Monday, September 19, 2011

Rethinking Shades of Green (embracing public transit)

A suburban greenmom takes the train

Over on my own blog I've been talking a good bit about my new adventures in public transit.

I've been a suburbanite pretty much all my life. With the exception of four years in college in Washington, D.C., and two more in grad school in Small Town Indiana, I've spent my entire life basically living in areas with too many roads and too little public transit opportunity. Almost everything is by car; it takes a huge commitment to reduce driving at all in this environment, and one feels proud for just biking to the farmstand and riding home with a couple of canteloupes and some green peppers in one's backpack.

But last week I started my new adventure, a 35-mile-each-way commute to my new school, where I will be a full time graduate student for the next two years. And I am taking the train.

It requires two different trains: my husband drops me off at the local station on his way to work, and it takes me into downtown Chicago. I get off that train and hoof it up one set of tracks, down another, up the stairs, and across the street to the other train station, where I get onto another train that takes me within half a mile of my school. It's actually turning out to be surprisingly easy, and I'm really enjoying it.

But on Friday it struck me, as I was making my way along a long train platform with screeching brakes on one side of me and the smell of burning oil on the other, why I have for so long resisted acknowledging public transit as a "green" option.

It's because there's nothing "green" about it. In a literal sense. It's grey and brown, it's noisy and full of awful industrial smells. Up at the street level, it's all about glass and stone and concrete and construction, completely devoid of anything plant-like for blocks; it's rough and inelegant and

Last April I did a post about the whole question of "do cities rule and suburbs drool?"--one of the many ideas for greener living floating around the blogosphere. It generated a lot of comments on both sides of the issue. And I still, as I did then, don't think I would ever be happy living in a place where I don't have plenty of green space for a little gardening and play, a little space to breathe. But, that said...

After just under a week doing the public transit thing, on came the weekend. And suddenly I was driving again. Freaking everywhere. Made me nuts. Made me hate the car. Made me want to curse at all the other drivers. Made me long--yes, it's true, long--for Monday morning when I can hop back on the train and go where I need to go in peace and calm. I'll still need to plug my ears as I walk along the platform and hold my breath when the particular UP-N train with clearly nonexistent brake pads cruises up to the platform, but I want it anyway.

Green. I've always thought of it as a color, and I had always considered environmental awareness as something that would bring about more of it, or on some level figured that if anything was truly good for the earth it would have some sense of looking or It somehow never occurred to me that the good choice for the earth would smell like train exhaust or look like a neatly tiled and sterile train station with no place to sit, or a dank and noisy platform.

So...I'm not sure what my point is here. Just sort of musing. I wish there were a way (and from what I hear, in some cities there is) to have the energy efficiency without the ugly. Because it's definitely efficient. And I'm glad to be able to do it, to get my car off the road and not buy that much gas.

It's a learning experience for me. Showing me a whole different side of "green" I'd never seen before. It's not always sweet and verdant, it's a little gritty and grungy, but--it's the best we can do sometimes.
--Jenn the Greenmom


Rosa said...

I'm so glad you're learning to appreciate the train. I think we get acclimated to driving to the point where we don't really feel the bad parts of it, unless we take a break from it for a while.

I love the really urban trains and buses for the proximity to people (though that takes some getting used to, if you're used to a big space & silence bubble like a car), but I really love the little green pockets visible from our light rail, the community gardens and the big cemetery and the rooftop picnic & garden areas it lets me see.

Jenn the Greenmom said...


I'm an introvert, so the people bubble is something I really do miss...and unfortunately, my particular train ride doesn't have a lot of "pretty" in it...but I am learning to appreciate it.

It's just sort of an awakening to think of "energy efficiency" as something that doesn't have to be all bucolic and pastoral and Mother Earth News, you know?

Rosa said...

Totally. We all kind of have a romantical view of what a Greenmom is, don't we? It's like the day your kids say "Mom can't we just have Oreos? Your homemade cookies are boring!" My mom was so scarred by that, she still tells the story 30 years later.


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