Life lessons from the train

I used to tell my college classmates (who mostly weren’t from California) that the biggest reason L.A. sucks is because it has no viable alternative for transportation.  It was car-dependent.  Upon graduating, I was set on finding a job in a big city where I had the option to walk or bike or take public transportation, or where if I were driving, I could at least turn down a side street instead of being stuck in the freeway traffic black hole.  But as luck had it, I fell in love with an architecture job here in Long Beach and chose to stay in the Golden State for a while longer.

Living twenty-two miles away from downtown Long Beach, I dreaded my morning commute.  That is, until I stumbled upon the L.A. Metro (Metro has both a bus and train system, but here I’m referring mostly to the train).  First off, I didn’t even realize that this King of Car Culture even had one.  I still remember my very first ride on the Metro to and from work.  I felt naked–sort of the same feeling you have when you forget your cell phone at home.  Vulnerable!  Could I really rely on this thing to take me back home?

YES.  I can proudly say I’ve been riding the Metro at least five days out of the week for three months now, and I wouldn’t trade this liberation for anything, on most days anyway.

LA Metro (Bethany Mollenkoff, LA Times)
LA Metro (Bethany Mollenkoff, LA Times)

Why do I love riding that big yellow and white train so much?  Mostly because this atypical commute, at least in SoCal, has taught me many a life lesson.  In no particular order:

1.  I can save money
Because my daily car ride is only to and from the nearest Park-and-Ride lot, I save at least $70/month on gas.  Furthermore, my company generously pays for employee parking, and since turning in my parking pass, they’ve begun to reimburse me for the Metro.  I now save at least $160 on transportation every month.  That’s nearly $2,000 a year!

2.  I can save myself headaches
One big reason that I started to look into alternative transportation is because I found myself, every morning, full of mean and petty thoughts:  “What is this woman DOING?”; “Hello, it’s your turn to go.”; “Dammit, missed the light.”  For me, being irritated just wasn’t the way I wanted to start each day.  It’s still an effort to curb these thoughts and feelings every time I do drive.  But not on the train!  Every morning when I transfer between metro lines, I am constantly amazed at the courtesy people have toward one another even at those busy busy transfer points.  I have never been shoved or pushed even when the train doors are crammed with people, bikes, and the like getting in and out.  I really believe that the “protection” of cars allows us to get away with unkindness–no one can hold you accountable for being an awful human being when you’ve already sped off.  But I’ll save that for another post.   

3.  I can save resources
I really can’t talk much about the economy or politics, but I do know enough to recognize an oil saving opportunity.  About 29.5 million people used the L.A. Metro system this past February.  If even half of those people had cars to leave at home, that’s still almost 15 million cars not guzzling gas each month.

4.  I can combat fear
“Combating fear” sounds dramatic, but I’ll explain.  First and foremost I mean the fear within myself and within all of us for things unknown and untried.  As I mentioned, my first train ride was full of anxiety.  I sat clutching my purse and trying my best not to make eye contact with anyone for fear of being mugged, fear of being assaulted, fear of just being hit on.  I turned my engagement ring inside out for a while, just for good measure.  But day after day as I began to familiarize myself with the system and its people, I began to loosen up and to reexamine my previous concerns.  Although I am still conscious of my fellow riders and my belongings, I no longer turn my ring around and no longer sit in fear, which actually segues into the next point.

5.  I can connect with people
Now no longer tearfully fearful, I’ve found myself happily making conversation with people from walks of life so divergent from mine.  Last week a stranger and I both wrote down gospel singer recommendations from a lady who was smiling and humming a song on her music player.  I’ve never listened to gospel before in my life.  Also not too long ago, I wrote down a couple of my favorite Vietnamese dishes for a chatty computer salesman.  Simple life moments like this aren’t available on freeways.

6.  I can gain personal time
When you’re travelling, you usually carry some sort of entertainment for yourself–books, games, work–and likewise when you commute via train or bus.  In the mornings, I often see make-up cases, newspapers, and laptops just to name a few.  One boy who sat next to me today was scribbling away at his Japanese homework.  For me, I’ve begun checking off my very long (and very old) book list.  Sometimes I use the time to write up a new to-do list, make appointments, or any sort of necessary tasks.

7.  I can support real urbanism
If real urbanism is all about connecting people and places, the L.A. Metro is literal evidence of so.  More, please!

8.  I can gain freedom
The first time I took the metro on a Saturday, I was headed to LACMA in downtown Los Angeles and then possibly to a few boutique stores in the Hollywood area since I had never been to either.  Although I did grow up in the metropolitan area, my last five years were spent predominantly out-of-state–which basically means that I have been nowhere and know nothing about L.A.  The fact that I just hopped on a train that took me 30 miles away to all sorts of stops and places, practically for free, was mind-blowing.  In Southern California?  No car?  I felt like I had a whole new pair of very big feet, or big wheels, or something.  Having such a viable option to get where I wanted, when I wanted to get there is amazing.

9.  I can explore
Not only can I now explore my “new” home of Los Angeles, but I can also now explore all of its little suburbs including my family’s.  While on the bus just last week, I spied a promising Thai restaurant not far from my house.  My mom and I are always on the lookout for good local restaurants being that the options around us are limited, so I excitedly reported the news to her.  We went to try it that night, and it was spot on!  But I would have just driven past if I had been in my car that day–driving isn’t very conducive to window shopping.

10.  I can have more life
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said that “…the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts…in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place.  Because more complex and intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life.  They mean more life.  Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.”  (qtd. in Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities).  Do I have enough of life every day?  If civilization makes life richer, are we working together enough to improve our quality of life?  Something to think about, maybe on my next train ride.

The Metro was my “last straw” of inspiration for this blog and is also the inspiration behind its name.  I think that in time we will all begin to better understand the influence of good urbanism in our lives and the necessity to care for and support it.  The going might be slow…but we are getting Somewhere.

Life lessons from the train

Where do people tend to sit most?


Every other Friday afternoon, my studio has (or tries to squeeze in) something called our “Friday presentation,” an hour reserved for learning where a coworker usually presents a current project or something of general architectural interest.  This was my first time attending a Friday presentation, and as there was no presenter this particular week, we watched a documentary instead.

It was titled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1980s documentary by William “Holly” Whyte that had originally accompanied his book by the same title.  To explain how I felt while watching the documentary wouldn’t capture enough of my interest and excitement.

Whyte covers the basic ingredients of successful urban spaces–seating, sun, and water to name a few–in a study of New York City’s different plazas.  Although the people studied are obviously of a different era given their fashion styles, their behavior–their very human behavior–described in Whyte’s witty and informative manner remains absolutely contemporary.  I was both surprised and amused by the simple brilliance of one of Whyte’s findings:

“People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.”

Ha!  Talk about anticlimactic.  But yet, so true!

For example, take downtown Long Beach, California.  During my lunch hour, I will often go outside to find a place to relax and enjoy my break.  A hard task, and this isn’t even a suburb.  I might just write a separate blog about my findings (or lack thereof!)  In general however, I have found that while the nearby Promenade and parks do have some scattered seating, they’re rather lacking in “sit appeal.”  Of the ones I did find, many are too small or narrow to sit on without extra efforts.  One park I tried was completely shaded by its adjoining office building and felt very damp, mossy, and much too cold.  Some benches were hardly deep enough to actually fully sit on, and at striking height of 5′-1 3/4″, I’m hardly long-legged.  The point is, a successful plaza will offer a variety of seating choices, all of which should appeal to the average person.  Oftentimes, I think, designers of places and objects of such importance do not sincerely design for people, but rather for aesthetic appeal that achieves a look or trend of the moment.  I can tell you, however, that sitting on a piece of art has yet to allow me to enjoy my lunch in comfort!

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is thus a true eye-opener, giving viewers insightful perspective on every-day places we often don’t think twice about.  It is the second inspiration for this blog.  View the online video above!

A copy of the text can be found here.

Where do people tend to sit most?