Adventures in railroading, #2

Okay, Wednesday night I had to stay late at work. A couple of big projects that are due, another project that had started to come down around my ears, AND I have to have my office packed up by the end of this week for the move to the “summer residence” while our normal space is remodeled. So I was checking emails and chucking stuff into boxes and keeping an eye on the post-rush hour LRT schedule, when the train starts to come every 15 minutes.

Here’s a difference between being able to walk out to your car and having to fit a precise schedule: I was about ready to leave, with enough time to walk to the station for my desired departure, when it occurred to me that I needed to do one more quick thing; it would only take a minute. Well, two. Out I hustled, walking briskly to the Nicollet Mall station, only to see the south-bound LRT pull up to and depart the station as I was crossing 4th St. In honor of a movie coming out any day now I’ll say, “Missed it by that much.”

Oh well, it was a pleasant evening, still light out and so I took the latest Sue Grafton mystery out of my briefcase and sat down on the skateboard-resistant concrete ornamental barrier for my fourteen and a half minute wait.

Adventures in rail-roading

I’ve pretty much worked out the logic behind converting my commute to a Park & Ride/LRT combo (see last week’s post). Unfortunately, I can’t get out of my parking contract until the end of July, even if average global temperatures jump 10 degrees. I decided, however, that before I jump through that flaming bureaucratic hoop I better make sure I’m committed.

Now I have a pretty good imagination, and I’m far from inexperienced when it comes to using public transportation on a regular basis. The fact is, however, that I haven’t used the bus for years. The possibility remains that there might be some noxious experiences on the LRT that I haven’t imagined or anticipated that might make the overall cost savings seem ultimately insignificant. Hence, I decided to take the LRT every day this week to further field test my new plan before giving notice of canceling my parking at the end of the month.

This morning: everything was fine and dandy. A beautiful, soft morning in June.

This evening: There were plenty of seats to choose from when I boarded at the Nicollet Mall stop. I chose one of the somewhat elevated seats and proceeded to dig out my newspaper from my briefcase. Two tattooed teenage girls got on and sat in the seats diagonally behind me. One had some music device that was playing hip-hop loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the car. I thought the current fashion in music devices was to wall yourself off in a socially autistic manner inside your iPod earbuds. This was definitely audible, however. Perhaps it was indeed an iPod, but cranked so loud it could be heard outside the ‘buds. She may have turned it up so she could hear it over the volume of the conversation she was having with her friend. It was not a comely conversation. Everyone else, however, seemed to be pretty much ignoring it, so I tried to create my urban shell around myself and do the same. I had a strong hunch these young ladies were on their way to the Mall of America which, unfortunately, was past my stop. As it turns out, my stop was indeed before theirs.

As I got out up to disembark it crossed my mind to say something mean to our would-be entertainers. Based on their grammar, their language, and the nature of what they were listening to, however, I decided their lives were already going to be hard enough without me piling on.

I can’t wait to see (or hear) what tomorrow’s commute bring.

I…I feel like a better person

I am loathe to fall prey to the hand-wringing and borderline (even self-fulfilling) panic surrounding gas prices. My main vehicle, a ’98 pickup, doesn’t get the greatest gas mileage but it is paid for so, on an operating cost basis, it’s fairly economical. It’s certainly not worth plunking $300-$400 a month down on a new car payment in order to save $150 in gas. Furthermore, while I’m as concerned about the environment as much as the next guy (if the next guy is Hamilton Lux), the thought of doing anything remotely “green” just for the sake of being “green” makes me, well, green.

Still, when our monthly fuel bill starts to approach my first mortgage it does make me rub my neck a little. I know there are those who love the idea of high gas prices because they misanthropically hope this will force behavior change on the mindless driving public (just as it mindlessly forces a change in the cost of groceries and quality of life for those least able to afford the lesson), so I purposefully stay cheerful when filling up my truck just to annoy those folks. I wouldn’t mind being cheerful a little less often, though.

Like most folks, I’ve not been too inclined to trade the convenience of having my vehicle at the ready to fit my schedule and whatever immediate needs might come up in order to live my life on the bus company’s schedule. This is especially true since a bus commute from where I live requires at least one transfer and twice the commuting time. I swear, I think Frodo and Samwise Gamgee had a more direct route to Mt. Doom than me trying to get to downtown Minneapolis by bus. Given the hours I’m already working that’s just not an attractive option; there’s more to being “cost efficient” than just price.

I can, however, drive from my southeastern suburb to the light rail (LRT) Park & Ride at Fort Snelling and take the train downtown to within four blocks of my office. I decided to conduct a little experiment by doing just that and comparing how many fewer miles I drove and how much longer it took to get to work, then calculating the difference in cost between my monthly parking bill and a Metropass (unlimited ride). I could have done this on a lovely summer (what passes for summer anyway) day, but why not get a taste of the elements as well? Therefore, I set off yesterday in the pouring rain for the Park & Ride (I brought an umbrella).

Total time to get to the lot: 15 minutes; distance 8 miles (compared to a 12-14 mile drive to downtown Minneapolis, depending on the route I take). The Park & Ride, however, may more accurately be described as a “Park & Walk” as I had about a quarter of a mile jaunt to the depot from my vehicle. I got to the station as a train was pulling up, but the credit card reader on the ticket machine wasn’t working. By the time I’d made a couple of attempts and finally resorted to sliding a fiver into the machine and getting my change (oh, so that’s what they’re doing with all those Sacajawea $1 coins) the train had pulled out. I waited 8 minutes for the next one and it took another 22 minutes to get to my stop downtown. From there I walked the four blocks to my office. Portal-to-portal, it took just under an hour. Driving to work in rush hour takes 40-45 minutes unless there’s bad weather or a traffic accident. The LRT also runs every 7 – 10 minutes during the “rush” hours (roughly 6 – 9 a.m. and 3 – 7 p.m.) so there’s not too much of a time penalty for “missing” a ride.

How about mileage? Four miles one way isn’t much of a savings in distance, but that equals 8 miles a day. Since my truck gets 16 miles per gallon, that’s a gallon of gas every two days, or 2.5 gallons in a typical work week. At $4 gallon, that’s $10!

As for other costs, I pay just under $80 a month to park downtown, but this will be going up an as yet undetermined amount at the end of the year when my employer stops subsidizing the cost. I can get a Metropass through my employer for $39. So, that’s about a $40 a month savings for “infrastructure”, plus $10 a week on gas. The net result is that for an extra 30 minutes a day in total transit time I could save $80 a month. I know, I could donate it to the Sierra Club, or to the schools – they never seem to have enough money! (NOT!). Yeah, I know the LRT is heavily subsidized by the State, so the fares are not a true reflection of the actual cost to operate it, but since my tax dollars are already going to support the choo-choo, perhaps I can feel as if I’m getting a little of my money back.

Other trade-offs: not as much opportunity to listen to my favorite radio programs, but more time to read; being perceived as an enviro-weenie when I’m really a rank capitalist; having to admit that money can change my behavior, but also having more money available to buy things that will increase my carbon footprint. Decisions, decisions! I suppose I should also look at the modest exercise benefit of having to walk a little farther in my daily routine vs. the “character-building” experience of getting to walk that extra distance in the potentially arctic temperatures the other 11 months of the year thanks to our “warming” environment.

I don’t know, I think I’m coming down on the side of saying “All aboard” and keeping more money in my pocket. Just don’t tell my kids (that I’ve got more money in my pocket)!