Saturday, October 16, 2010

Guest Post: Kristen, Pittsburgh

The following post was written by my friend Kristen, a friend from high school who attended the University of Pittsburgh for both her Bachelors and Masters degrees.  She lives and works in Pittsburgh today.

Let me start by saying that I love my car. She's a 1998 Volvo XC70 station wagon, silver with black trim, busted-up leather interior, 250,000 miles, all wheel drive, runs like a tank. Her name is Angelina. If you're going to battle the Snowpocalypse in Pittsburgh, this is the car you want to be doing it in. Unfortunately, Angelina did not enter my life until February, after the majority of the snow had disappeared. Until that point I had been living in Pittsburgh for four years completely carless.

Carlessness is not such a big deal when you're a student at one of the several universities in the Oakland area.  There is plenty of cheap (albeit terrible) housing within walking distance of campus, and perhaps most importantly, one's student ID doubles as a magical pass to free public transportation anywhere in the county -- that includes buses, light rail, and even our signature funicular.  For the average student living in Oakland, a car is an unnecessary hassle and expense -- parking is extrememly limited and always pricey, and bus lines run to pretty much anywhere one might wish to get.  Not always frequently and rarely on time, but destinations like the North Shore, the Southside, the East End, and suburbs up to 20 miles out are theoretically only a bus ride away.

My own beloved roach-infested basement apartment was just under a mile from campus, a trip I made on foot once or twice a day.  The 71A, 54C, and EBO would also get me there but hardly seemed worth waiting for except in exceptionally bad weather.  A half mile's walk would get me to a dozen downtown-bound bus lines (three miles away), and a block past that I could catch them all running outbound toward my then-boyfriend's apartment in Squirrel Hill, about two and a half miles away.  Those three destinations were the only places I needed to get to on a consistent basis, and were all readily accessible without so much as consulting a bus schedule.  The biggest day-to-day logistical challenge of carlessness was the grocery problem.  The nearest grocery store was exactly a mile away -- not a big deal to walk to, but less manageable on the return trip with a week's worth of groceries in tow.  (It is astounding how shopping bags seem to double in weight from the checkout line to one's front door.)  Luckily both the 71A and the 81B covered the entire route; the only downside was the frequency, or lack thereof.  Major shopping trips were usually a weekend occurrence, and on a Sunday a bus that normally runs every fifteen minutes might run once an hour.  I became well-acquainted with the frustration of waiting for a half hour or more in single-digit temperatures at a stop with no bus shelter.  Carrying a schedule was an option, but a bus could easily be twenty minutes late, especially in snow.  It was a great relief when my roommate acquired her sister's hand-me-down Saturn SC1 coupe, Sylvia, a tiny two-door affair that was perfect for grocery runs and didn't get used for much else.

Circumstances changed when my roommate and I moved to a lovely house on a hill just outside the city limits, now six miles distant from Oakland and almost eight from downtown.  Transportation suddenly required planning.  Bus schedules became a permanent fixture on the coffee table.  Luckily our new location was within walking distance of the East Busway, a secret nine-mile buses-only express highway that cuts through the east of the city from downtown to Swissvale.  (There is a West Busway but nothing west of the Point is Pittsburgh anymore in my admittedly biased opinion.)  My daily commute went something like this:  a three-quarters mile walk down to the busway station (10-15 minutes), then catch the EBO to Oakland or the EBA downtown (20-25 minutes).  Coming home from class after 9:00, the EBO had ceased running, so it was the long way around on the 61A, a forty-five minute ride that dropped me off at the base of my hill.

If you've never been to Pittsburgh, you need to understand about the hills.  The whole city is made of hills.  Big ones.  Everywhere.  The northern suburbs are called the North Hills, the southern suburbs are called the South Hills.  The first time you see the Southside Slopes you will wonder how on earth those houses are not just sliding right off the hillside into the Monongahela River below.  What this means is that maps of the area are deceptive.  Two roads may be parallel on paper but getting from one to the other may involve scaling a sheer cliff face (or taking an incline before the city tore them all down).  It also means that a half mile walk from a bus stop to one's house may mean hiking at a forty-five degree angle the whole way up.  After a thirteen-hour day of work and class, that hill starts to look like a mountain.

That brings me to Angelina.  After I finished my grad program, it seemed like it was time to get a grown-up job.  Since there was no guarantee that employment would be located somwhere accessible (read: less than an hour, no more than one transfer), the job search more or less necessitated a vehicle.  My carlessness had always been a financial issue, never a voluntary choice, but I appreciated a lot of aspects of it -- fewer expenses, more exercise, greener lifestyle.  I survived without a car long enough to know that I could if I had to.  But I didn't want to.  I was tired of having to plan every outing, of waiting for buses, of every trip taking twice as long as it would in a car.  I was tired of climbing the hill.

These days I drive a few minutes to my closest Park-N-Ride, where the lot is usually full by the time I get there and I have to chance street parking.  I then take the EBA in (still milking that free bus pass!), and walk a half mile across town to my building.  Total trip time 40-50 minutes.  In the evenings I often stop at the grocery store on the way home, since I can pick up a few things without planning a whole trip in advance.  I can even spontaneously hop on the turnpike to visit my family 200 miles east, without being tied to an Amtrak or Greyhound schedule.  I am profoundly grateful to have my car and all the convenience that comes with it.  I would love to see more cities (and the whole country, really) move toward a less automobile-dependent model, but in the meantime I'm afraid they're pretty much necessary.  Viva the Volvo.

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