Rethinking Public Transit

I made a goal a couple months ago to avoid carbon-emitting personal transit whenever possible. My renewed interest in mass transit was sparked after going to a performance-lecture in Santiniketan by Ricky Kej, a Grammy-award winning composer and conservationist. Through his music, Ricky tries to highlight environmental issues in India including saving the Ganges, and human-elephant conflicts in Karnataka. He talked about how Americans are the top polluters (per capita) on the planet, a statistic that I had been aware of but felt new urgency toward addressing, being one of the few Americans in the audience.

I have always been interested in living sustainably–you might know that I gave up meat in middle school after learning about how the meat industry is one of the top contributors to global warming. However, it wasn’t until I moved to India, almost 9 months ago, that I became aware of how high-impact my lifestyle back in the U.S. really is. We drive massive personal vehicles, affectionately christened “gas-guzzlers,” use dryers despite having ample sunlight, take long hot showers, even in the summertime, switch on the AC at the slightest inconvenience, and buy everything prepackaged, wrapped in miles of cellophane wrapping.

My life in Santiniketan is quite different, to say the least. I don’t have AC and yet I manage to make it through the day, even in 110° weather with 98% humidity. I cycle most everywhere, buy fruits and vegetables straight from the local vendor, air-dry my laundry, and take highly-efficient “bucket-showers” (not always satisfactory, but gets the job done.) This low-impact lifestyle doesn’t sacrifice much in terms of happiness or cleanliness; as I’ve realized humans really are resilient and adaptable creatures.

While life in Santi keeps my carbon emissions low, I realized that there was a key factor that was spiking my personal carbon emissions while I was in a metro: uber. When I arrived in India last summer, I remember being struck by how “cheap” uber was. To get to the airport from my old place in Kolkata, approximately an hour-long ride, costs around Rs. 400, or $6. (For comparison, a similar journey in Portland would cost upwards of $30) While the convenience and affordability is hard to beat, I noted that there are plenty of ways to avoid using cars: share-autos, government and private buses, metros, trams, Indian railways, and of course–cycling.

Back in March, I wrote a bit about appreciating public buses in the Andaman Islands. This appreciation has turned into a slight obsession with mass transit–I actually like to think of it as a game. “How can I get to Point A to Point B quickly and easily without a car?” I end up always taking a few detours, but arrive at my destination with a better conception of how the city is planned and having interacted with many locals along the way. I’m also better able to understand broader urban policy and failures.

Here’s a quick example concerning public buses and regional airports: the Kolkata airport has a bus terminus adjacent to the terminal–a comfortable set-up for patrons and employees alike. However, at the Hyderabad airport, one needs to catch a shuttle to an off-site bus stop and wait there for up to half an hour! Considering that most employees commute to work at the airport by bus, this can’t be the best solution–though I’m sure it helps out the taxi drivers who serve passengers directly outside the terminal. (There are AC buses directly outside the terminal but these are considerably more expensive and privately operated.) It’s always interesting to think about who planned these spaces and who benefits most from such arrangements. The price differential is substantial as well: while taking the government bus to my grandparents’ place costs around Rs. 30, a taxi costs around Rs. 750–that’s twenty-five times as expensive.

Sometimes my moral reasoning loses out to the promise of convenience. Of course, I do set my limitations: if it is unseasonably hot or I have excess luggage, I do opt for an uber. There are also times when I don’t compromise–for instance, on flying. While recently traveling to Hyderabad for the summer holidays, I briefly considered the 26-hour overnight train but decided to fly instead. (To “offset” my flight, I bused to and from both the Kolkata and Hyderabad airports).

Under our new administration, environmental policy is not a priority. Even if we don’t have progressive federally mandated policy however, we can still take private steps to protect our planet, with one of the easiest ways being modifying our transit behavior. Even if you’re not American, you can consider your carbon impact and see where you can switch to more sustainable practices. And if a healthier world is not enough to convince you to rethink some habits, maybe read this article by CityLab: commuting by walk, cycle, or train proves a more enjoyable experience than traveling by car.

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