"A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure."
- Margaret Thatcher
I was going to make this quote the motto of this blog, but it's a good thing I didn't, because a cursory bit of research reveals that the Iron Lady, for all of her cutlass-like wit and blithe willingness to offend liberal pieties, apparently never said any such thing. No less than the ultra-liberal Guardian has been forced to conclude that it was, at best, apocryphal, though they make a point of speculating that it was the sort of thing that she "might well have blurted out." So there.
Much like the veracity of the quote's source, I don't think it's necessarily true, though I've long lost track of the days when, trapped at a bus stop or jammed into a crowded streetcar, I've heard Thatcher's voice in my head, reminding me that it didn't have to be like this.
I live in a city with a world-renowned transit system, or at least that's what we like to tell ourselves. It might once have been true, but years of inconsistent maintenance, lack of investment and gutless politics have made it impossible for the city or the transit authority to use its onetime motto - "The Better Way" - without inviting a collective snort of derision that might change weather patterns.
Like anything that once worked well, when the conditions are right and the stars line up properly, it does its job well. About roughly half the time I use public transit - and I use it nearly every day, at least twice a day - it works well. My eyes don't jealously glare at the guy in the tan Civic with the empty car seat in the back and the three-inch dent in the passenger door when the bus arrives on time and I can find seats for myself and my kids.
I'm not overcome with car envy when my connections arrive within minutes of each other, or when the driver has taken his meds and not only greets us with an amiable, non-creepy smile and doesn't sigh deeply and glare into the distance when we ask for transfers. And I don't grimly do the mental math on getting financing to buy a "like new" Yaris when the streetcar has working air conditioning in the middle of a heat wave or the seats haven't all been tagged with a variety of colourful residue ranging from chewing gum flattened into the upholstery pile and worn a waxy black to stains erupting across the discoloured fabric like blood spatter from an explosive hemorrhoid.
No, it's at times like this that this 48-year-old man doesn't think he's a failure. Not really.
As with most failing systems, public transit in this city has built itself a cult following that celebrates the things that don't work and imagines that it would work better if only it was bigger. My long years of public carlessness were largely enabled by a widely celebrated local tradition that the lack of a car was a vote for transit, and as long as many of the people I knew were as young and poor as I was, we could imagine that we were some kind of silent majority. But as years passed and economic conditions changed, many of my urban transit cultists revived their dormant driving licenses or found a spouse with wheels.
I almost never meet anyone I know on transit anymore.