Here I am, the manager of the University of Houston Office of Sustainability, and 1.5 years through my tenure, today is the first time I’ve used METRO to commute to work.
The guilt of driving to work nagged at my conscience for months, and I always made excuses for not commuting more sustainably. Perhaps this sounds familiar: “I’m not a morning person,” or “it’ll take me twenty minutes to drive and an hour to use public transit.” Maybe I’m just lazy or maybe a bit intimidated.
I bike, carpool and take public transportation on the weekends or after work. When I worked for UTHealth, I biked to work almost every day (but it was a short ride and quicker to bike than drive). I’ve carpooled occasionally to UH and taken the METROrail to off-campus meetings, but honestly, why did it take this long for ME to commute by bus? Two words: Privilege and habit.
On my walk to the bus stop this morning, I enjoyed the unseasonably mild Houston weather and remembered how freeing it was to not depend on a car. Then it hit me, for others who don’t own a car, particularly because of financial limitations, they may feel highly restricted in their lives – unable to secure particular jobs, visit with friends and family, and even purchase fresh, healthy food. Then there’s me, someone with the option to choose how I commute, someone with privilege – maybe that’s why it feels freeing to escape the madness of Houston traffic.
Arriving to the bus stop, an uneasiness welled up in the pit of my stomach. Car after car whizzed past with one driver in the vehicle, and I thought, “That’s me. I’m part of the problem.” A problem demonstrated by the 90.5 percent of workers in Houston who commuted by car between 2007 and 2011 according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
As I entered the bus filled with commuters, I looked around for an open seat and recalled a reaction a friend of mine had when I told her I was planning to try out the new METRO bus routes. “Why don’t you just take the METROrail since you’re close to it? This may be a classist view, but the buses just seem so gross.” You know the funny thing? That was my presumptive view of the Houston buses for the longest time: they were old, dirty, and I was somehow above those who rode them. This stigma associated with public transit in Houston is widespread. I think many others in the middle class who have the same privileges as me hold that belief.
Why ride the bus when you can buy a car cheaply or pay a few hundred dollars a month for a new car? Well, because taking the bus is better for the environment, more economical, less stressful (for the most part) and you have a shared experience with others in your community – not to mention some employers offer sustainable commuting incentives and students receive half off METRO fares.
In terms of habit, we live in the energy capital of the world and glorify our “car culture.” Though I was born in Houston and lived here for the first few years of my life, I grew up in Alvin – where you needed a car to get from place to place. There was no public transit, and it was practically impossible to travel by bike. From teenagers getting brand-new cars to adults commuting thirty minutes to an hour, car culture was my reality and is the reality for many Houstonians and suburban dwellers. For some reasons, we should appreciate our car culture. Without a thriving energy industry, most of us wouldn’t enjoy vast job opportunities, a relatively low cost of living and a vibrant city.
BUT you can’t ignore the issue at hand. When you’re considering behaviors that individuals in Houston can do to improve greenhouse gas emissions, look no further than sustainable commuting, whether it be through carpooling, public transit, walking, biking or vanpools.
I encourage all Houstonians, especially my fellow Coogs, to try out a new METRO bus route. You may be pleasantly surprised with your experience as I was today. Tired of looking for parking? Stressed out because you’re stuck in traffic? Ride METRO, put your mind at ease, turn off your gadgets and contemplate your contributions to issues bigger than your own needs. Or maybe even study for your next class. Let’s be a part of the solution rather than continuing to cause the problem.
– Sarah Kelly