop being tribal and admit this is a good idea); and
a transfer of federal subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, so that transit is cheaper than private cars.
All of this might sound like a heavy lift, but the good news is that two-thirds of Americans think the government should do more to fight climate change, and public transit is an important part of that effort. Even among Republicans that figure is 39 percent. And cities, where public transit is most necessary, lean strongly left. Besides, we can afford this. During my four years living in Prague, I almost never drove because the public transit was so terrific—safe, fast, reliable, affordable, orderly, and (except at the height of summer, when the trams were redolent of BO) clean. Little children take it to school, grandmas take it to run their errands, and teens take it late at night to go clubbing. Czechia’s per capita GDP is $26,821, and ours is almost three times as much—$70,249. If Czechia can provide its citizens with top-notch public transit, surely we can too.
Next, as private individuals, we can work to change the culture so that it is again acceptable to enforce the rules on public transit. As Charles puts it, “Shared things require MORE rules, not fewer. . . . We look to Europe and we’re like, ‘why can’t we have the nice things Europeans have?’ Try smoking or littering on a German train and see if people are cool about it.” As a proud occupant of the left end of the political spectrum, I believe that we on the left ought to advocate for the rights of ordinary people and to fight bullies—whoever they may be. It is not a kindness to look the other way when people are rude, gross, violent, or destructive. Petty crimes (and worse) impose a regressive tax on the working people who need transit, because when we permit lawlessness, we force working people to submit to dangerous, threatening, or ugly treatment in order to get to work. Crime on public transit also keeps middle- and upper-income people in their cars, when they might otherwise use transit.5
The Karen slur has a lot to answer for, not least because it stifles people who might otherwise speak up to protect other riders. The lady who complained about smoking on the subway was performing a good deed, and we ought to praise, thank, and emulate her. New York Magazine is wrong; when we see someone jumping turnstiles, we ought to report that unacceptable behavior. And for those of us who, like me, are by nature non-confrontational, well, the more people speak up, the easier it will be for the rest of us to join in. We have the power to reshape the experience of public transit into one people will willingly choose. If not now, when? If not us, who?
How about you, readers? What are your thoughts on public transit and walkable cities? What are your ideas for how we can make public transit more appealing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
About once a week I make roasted broccoli, one of the easiest and tastiest side-dishes imaginable. I predict that you will love my recipe too:
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C and rub the inside of a 9x13 Pyrex pan all over with a half clove of garlic. (Or, if you really like garlic, slice up a clove and scatter it around the pan.)
Cut the florets of one large stalk of broccoli into small pieces. (Save the stalk for another recipe.) Note: Do NOT wash the broccoli. You want it to be totally dry; if it is wet it won’t caramelize. If unwashed broccoli skeeves you out, remember that the oven will kill any bacteria. Or, if you’re worried about chemicals, you can use organic broccoli.
Place the cut-up florets in the pan, drizzle olive oil generously over everything, and sprinkle—also generously—with salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle 1/4c pine nuts around the pan. Make sure all the broccoli is in a single layer in the pan.
Roast for 20–30 minutes, or until the broccoli browns and caramelizes.
Remove from the oven and pour the juice of half a lemon over everything, toss, and serve.
Or, if you are in the mood for something a little more decadent than broccoli, allow me to recommend Rösti! Rösti is a characteristically Swiss pancake of grated potatoes, often topped by cheese, egg, and bacon. It is a perfect restorative meal after a day of hiking or skiing. When properly prepared it is crisp and delicious. (When improperly prepared it is soggy and only meh.) Here is a great article about Rösti, with a recipe and plenty of tips for success.
I will always be grateful that my mom never, ever pushed me to eat or even try foods if I didn’t want to. I wrote about it here. Thanks, mom!
Technically our New Jersey suburb wasn’t a 15-minute city because while our house was a short walk from the elementary school, a park, and the pool, we had to drive a mile to get downtown. But once downtown we could park and walk to everything, including grocery stores, an old-timey movie theater, an independent bookstore, a huge park with a gazebo for concerts, a few dozen restaurants, churches and a synagogue, the library, and doctors’ offices. And yes, I am aware that our town sounds like the one in The Good Place. We even had multiple frozen-yogurt shops.
For example, they offer suggestions for where to seat our famous friends when we’re all out to dinner together, and they inform us that we must tip everyone—even a barista who just hands over a bottle of water or a deli worker who scoops up some salad—and if we don’t, we are great big cheapskates.
Incidentally, the only crimes on this list that I reported were the purse-snatching and pickpocketing, and that was not because I thought the police would actually do anything about it, but because I needed a police report number in order to get my IDs replaced free of charge. I suspect that reported crime is only a tiny percentage of the crime that actually occurs on public transit, and that the lowered stats are less a sign of actual improvement and more a sign that people have mostly given up on reporting petty crimes.
In Europe it is totally normal for upper-income people to use transit. For example, tickets to classical concerts here often include free public transit to and from the concert, so it is common to see affluent, elderly classical music aficionados waiting at the tram stop at 11pm after a concert.