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.

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Life lessons from the train

Better than my morning coffee

Last Thursday, my architecture firm had invited a guest speaker to present his work to us at the wee hour of 9 am.  I by opportunity had walked by the seminar room early and so had peeked in to see what all the set-up was about.  Learning that it had something to do with urbanism and public spaces, I dipped out of my desk area and into an hour of pure inspiration.

I remember inhaling with absolute delight when our guest speaker began his talk.  What serendipity!  The speaker was Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit planning organization that works with a community’s own people to revitalize and re-urbanize neighborhood centers all over the world.  Their mission is to help people create public spaces that give back to their communities and that bring value and local pride to its members.

To PPS, “…Placemaking is a catalyst for building healthy, sustainable and economically viable cities of the future.”  I listened with both my ears and hands, scribbling away as Kent described PPS’s “Placemaking” approach to programming these spaces.  I found their concept of the Power of 10 most exciting: in any city, first find ten destinations that people go to or ten reasons to be there (e.g., cultural museum); near each destination, identify ten places to go to (e.g., coffee shop, movies, bookstore); then at each place, identify ten things to do there (e.g. have a conversation, meet a friend, buy a lotto ticket).  If the quota is lacking, then program more of the necessary ingredient.  The idea here is that a great place to be should be brimming with activities of all kinds, for all kinds of people.

I could feel purpose in my step as I left the room.  I felt invigorated to hear about a group of people so dedicated to improving the quality of life through the same means as mine, and I returned to my work with a different sort of energy boost.  That morning’s event was the first inspiration for this blog.  Read my studio’s PPS blog here!

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Better than my morning coffee

Hello, World!

They say that with great knowledge comes great responsibility.  My professor of architectural history, Dennis Doordan, sent my graduating class forth with these words:

“Architecture is a form of stewardship as well as an honorable profession.  Architects bear an enormous responsibility as stewards of creation.  How you conceive, construct and manage the built environment will shape the quality of life–all life on our interconnected planet–for generations to come.  Here I want to remind you that architects are optimists by profession. To build is an act of hope and an affirmation of life.  We can design a better world.  You must design a better world.”

This blog is just a small effort to do so–to promote real urbanism and architecture in efforts to rediscover community and to create that better world for all of us.  By sharing what little I do know about architecture and urbanism, I hope to catch the eye of a few community members, who’ll then pass these ideas and intentions on to their fellow community members.

Above all, this blog is meant to encourage–to celebrate architectural and urban achievement and to earnestly call for more of that good stuff.  Come join me!

Hello, World!

I say, “I’m studying to be an architect.” You say, “Oh wow, what kind of buildings are you going to draw?”

Oh, man.  I never know how best to answer this question.  It’s a little naive, but by no means the questioner’s fault.  Here then, is a mini lesson on architecture and urbanism, as explained by one who’s still learning.  I figure since I’ll be using these words throughout, I should somewhat define these concepts at least for the purposes of this blog and at least so I know what I’m mumbling about.

Architecture.  It’s got something to do with buildings, and a lot more to do with a lot else.  It is the queen of the arts–ideally, a harmonious blend of technical knowledge and artistic vision, manifested into spaces where people experience life, every single day.  How we live, where we work, where we play, where we worship–these all tie back to architecture.  Our quality of life, therefore, is rooted in this great art.

Urbanism.  Although it has become somewhat of a buzz word, real urbanism is timeless and unmistakable.  Let’s think for a second.  Where is your favorite place in your city or town?  Where do you love to walk, to sit, to read a book, or to enjoy a coffee?  Where can you socialize, take your lunch, or just people-watch?  If these answers don’t come readily, it’s likely that these characteristics of vibrant neighborhoods aren’t available to you.  And it’s more than likely that they should be.

Urbanism, I think, is a people-centric way of life.  It speaks of streets that are safe and easy to walk across, of places vibrant with a mixture of activities, and of hubs where people of all classes and neighborhoods eat, linger, and laugh.  Most importantly, urbanism speaks of connectivity.  Of community.

I say, “I’m studying to be an architect.” You say, “Oh wow, what kind of buildings are you going to draw?”