Public transport and access

My mom doesn´t have a driver’s license, it just never happened. She´s always biked the 2.5 miles to work, come rain or shine (or snow). She has made a virtue out of a necessity and sometimes makes comments on colleagues who “take the car to work even though they have less than two miles to get there (no wonder they need to watch what they´re eating)”. Bless her. My dad sometimes picks her up from work on Fridays so they can do the weekly grocery shopping. On days of extreme cold or precipitation she takes the bus to work. She considers it a luxury.

My dad worked away a lot when I was little so my mom used to take me and my sister on her bike to take us to the day care center. It wasn´t ideal but it worked. As me and my sister grew older, we had to get to school, friends or wherever on our bikes or by bus. Some of my friends used to get a ride to soccer practice and with a child’s mind I envied them a little. Having to bike really wasn´t that much of a deal though, it was what everyone did. My sister was a little lazier than I was and always wanted to get a ride. We laugh about it now, how unfair she, and to a lesser extent I, thought it was – having to bike like over a mile! Today, shaped by the values and necessity of my growing up, biking and riding the bus are perfectly normal ways to get around to me. Of course, in a city of around 90,000 inhabitants, where most people lived within 7-8 miles of the city center and buses serve most areas at least twice an hour, it wasn’t that much of a hassle.

Myself, I’ve had a driver’s license for 10 years but I have never owned a car. When I moved to Stockholm, biking scared me a little at first. Distances are longer and traffic, even in the bike lanes, is heavier than in my hometown. After a while I got used to it and now I bike everywhere. I particularly love riding my bike through (past!) congestions (quietly laughing at the people stuck in cars) and the freedom and reliability that comes with choosing my own itinerary. I still use public transport, and I consider it to be a great option (despite the occasional frustration of being on a bus slowed down by rush hour traffic or having to stand all through the eleven subway stops from Telefonplan, where I live, to Tekniska Högskolan, where I work). The price of the monthly travel pass has risen drastically in the last few years but in my opinion it is still good value for money. Then again, I have a job and I have choice.

People who can afford it have all the options. They can choose a bike riding lifestyle, they can choose to live centrally/strategically so that they don´t need a car, or they can spend time and money on driving from their hideaway idyllic garden neighborhoods.

Those without the means to choose where to live are also those who are hit the hardest by a poorly functioning public transportation system. The geography of socioeconomics is plotted along the subway lines. In general, the closer to the end stations, the more distant are the opportunities. If you´re not already inside it is hard to break into the system and gain access to the economic, social and even cultural activity at the center. Following the latest price increase in public transport prices, Swedish culture journalist and chronicler Jan Gradvall dryly pointed out that it doesn´t matter how many free culture events or museums the city of Stockholm offers – the less affluent family of three living in the outskirts still won´t be able to get to the city center to partake in it. He went on to comparing Stockholm to the relatively accessible and affordable public transport system in New York, highlighting how the subway has been vital to the development of the cultural life of New York.

“If public transport hadn´t been so inexpensive, thus enabling everyone to move easily between geographically distant neighborhoods, New York would never have fostered musicians like Duke Ellington, Patti Smith and Jay-Z or artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.”

Trivial as it may seem to drag culture into this, this example serves to remind us that opportunity, be it access to jobs, schools or recreation, isn´t equal. Another example is the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union who in 1996 won a legal victory against the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “transit racism”. This example is also described in Soja’s Seeking Spatial Justice, a concept that by the way can be extended to environmental justice as well.

To me and my family, managing without a car every now and then has been possible thanks to short distances and a functioning public transport system. It is still possible to me despite the longer distances and higher prices I face. I consider myself fortunate and am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and have. To reduce inequalities and at the same time create benefits on a much larger scale we need to create and maintain a well-functioning, inexpensive public transportation system. Not only is this an excellent way of reducing climate impact and saving the environment but also an important means to reduce social exclusion. Talk about triple bottom line.

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