Pessimistic Optimism as a Mass Transit Solution

I recently took a trip back to the United States. I was only there for four days, but it was enough to convince me of several things.

First, there are a lot of people in the United States and, if Nashville is any kind of indicator, the population density in cities is approaching a level where everyone will soon need a helicopter to get anywhere.

Second, and related, in all my recent travels in the United States I have yet to come across a city that is taking meaningful steps to address—much less get ahead of—the transit concerns caused by all of their citizens and visitors. Yes, there are plenty of orange barrels and swaths of caution tape encouraging cars and pedestrians to avoid falling into the holes where new condos and hotels are being installed on already crowded streets, but unless money is being saved somewhere for those personal helicopters or teleportation portals I don’t see a plan.

Lastly, to give credit where it is due, I have witnessed some creative attempts to paper over the issue. Nashville, for example, allows fleets of motorized scooters in its downtown zone which anyone can rent and then leave on the sidewalk for the next customer. I have not reviewed the minutes from the city council meeting where this idea was approved, but it must have been one heck of a pitch to get officials to agree to allow inebriated bar patrons to hop on a small scooter and then weave through traffic—and sidewalks—sans a helmet, or any idea how to operate a scooter.

My reentry in my adopted land of Pura Vida brought its own set of challenges. To say the greater area known as San Jose has traffic is akin to saying the Bieber has followers. Construction is rampant. Signage is non-non-existent and Greater-Diety-of-Your-Choice help you if you miss an exit off of one of the freeways and have to reroute.

San Jose’s own recent whimsical effort to reduce downtown traffic involved painting certain lanes green and advertising them as dedicated to bicycle traffic. I suspect that, behind the scenes, the government came into a surplus of green paint and simultaneously thought it would be a good idea to reduce the number of people brave enough to try and ride a bicycle in downtown San Jose.

After navigating around another group of strikers, I made it back up the mountain and soon found that our local municipality had done their own part to improve road safety. A year ago, during tropical storm Nate, we suffered a large number of landslides. One of those slides left one side of the main road more than a little worse for wear. The solution at the time was a series of boulders (note: this is a substantial upgrade over the normal practice which involves a long stick shoved into the hole adorned with a beer can).

Temporary Solution #1

The boulders eventually disappeared in favor of a new stretch of sidewalk. I do not know what the expectation was on the part of those who authorized this idea but it seems at best optimistic to construct a new sidewalk where the prior one and everything beneath it had just washed away. It’s also, if nothing else, a lot of effort for a sidewalk that ends twenty yards down the road (forcing all pedestrian traffic to brave a blind curve).

Our boys and I studiously tracked the deterioration of the sidewalk, noting this disappearance of the fill dirt placed beneath it, the subsequent pronounced sway in the concrete and the inevitable cracks as gravity did its thing. Thing #1, in particular, was offended by the continued existence of this stretch of sidewalk which he and his classmates were forced to walk on during a recent class outing. The teachers felt the sidewalk that hope built was safer than walking in the road. I’d say it was a toss-up.

That debate can now be laid to rest as the municipality recognized the peril caused by the skywalk/sidewalk to nowhere and addressed it with another firm, temporary solution: placing large chunks of broken culvert on either side of the affected area. I can’t help but wonder if those in charge are secretly hoping that those of us concerned enough to take a hard look at this situation don’t accidentally end up falling 100+feet to the creek below before we can lodge a complaint.

Temporary Solution #2

There is no perfect place to live (and if you find one don’t tell anyone — and hope you avoid a magazine article touting your spot among the top ten places to live). Despite my protests to the contrary, I have come to enjoy the quirks of my adopted country, and hope that it and its residents have found agreeable ways to live with mine. I like living on a small mountain surrounded by forest, cool breezes and roughly two million fewer people than can be found in either Nashville or San Jose.

Deep down, I suspect that all governments everywhere are having a variation of the nights I experienced in college when I faced an exam the next day for which I had studied not at all. My only hope in those cases was the unexpected death—preferably only an extreme, but lengthy illness—of my professor and any assistants on her team that could distribute the exam. 

Perhaps, in terms of mass transit and related planning, our governments are all counting on a number of us disappearing from the equation. Avian Flu was reportedly going to wipe out a substantial number of us but was a big disappointment in that regard. Ebola keeps trying, but can’t seem to get over the hump. Until a pandemic truly takes hold, we’ll just keep driving these crowded, dangerous roads while our city planners optimistically thumb through their dog-eared copy of The Stand.