Friday, December 14, 2007

CaSE IN POINT by Joe Koester

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.
Oscar Wilde

In a public letter from Sunday, November 11, 2007 – State Representative, Cynthia Davis, R-19th District writes in a letter to the editor captioned, “Does this county need a public bus system?” (you need to read the letter in its entirety):

The idea of bringing public buses to St. Charles County is one issue that raises some philosophical questions that need answers before we are ready for a tax increase.
Many of our people live on cul-de-sacs and don’t even have sidewalks. To get to a bus stop, you have to be able to walk safely and not too far.
When I was in city government, I voted on approving most of these subdivisions because that is what our constituents wanted. Buses only work best with high density and streets laid out on a grid. St. Charles County is distinctively different from St. Louis County.
Some people think we need buses to get people to work. What kind of jobs are these that don’t pay people enough to afford a car? When my husband and I were first married, his take-home pay was $126 per week. Our pickup truck wasn’t very pretty, but it was enough for our basic needs. If the employer really needs employees, and can’t pay them enough so that they can afford to buy cars, why doesn’t he charter his own bus to bring them to work?
Our high school parking lots are filled with students’ cars. They are offered free bus rides to school, yet the demand for student parking always exceeds the amount of space available. Even our kids would rather drive.
Waiting at a bus stop in bad weather can be a bad experience if one has to sit out in the heat, rain and freezing temperatures to catch another bus. This is not a workable option for the elderly and those with fragile health conditions.
I believe we have enough kindhearted friends and families that will give their neighbors a ride if they can’t drive.

There is much that is wrong with this letter from a state lawmaker who represents a part of our county in Jefferson City. First off, however, let me say that my point here is not pro or con public buses in St. Charles County and I agree with one part of the letter from Mrs. Davis – namely, our county has epitomized sprawl-style growth that does make bussing, if not impossible, very challenging. It is the attitude of the remainder of the letter that seems pretty sad and off mark.

To start, where Mrs. Davis states that she approved most of these subdivisions complete with cul-de-sacs because “that is what our constituents wanted” I really must ask myself whether that is truly what the residents of O’Fallon wanted. More likely, new residents wanted a yard, a relatively low-priced home in a safe area with decent schools. The fact that their neighborhood was filled with curvilinear streets that created few connecting roads turning their otherwise three-minute commute into fifteen minutes is, perhaps, something the residents didn’t really want at all. The fact that some streets became major arteries lined with strip malls may just have been the price you paid if you wanted the big house with a yard in a safe area with good schools. Certainly, the very role of the community leader is to meet both the interests of his or her residents and also think about the consequences of actions that create wastefully laid out street grids that require great infrastructure with extremely low density and huge future costs both in street and sewer maintenance and hours wasted by residents sitting in traffic or zigzagging over field and dale to move a few blocks down the road (as the crow flies).
More likely, “constituents” are the same characters you know from St. Charles. Well, they are usually not so much “constituents” as “bankrollers” for chosen campaigns. You guessed it – the developers!
In fact, if the aldermen in O’Fallon had wanted to create both low-traffic streets and a basic overall grid pattern then one day of researching street options would have shown them several ways to build that provide both.
Next, to answer the question posed by Mrs. Davis, “What kind of jobs are these that don’t pay people enough to afford a car?” These are mostly service jobs that have been created as our country de-industrializes. Mrs. Davis, these are the jobs that employ the people that your own Party time and again works against by fighting living wage initiatives and universal health care, as well as a host of other public-good services that would benefit working women and poor children. You should remember, one of the first acts your own Governor took when entering office was to throw quite a few of these poor children off of such public assistance previously provided by the state. The next time you stop at a restaurant or pick up dry cleaning, or maybe even step into your own book store, you may see some of these people doing the very jobs you wonder about.
While we all use our own personal experiences to make generalized judgments about life, we also have enough experience as adults to know that many factors come into play and that sometimes the way we experience things is not how the next fellow will. This is why I find the anecdote above about take-home pay of “$126 per week” rather adolescent. It doesn’t tell the whole story – just one personal (maybe partial) story. Many have the luxury of strong family support, good education, etc. while others do not. In fact, some people may have no family support; have chronic health problems, etc. This is not to make excuses for anyone, but rather to illustrate the eventuality that many people who are hard-working may still be struggling due to factors that you and I do not know about.
As far as high school kids driving – indeed they do. These students pay a huge cost to drive too. Many work nights and weekends in order to pay for gasoline and insurance and they can afford this because they usually are supported from home. Besides, do we look to high school students to decide policy of transportation?
The last two paragraphs are also limited in their vision. Yes, when you ride a bus you are exposed to weather fluctuations. When you have no means of transportation you are exposed to dependence on others. There are options available to help with this problem too. For example, bus shelters can be built and even a fan or heater could be installed. There are cities that are looking into smaller buses that would pick up elderly closer to home and sometimes from their home.
Finally, there are not enough kindhearted friends and family for some folks to depend on for a daily trip to work and to the store, bank, doctor’s office, etc. Again, personal experience seems to somehow indicate reality for everyone else in the greater community in Representative Davis’ eyes. In case Cynthia Davis doesn’t know this, most citizens do not have a campaign account with which they can purchase a private vehicle either.
I believe that Representative Davis is sincere in her beliefs. I also believe that like so many who view the world solely from their own experiences and who see things in black and white with no shades of grey, she is also mistaken about how the real world works.
I would like to end by reiterating that I agree a bus system, as we traditionally think of it, would be difficult to operate, costly, and very likely not used by a huge portion of residents in our county due to our demographics and current infrastructure. I just think it is better to speak the truth about the matter rather than determine policy by, well-this-is-how-I-do-things approach. If a traditional bus system won’t work – what options are there? This is something that can be explored and debated as it should be. If you have a decent job and can afford a car, that’s terrific. Maybe you have gotten where you are today because you were smart, worked hard and just deserve it. I find that usually the story (if told honestly) more often is a combination of work, relationships and fortune. Some folks marry well; others inherit well; while others get help by family and friends. It is certain that many people “deserve” their wealth as much as many others “deserve” their poverty. I hope I never need to depend on a bus system in St. Charles County, however, that doesn’t change the fact that their may be a need for one. Who knows, if gasoline prices double or triple, we may all be asking, “Where’s the nearest bus stop?”