What follows is a metaphor illustrating a philosophical public policy argument. I say this now because you, dear reader, deserve fair warning for what lies ahead.

In my experiences on Washington’s mass transit system, the Metro, I believe I’ve come up with an argument for why free markets must be regulated to some degree in order to maintain an efficient allocation of resources.

*crickets*

One of the things that makes Washington’s Metro different from most other mass transit systems I’ve experienced is that the Metro is very ideal for tourists as well as DC residents and commuters.  While it’s true that transit systems are often advertised as being handy ways for out-of-towners to get around, I think that the Metro is particularly (and very consciously) designed to cater to tourists. The Metro stops at many of the main tourist attractions (monuments, museums, etc.) while traveling to and from larger transit centers that would likely bring out-of-towners into the city (airports, bus stations), maps of the entire system and individual lines are frequently posted in the station, and the stations frequently play an announcement over the loudspeaker that begins with “Hi! First time riding with us?” and explains how to get around on the Metro.

And this is great! It’s nice to think that a system would work so hard to accommodate those who are not familiar with the system rather than tossing them into the fray (on a transit system that, during rush hour, is moving about three times as many riders as it was designed to move) and waiting for them to be overwhelmed and swept away like a little red wagon caught in a tornado.

Unfortunately, there is only so much that the Metro can do for the uninitiated before these tourists/out-of-towners must take some responsibility for their own movement through the system. And that’s where things can break down so quickly that I’m surprised I haven’t seen a riot break out when a 30-person tour group (who are all dressed EXACTLY THE SAME WAY) collides with a similarly-sized group of 9-to-5 businesspeople (who, come to think of it, are all dressed EXACTLY THE SAME WAY. How many navy blue ties  and black pencil skirts can there BE in this world?). Surprised and, I might add, a little bit disappointed. I always wanted to see a riot.

But anyway, things break down because, in my experience, those unfamiliar with the system do not make any effort to inform themselves until they are in the Metro station, hovering somewhere between the fare gates and the escalators leading down to the platforms. To me, this is sort of like getting into a car, turning the key, and putting it in “Drive” before you figure out which is the gas and which is the brake. Which admittedly, I’ve done before, but whatever. I’m not the one on trial here.

What happens is this: a new rider understands that they need to pay money in order to take the Metro. So they buy their Metro pass and go through the gate. What they did NOT realize, however, is that the Metro goes to more stops than the one which they have chosen as their destination. Even worse, they do not realize that the Metro travels in more than one direction that the one that leads to their destination. And even worse, they do not realize that the Metro travels along more lines than the one that includes their destination. This is the moment when I’d probably think that the whole world is against me and then I would start sobbing, so kudos to these new riders for maintaining their composure.

But then something interesting happens. While the new rider is figuring out which way he or she needs to go in order to reach the line traveling in the direction to their chosen destination, they place themselves in a spot that is uniquely advantageous to them and uniquely disadvantageous to everyone else. These new riders almost ALWAYS place themselves right at the top of the escalator that leads down to the platform while they read the map posted next to the escalator to see if it includes the magical combination of line, direction, and destination. It reminds me of my cat, who, when I’m reading the paper on the floor in my living room, will choose to lie down on my paper when she has the ENTIRE floor to lay on. And it’s not like she wants to me to play with her or anything! She’ll just sit down on my paper and stare off into the distance.

Man I miss my cat.

But anyway, out-of-towners at the escalator. I can understand why they do this: the new riders are placing themselves in a location that best allocates their resources, assuming they aren’t carrying their own copy of the Metro map with them*. If this escalator leads to where they want to go, they can quickly move down the escalator and minimize the risk of missing the train. They also minimize the risk of the escalator being taken away from them by gnomes*. If the escalator is not the one they want, they can walk away and head in a new direction.

This location, therefore, maximizes the value of their time and energy needed to obtain the information. This location is the best, as determined by their rational self-interest. And I may have failed at being an economics major, but I took enough to learn that one of the primary assumptions of a free market is that individuals within that market act according to their rational self-interest.

Unfortunately, this individual stops at the top of the escalator and completely gums up the system for everyone else. Escalators are a place for moving, not for stopping (doesn’t this seem straightforward enough?). So when that individual stops, a bunch of people behind him or her are caught off guard and are unable to move forward, meaning that the ones who know where they’re supposed to go can’t go there as quickly. And the more people who are stopped, the longer it takes for traffic to resume flow once that out-of-towner realizes that this Metro station is a stop for the Red line in addition to the Blue line. So inefficiencies spread throughout the system each time some person makes this one efficient decision, and we have a negative externality that I’m pretty sure cancels out the benefit gained by the out-of-towner who now knows where to go. Given the number of times I’ve seen someone in a business suit shoot daggers out of their eyes and into the back of someone in a brightly-colored t-shirt (that matches twenty other people’s shirts. Again, how is it that the world has so many neon green shirts? Yeesh), I’m almost certain that this is the case.

So here you have it: an individual’s rational self-interest (not even greed, just self-interest) creates more problems than it solves, and the overall efficiency of the system decreases (and then I miss my train and I have to wait another ten minutes and it throws everything off and I end up missing the Happy Hour special on buffalo wings at the bar and grill and then I have to find something to eat back at my apartment which means chicken and pasta for the tenth night in a row because I can’t cook that well the last time I tried to make sauteed spinach I burned my hand twice and DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT!).

Ergo (you can’t write a paper arguing something philosophical without using the word “ergo”, it says so in my English Major Guidebook. Yes, we have guidebooks), rational self-interest cannot serve as the only determinant in the allocation of resources, for there are circumstances in which it will lead to an inefficient system. When I brought this up with my co-workers, who largely agreed with me, which means I AM NOT CRAZY, they suggested that a large sign be placed above the escalator simply reading “DO NOT STAND HERE.” The problem, one co-worker said, is that there is a lack of information regarding the use of a common good*–perfect information is also an assumption of the free market’s function*. Since the free market does not effectively provide perfect information, a regulating force can step in to provide that information and correct the inefficiencies caused by the market. Although it’s a little alarming that not standing at the top of an escalator would be considered “information”, but I guess that’s why perfect common sense isn’t an assumption of the free market.

Regarding the sign, I said that that’s an effective mechanism for informing tourists, but there’s no way to enforce the rule. I suggested vigilante-style justice, namely a legal immunity for all other commuters who choose to inform out-of-towners of their error in planning by smacking them (first offense: rolled-up newspaper, second offense: rolled-up newspaper [weekend edition], third offense: shoe, fourth offense: hip check), but my co-workers gave me uncomfortable looks. I think they’re just afraid of taking decisive action on the matter, but all the same it was a quiet lesson for myself, with the lesson being: bitter people shouldn’t run for elected office.

In conclusion, my experience watching the inexperienced on the Metro is anecdotal, but could likely be confirmed by a more scientific experiment (“Dear commuter, how many times a week do you think about using your shoe as a weapon against someone standing at the top of the escalator with a confused expression on his/her face?”). Nevertheless, it represents a situation in which rational self-interest is not the most effective way for allocating resources, and suggests that some regulatory measure by a larger governing body is necessary in order to mitigate the negative externality. Though the system of vigilante justice is not the only solution, it is nevertheless strongly recommended.

I’mthinking of  submitting this argument (snarky comments and all) to some various academic publications. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

*This assumption seems valid to me because it would involve planning ahead, and it’s easier to discount the future value of a good when weighed against actions one could take in the present time. Having $100 in the future is less valuable than having $100 now. Having a Metro map before you’re on the Metro is less valuable than when you’re on the Metro, so why print it out?

*Don’t laugh. I’ve heard it happens every couple of weeks here. Or at least that’s what we tell the tourists. So maybe we’re somehow responsible for all this.

*A common good is a good that cannot be restricted to anyone wishing to use it but whose value or supply can be reduced by those who use it. Technically, the Metro is excludable since you have to pay a fee but I think the term is still applicable.

*Except this is laughable, because there’s often an incentive for both buyers and sellers to keep information from each other in a manner that also serves their self-interest. Example: Dasani being sold as some hoity-toity bottled water when in actuality it’s just filtered tap water. Coca-Cola knows people won’t buy “filtered tap water”, so they keep that bit hidden from plain sight.

My open letter to mass transit providers:

Dear mass transit providers,

We need to talk about the way you format your schedules on-line. I understand that most operators were in service before the Internet was popular, and as such had paper schedules before digital or on-line schedules. Now, the most efficient way to create a paper schedule is to fit the entire schedule on one sheet of paper. This makes the schedule accessible and convenient to carry around, and if a transit user has trouble reading it, he or she can ask an operator for assistance. No problem.

But in the digital world, it’s different. I’ve seen several transit services loudly advertise the fact that their schedules can be accessed on-line. And that’s great! I think that’s an excellent way to make the system more accessible and get people to PLAN AHEAD when using transit, rather than showing up at the bus/train/subway/light-rail/rickshaw station and staring dumbfoundedly at the schedule, realizing all too late that the mode of transit they wanted to take just left and won’t be comin’ ’round for another 45 minutes. No one likes to feel that silly, so transit providers put their schedules on the Internet. Brilliant!

But notice that I said the purpose of doing so was to make the system more accessible. And consider, dear transit providers, that you can put information on the Internet and worry less about getting it all on one page, because a visitor to your website can use the mouse button to SCROLL DOWN and it’s not a hassle. When you upload a PDF of your paper schedule on to your website, you think you’re being clever. You think that if the paper schedule worked so well at the station, it will work well on-line. And all you need to do is scan the thing in, create a link, and take off early for lunch while you wait for people to go to the website, download that sucker and come over in droves.

Well I STRONGLY disagree (and after all, I’m an INTERN so I know what’s what). Putting the paper schedule on the Internet does NOT translate into the same level of accessibility. An opened PDF copy of a schedule usually results in TINY text that, combined with the glare of a computer monitor, is a one-way ticket to a headache. And yes, I intended that pun. If I have to put up with your unintuitive on-line schedule you have to put up with my terrible wordplay.

But what’s worse is that making the schedule hard to read makes it very hard to understand. Scanning down one row of departure times and matching that time up with a different row of arrival times gets really difficult to do when the schedule won’t even FIT in the damn screen DESPITE BEING WRITTEN IN A FONT SO SMALL I COULD INSCRIBE IT ON A GRAIN OF RICE. Now admittedly, I haven’t done research on this topic aside from my own anecdotal (and extremely embittered) experience, but I imagine that such difficulties are ultimately going to discourage potential riders from using the transit systems. I’m a fairly Internet-savvy individual, and my eyes work just fine1, and I really love mass transit but after five minutes with a handful of on-line PDF transit schedules I wanted to close my computer and just go sit in a park and forget about my travels (I mean I usually want to go sit in a park anyway but this just added to it). If it happened to me, I’m sure it could happen to someone else.  Although I’m sure that this attitude is what’s killing health care reform–I don’t want to have the government run my health care so it shouldn’t run ANYONE’S health care!–so maybe I don’t want to extrapolate too much from my conclusion but WHATEVER, let’s just run with it.

I offer this constructive advice to you, transit providers: take the time and energy to properly redesign your transit schedules into a more user-friendly and INTERNET-friendly format. Make them in larger font sizes, arrange the text so that it all flows in the same direction (this crazy top-to-bottom-tilt-your-head-90-degrees-so-you-can-read-it just DOESN’T work), and use better organizing lines so that the viwer can more easily see where and at what time one departure leads to another arrival. Putting the PDF online and calling it an accessible schedule is like handing someone a can of delicious soup (I’m thinking chicken and wild rice or really good corn chowder) and a ROCK and saying that you’ve provided them with a meal. Sure, they can use the rock to open the can of soup, but it takes a long time and they lose most of the contents of the soup in the process. They may become so frustrated that they just walk away from the kerfluffle (that’s a real world and boy is it a great one) and go to McDonalds.

Transit providers, you’re all about planning and design. So think about what goes into the public’s planning. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard in transportation planning is the concept of a transportation agency seeing an entire web of transit services and infrastructures (bus, train, light rail, car, rickshaw) as one seamless system, much like the actual consumers do (it wasn’t until I became what I am today that I really saw buses and trains as being separate entities serving the same populations. Ah, the ignorance of youth). This means designing things like one transit pass that works on all systems or intermodal transit stations that lets a commuter transfer from bus to train or from train to car or from light-rail to rickshaw. So if we think of one seamless system, think of a seamless system properly adopted to each medium. You wouldn’t run a light-rail train into the distant suburbs or plow a multi-lane interstate highway through the middle of a city (and certainly not a city’s ethnic neighborhood)2, so why would you assume that a paper format works fine for the Internet? Newspapers don’t make their on-line editions read like their print editions.

Follow their example, and stop giving me headaches each time I try to plan my trip into some new neighborhood. This nation was made great by explorers going into unknown territory3, and I’m just trying to follow in their footsteps.

1I don’t wear glasses or contacts, which is kind of a shame because I think that people always look better in glasses. But I say this as someone who has never had to rely on them, so I’m sure it’s much more of a hassle than I realize and I’m just romanticizing the situation.

2Those of you who know some history of highway design and urban planning (hundreds, I’m sure) know that I’m being really funny here.

3And finding indigenous peoples who didn’t have resistance to European diseases or bullets. To quote the Daily Show’s America: The Book, “Tomahawks?! They thought they could stop us with tomahawks?!”

So we’re back to issues of transportation, although I really should refer to this by the (NERDIER and) more general term of “mobility”, in the sense of simply moving around and going places. Because while it’s true that all ways of getting around are methods of transportation, I believe that mobility is more inclusive and is less implicitly tied to an idea of a machine or tool than is the word transportation but I’ll stop now because I’ve really gone too far.

Anyway. Recently I wrote about my favorite form of transportation, but I guess I should have qualified that it was my favorite form of transportation from a policy standpoint. In all honesty, I don’t have a favorite form of transportation from a perspective of sheer enjoyment, because I really love just about all of them (don’t I sound like a grandparent? “No, kids, I don’t have a favorite. You’re all my favorite. Now let’s go fishing!”). So instead, I’m going to talk about two of them for which I have been discovering an ever-deepening love: walking and biking!

(crickets)

While I’ve always been a fan of walking, my time in Europe really made me realize that walking is actually a preferrable method of transportation for connecting to a place, provided one isn’t in a hurry. Every other way to get around takes you through a space too quickly (with the exception of a unicycle, or perhaps a really slow horse) and become destination-oriented forms of mobility: where you are is not necessarily where you want to be. I understand there are joy rides and pleasure cruises and other combinations of positive nouns with journey-based nouns (I just came up with flight delight, for which I should be soundly kicked), but even these require a certain amount of focus that ultimately brings one towards the destination rather than the surroundings.

But walking isn’t like that–walking requires almost no focus (unless you’re one of those weirdos who don’t like collisions) and is easily subjected to impulse. When I was traveling around Europe, I felt a small burst of wanderlust-driven excitement every time I was walking with someone and they pointed at something to our left or right and said “I wonder what that is?”, because curiosity was all the reason I needed/need to be convinced that changing direction is a good idea. And walking is impulsive–when I make the decision to change direction, all I need to do is turn my body and within a few feet I’m off somewhere else. If I try to do that in my car, catastrophes occur. Which is why walking opens up all opportunities–my mantra while in Europe was frequently “I’ve got a nice day and two legs that work”, because this is all I needed to convince myself that lengthening my journey was a good idea. As a result, I felt very connected to many of the places I traveled, simply because I felt like I understood how streets connected to each other, and knowing the lay of the land is the first step towards feeling comfortable with a new neighborhood (and, according to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the first step towards military conquest. You know, either/or).

This experience is (hopefully) going to shape my behavior next year (and in years to come). I’ve made promises with friends of mine that we’re going to take on cities that we don’t know and take them on on foot–there are far too many places that I’ve lived in or been in for a long period of time (which is defined as “more than three days”) that I don’t know well enough. Even Providence, where I go to school, is largely unknown to me. I know the neighborhood around my campus and a handful of locations in the downtown–the rest may as well be shrouded in mist or covered in dandelions (isn’t that a lovely image?). I so deeply want to walk down the streets of this city that’s been sitting there like a neighbor’s house across the street and see what’s there. Some tell me that there’s not much to see in Providence, but even if they’re right, I want to know it firsthand. At the very least I’m sure I can get some mediocre pizza out of it*.

Now, as great as walking is, my friend Allison pointed out something important: if you go walking for an hour, you realize that you’ve walked a mile and you think “Oh, that’s great.” But if you go biking for an hour, you realize that you’ve gone into another town (and if you’re in Rhode Island, you’ve gone through two or three towns!). My love for biking was first started in Denmark, during a two-day bike trip on the island of Samsø, a small community run almost entirely off of alternative energy but here again I’m stopping because I’ll go to far. ANYWAY, I realized how liberating a bike was–the feeling of movement becomes automatic very quickly, such that if the left leg pushes down on the peddle it seems only logical for the right leg to push down on the peddle as well. For me, the act of peddling quickly becomes subconscious, at which point one need only maintain balance and steer.

In return for this effort, you get to move quickly and move with the knowledge that you are almost wholly responsible for your own mobility (gears do some of the work, I guess), unlike in a car, where this whole internal-combustion-engine-gobbledigook is taking care of everything once you learn which peddle is the break and which is the gas (which is challenging, I acknowledge, but not as satisfying). For some reason, this sense of responsibility really adds a lot to the experience–I think it gives me a separate satisfaction when I reach my destination and can say “I got here on my own effort.” And as I (or rather, Allison) mentioned earlier, that “I got here” becomes remarkably impressive when you realize how far you can go on your own steam. On a related (but really nerdy) stream, it’s also impressive because bicycles are by FAR the most efficient form of transportation when efficiency is defined by distance traveled per unit of energy input. Sadly, I don’t have statistics on hand–not because I think anyone is going to argue with me, but because I remember the numbers being so impressive that I wanted to share them with everyone (seriously).  So if the satisfaction of walking comes from being able to act on impulse and be free of destination, the satisfaction of biking comes from being able to move almost effortlessly (I say “almost” because hills are a pain in the ass no matter how “automatic” you are) and to be the one responsible for that movement.

Plus, bicycles are oddly liberating, especially when you consider that they’re basically a step up from walking, as far as “reliable ways one can usually get around” goes. The ability to zip along and cover ground so quickly gives me the same sense of freedom that being able to instantly change direction with my two feet gives me. This came clear for me this past weekend, when I was in Bristol, R.I. with some friends of mine. We decided to go biking along the Bristol bike path, and in a half an hour’s worth of peddling at a leisurely pace, we had gone from Bristol to Warren to Barrington, and done so along a lovely series of neighborhoods and Narragansett Bay. Now I know this is Rhode Island and I’ve tripped over shoes bigger than the state, but it was still pretty damn impressive to cross three towns, and do so in a “behind the scenes” manner that took us through wooded paths and neighborhoods rather than down a big strip of tar and traffic lights. I want to go back to this bike path next fall and travel along it while the weather is still good enough to bike without a winter coat.

So I end this with a request to anyone reading this: if we are near each other and you are motivated by a desire to get outside and go, find me and take me along for the trip. I want to walk and bike as much as possible, and doing so with company is preferrable to a solo flight in my book. Barring previous engagements, I will refuse to let go of any opportunity to get my feet on the ground or on the peddles and go exploring. If my blog post be my word, then consider this my pledge to go.

*Side note: This weekend, I had a conversation with my friend Steve in which we realized that every town, no matter how small, seems to have a restaurant specifically labeled “[Town X] House of  Pizza.” Having been through some truly tiny towns in the Midwest, I really can’t think of any where I didn’t at least see a pizza place bearing such a name. Okay, well, maybe not in Iowa, but I’m impressed when I see four walls standing together with a roof over them in Iowa. Anyway, I would love to know when this became a phenomenon, and why it’s always a “House of Pizza.”

P.S. I know that the title of this post isn’t exactly unique, and it leaves out half of what I discussed in this post, but I cite it with a very particular source in mind. That source is Hem’s “Pacific Street”, which is a very beautiful song that connects wanderlust to love in a very sad way. If you’re in a sad mood, listen to the song and wait for the lead vocalist to hold the note on “far” at the very end of the song. It will break your heart, and it will do so wonderfully.

The title for this post is connected to my past Thursday in two ways, and those two ways have a lot to do with why Thursday was one of the greatest days I’ve had in a long time. The first is that I went to a presentation on public transit in the city of Strasbourg, France, and the presentation was actually given in French (we had a translator so it still ended up making sense to me) by the mayor of Strasbourg. The second is that later that night, I went to the Iota Club and Cafe to see the Duhks, a French-Canadian group playing…well, a great many things. I’ll talk about Strasbourg transit some other time (when I’ve earned back more of my readership’s good will–two transportation-related posts in a row means hell to pay). Today is given over to the Duhks.

As mentioned before, I saw the Duhks at a place in Arlington called the Iota Club and Cafe, the location of which I had a vague idea. Fortunately, my dear friend Kate was willing to come along with me along this adventure, despite never being to the Iota Club nor having listened to the Duhks before. That, my dear reader, is faith. But Kate has an adventurous spirit, and it was the first concert we’d been to together in two years, since we saw Medeski Scofield Martin Wood two years ago in Providence (which was a very good show). We got to the Iota Club about an hour early, so we decided to sit in the cafe part of the venue, and it was a very nice place. I can’t really speak to the food, as Kate and I had already eaten, but the beer list was fairly impressive, especially for a place that wasn’t trying to set itself up as any sort of conneisseur’s stop. The one complaint I would have is that the prices weren’t exactly student-friendly. $6 is a bit much to pay for a Blue Moon, in my opinion.

The atmosphere of the cafe is very laid-back and unassuming–it really doesn’t try to craft itself in any sort of way, existing more as a blank canvas for everyone’s own enjoyment. And I actually liked the atmosphere a lot, because I think it contributed to the Iota Club drawing a very mixed group of people. At both the cafe and the show, I saw people of all ages (well all ages older than 20, since the show was 21+), and they all felt perfectly welcome and comfortable there. There were twentysomethings who looked fresh out of college, there were middle-aged folk, and there were people with gray in their hair. And what really amazed me, personally, is that they all looked like how I hope to look as I grow old. I’m sure this has to do with the fact that they were there to see a band I myself enjoy, and so I forged all these connections with them (more on that in a bit) and just played down our age gap by saying they’re what I will become. But at the same time, I saw two people, probably in their late 40′s/early 50′s, dancing some sort of dance (it looked like a variation on swing mixed with folk but I know diddly-squat about dancing so I can’t really say) during one of the Duhks’ songs and looking so happy while they were doing it. And I want to be like that–dancing without a care at a damn good concert in my older age.

So let’s talk about this concert, then. In short, it was amazing–the most fun I’ve had at a concert since I saw the Flaming Lips on Spring Weekend of my freshman year and I put Mike Levy on my shoulders and flipped him into the crowd so that he could crowdsurf over two thousand people and STILL managed to find his way back to us and fall on my head. And that, I tell you, is a lot of fun. The Duhks play a wide range of music–a partial list would include folk, Celtic, blues, Afrobeat, and Cajun. And what really impresses me is that they do all these things (and do them damn well) with a small band whose members don’t change instruments much. The Duhks consists of a banjo player (also called a “banjoist”, which means you learn something new every day), a drummer, an acoustic guitarist, a lead vocalist, and a fiddler.

The lead vocalist was really the only one who changed instruments, and these were mostly small percussion instruments. Her power obviously came from her voice, which is EXTREMELY adaptive–she had the smokiness of a jazz club singer, the depth (although I’m not sure about the range) of a gospel singer, and the speed of a folk singer. She also sang in more languages than I could identify, although I am THRILLED to say that French was one of them (she’s from the largest French-Canadian community in Winnipeg, the capital of Maintoba. She told the audience that. I swear I’m not a creeper). Let me tell you something about me: I have a real weakness for those who can speak French. And the lead vocalist was really, really pretty. And when a pretty lady is singing French to you, your heart just goes out to her faster than you can shout. For the record, the drummer was also very attractive and also had a very good voice–he actually sang the lead on a couple songs, which impressed me, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drummer sing lead vocals before. But I later learned that the drummer and the lead vocalist are brother and sister (okay maybe I am a creeper). If that’s the case, they must come from an extremely attractive family. The banjoist was a bit older than the rest of the band, but he had this fantastic energy around him–he founded the group, and he displays his love for what he does with a beautifully frank openness. You can tell he loves music, and he loves what he plays, but he also really loves what his BAND plays. There were many moments during the concert when he would step back from the mic as one of the other band members took the lead on a solo, and his smile showed not only pride, but awe–he looked so impressed at what his fellow band members could do. And of course, he certainly held his own, being an amazing banjoist. Admittedly, I can’t say I’m an expert at determining a good banjo from a bad banjo, but his solos really made me want to dance. His banjo injects this fantastic energy into the music that moves faster than you can, and keeping up with him is a delight. I told Kate that he reminds me of what Charlie Shrader will look like in fifteen or twenty years, and she agreed with me. Right down to the Beethoven-esque hair and banjo playing. Charlie, if you read this, please know I say this as a deep compliment to you. Seriously, the guy is icredible.

The fiddler deserves her own paragraph, which is also why she is included in the post title. The fiddler was phenomenal. I have not seen someone play with such a mastery of their instrument in a long, long time. She shrouded herself in this wonderful mystique by wearing a fedora low on her head so that it covered her eyes while she played–all you could see of her (really pretty) face was a smile that was sly enough to make her seem self-assured (but really charming). And she deserved that self-assurance, because in my opinion, she was the defining feature of the music. So many of the songs took their strength and their lead from her fiddle, whether she was drawing her bow up and down in dramatic slashes or moving her hand so fast that the bow barely seemed to be moving but spat out music like a burst pipe. And always with this great smile on her face.

The music kept up a high level of energy–even the blues songs they played counterbalanced their slower tempo with a strength and a vitality that kept the word “mellow” far from my mind. And on one hand, this made me a little sad, because my favorite song by the Duhks is called “Annabel”, which is a very slow, sad song. But I understand that to play it at the concert would have really changed the atmosphere, where most of the folks were dancing (or in my case, grooving). So the music kept us on our toes, as they moved through folk songs, a couple of Cajun numbers, a song that tipped its hat to Fela Kuti (the pioneer of Afrobeat) a French song and then I don’t remember the rest because my head was in the clouds about the pretty French music. My personal favorite was probably “Death Came a Knockin’”, a folk/gospel number, which was played early on with a nice touch of jazz (coming from the banjo, which is something in my life that I never thought I would experience or choose to tell others about).

I think part of the reason why the chose to keep the energy so high was that they had the PERFECT venue for it. The Iota Club holds somewhere between 50 and 70 people–it was the smallest concert I had ever been to that wasn’t being held in, like, a bookstore. This made the concert incredibly intimate (the people that the Duhks were crashing with were in the audience–the band thanked them for putting them up for the night). The band even said that they were going to be hanging out in the cafe after the show, and that we should stop by and say hello. Kate and I missed this opportunity since we had to catch the Metro back, but in retrospect it was probably a good idea–I would have hugged one of the band members and probably not want to let go.

But with an audience that small, the band felt more like one of us–I think that’s part of the reason why it felt like the banjo player so openly displayed his pride and awe for his fellow band members.  It also meant that there was no disconnect between the band members’ energy and the audience’s energy. While I certainly didn’t have any moment where I thought that the lead singer made eye contact with me as though she were singing just for me (but Lordy I wish I could say that), I still felt much closer to the band and much more in step with their music. Part of it may have been being close enough to watch them look at each other and look at their instruments, so that I could see them connecting with the instruments and each other–it was a humanizing moment. So although Kate and I could not stay to tell them how much we enjoyed their show, I still felt good walking out the door knowing that they would be staying around hoping to talk to some of those twentysomethings and fortysomethings who were dancing right in front of the stage.

I’ll give this whole “writing about transportation” a go today. I’m going to talk about my favorite method of transportation, which is perhaps the worst thing I could possibly use as an introductory remark at a dinner party.  But I have a captive audience (no I don’t, you people can click away at any time and seriously God love you for sticking around to make it to the end of this parenthetical remark, let alone the whole post), so I’ll go on ahead.

As the post title makes clear, I am a big fan of buses, especially in the context of integrated transit in mid-sized cities and connecting cities/suburban areas spread out across a moderate (but not significant) physical distance. I mean, DUH. But really–I think that they’re a pretty effective way to connect a wide variety of locations, such as job parks, residential neighborhoods, or downtown commercial areas, as well as larger geographic areas (rural, suburban, urban, interurban, etc.). They carry enough passengers to make an impact on traffic patterns and emission levels (when properly utilized, I know buses also run nearly empty on off-peak hours), and require much less infrastructure than light-rail or subway systems. This makes it easier to set up a public transit system based on buses, and allows the buses to adapt to changes in population demographics or consumer demand. Have you ever seen the Boston T suddenly jump the track and make it out to a hot new club in Brighton? DIDN’T THINK SO. (but Lordy I hope for that day. That would be so damn cool)

The number of private bus contractors even enable private companies or organizations to establish their own transit systems for a more specific population’s needs. This is an example of paratransit, and usually it’s used with smaller vehicles like vans but whatever, buses are awesome. And I felt TOTALLY vindicated on this point when I had a conversation about transit with a businessman, and he told me how his company (a manufacturing industry) rented buses to bring workers in to the factories during a tough economic time when the local bus company had to scale back its resources and the workers couldn’t drive to work. That’s right. BUSES saved the day.

I know that all my environmentalist friends are already preparing to yell at me because rail systems are electric and buses run on fossil fuels. I’ve picked these sorts of fights on SEVERAL occasions. So here I am, READY TO YELL BACK,. I counter that there is a lot of progressive (if experimental) work done on alternative energy in buses. Here in Washington, there are several buses that LOUDLY proclaim on their sides that THIS BUS RUNS ON BIOFUEL! or THIS BUS RUNS ON ELECTRIC POWER! I never thought I’d see the day when I was glad to see advertising launch such an assault on my eyes, but whaddya know.  And admittedly, I don’t know the statistics on how much this really reduces emissions overall. But I think it’s an important step in introducing alternative fuels into the overall market. I’ve been very impressed with my own observations (yeah like I’m a goddamn scientist) taken from Boston and Washington, where the number of buses running on alternative fuels (mostly biofuels or compressed natural gas which I KNOW aren’t sustainable but they’re at least better than just straight-up diesel) seem to make up the lion’s share (don’t really get that saying but I’m quite fond of it) of bus transit systems.

But buses are plagued by something that makes them…undesirable. And I believe that this undesirability stems from something that isn’t an inherent fault of buses themselves (but isn’t that just like a liberal. No one needs to take any personal responsbility for ANYTHING. Shameful). For example, I cite the following quote, take from a June 9th edition of the Washington, D.C. “Express” newspaper (handed out for free at Metro stations. See? This is why you take public transit. You get free stuff. I’m hoping for a t-shirt one of these days). The quote comes from a section in the “Express” that’s full of quotes taken from various blogs on the Internet. (One of these days, Baird! Dare to dream!) The quote follows: “‘I took the bus both ways, thinking it would provide great blog fodder. What a disappointment. It was a great way to travel—and probably the only way I will travel to NYC in the future.’—kcanedo.blogspot.com expected a debacle while taking the bus but was pleasantly surprised”

People think buses are terrible ways to travel, both over long distances (Boston to NYC) and short distances (riding any transit system). Buses are branded as poorly and incompetently run, smelly and uncomfortable, and used only by the destitute and the desperate. Now, there may be truth to all of this.  Goodness knows that the different bus lines that run between NYC and Boston are crap shoots, where people can get left behind at a Burger King in Connecticut by a bus that is in danger of EXPLODING.  I would argue that this is because these buses charge fares ranging from $1 to $13, and maybe that’s getting what you paid for.

But either way, I was both frustrated and pleased to read kcanedo’s comment. I was frustrated to see that, in any context, someone was looking forward to a bad experience simply because it would make for good blogging fodder. I’d rant about this, but it would be so ironic for a blogger to complain about a blogger looking for blog material in his/her daily life that I think my computer would catch on fire. I just want to say that I think one shouldn’t hope for bad things to happen. That’s lame. But ALSO I was frustrated that this author thought that the bus would be so terrible. Why would they think that? I’ve heard my share of horror stories from people who took a variety of bus lines, from Fung Wah and Lucky Star to Greyhound (which I think is high end but maybe that’s because I travel out of Worcester), but I’ve also heard of people saying the exact opposite. I myself have experienced both good times and bad, but you know what? I’ve had bad days riding the T in Boston, and I’ve never heard anyone say that the T should be avoided at all costs (or that it would make good blogging fodder). And here in DC, I’ve been warned for certain days in August when the weather is unbearably hot and somehow the Metro seems to know this and so chooses to run with high delays. I am not looking forward to that day, that sounds like a way for riots to start. And I mean, I love me a riot, but not on a TRANSIT SYSTEM. That’s just barbaric.

Anyway, I think bus systems get branded VERY unfairly. No transit system is perfect, and I don’t see why buses take the brunt of the criticism (aside from people who complain that buses don’t serve complimentary drinks like airlines but you know what? Toughen up). I recognize that they’re not as comfortable as a train or as fast as an airplane, but they’re more accessible and generally reach more destinations than airplanes or trains. For example, Worcester and Providence are connected ONLY by buses–not by any other form of transit. That matters to about twenty people, probably. But I’m sure they’re all really nice people and we shouldn’t rag on what they take to go from one place to the other. So thank you, kcanedo, for lighting a candle against the darkness of the bus’s bad reputation. You and I, we’ll ride that bus between NYC and Boston to our hearts’ content.

p.s. The title for this blog post comes from the underside of the cap to a Sobe drink. I know it’s probably a declaration of forever embracing a hippie lifestyle, as in “I will always ride the Love Bus”, but I like to think of it as an imperative, with the bus as the direct object of the sentence, as in “You must love the bus for life.” I’m thinking of getting this as a tattoo.

At this point, I’ve spent a bit more than a full week here in Washington or just oustide Washington (one must be specific, after all). It may be a bit premature to write down my impressions of the city so far, especially since I’m feeling prepared to make some SWEEPING generalizations about the place, but I think they need to be down here, if for no other reason that to serve as evidence for my utter lack of intuition when these impressions are (possibly) shot to sunshine later on. So onward!

Washington, simply put, fascinates me, because it is utterly unlike any other city I’ve ever been in. The public transportation is excellent, and in many ways ideal (on the Metro, you’re charged by how far you travel rather than a flat rate. I can’t say how much I love this), but shockingly enough it’s not what’s driving my impression of the city (but it is making me REALLY happy. Every day). Rather, it is Washington’s purpose as a city. The city is essentially, a massive business office; its role is to provide space for those who run/work in the government to do what they need to do. Obviously, this purpose expands itself into providing sustenance and entertainment and distraction for those who work here. And it does all these things very well, from what I’ve seen. The block system, while not perfect or perfectly consistent, makes it fairly easy to get around most of downtown D.C. And cognizant of the fact that the city is full of people foreign to DC, either as workers (whoooole lot of non-profits and embassies around here) or visitors (whooooole lot of souvenir shops around here), just about every streetcorner in the downtown area (that I’ve seen) has a large sign that points you in the direction of various landmarks, namely museums, monuments, or Metro stops.

Once you figure out where you’re going, you have a plethora of options–Washington offers a staggering array of restaurants and bars and cafes and museums and theaters (that last one particularly surprised me) and I really have to say I’m getting quite caught up in exploring the city. I’m very fortunate to have friends here in the city who really don’t mind walking down any (straight and fairly pedestrian-friendly) street for a good long while until we find something interesting or find a reasonable place to change direction. Generally, this is determined by what traffic signal says “WALK” when we get to an intersection. I’m very impressed by the extent to which it seems to tailor to individual tastes. This is based largely on what my co-workers have told me, but every available style of eating seems to be widely available, and at a range of prices, from dirt cheap to swanky.

For example, there are a large number of Belgian and Ethiopian eateries (by which I mean Belgian places and Ethiopian places. If I ever found a Belgian/Ethiopian fusion restaurant I think my mind would be blown). I had no idea that there was any sort of Belgian immigrant/expatriate community in the US, but Belgium isn’t that large, so I suppose they have to go somewhere…and as I’ve read on several conservative blogs, there is no better place to immigrate to than America. So SUCK ON THAT, all you who would criticize America! (Of course, there may be a certain irony that some  would therefore work to develop an immigration policy that would discourage them from coming to THE BEST COUNTRY EVAR but I guess that’s neither here nor there)

The downside to this is that Washington, while feeling very vibrant (this past weekend was the LGBT Pride Weekend. A city doesn’t really get much more vibrant than that), also feels almost artificial, lacking the sense of organic development that would occur in a city that isn’t designated as a workplace. Now, I already know that this isn’t true. For example, consider Dupont Circle, a really nice place that features, among other things, a Tatnuck Booksellers-esque bookstore/cafe called KramerBooks and Afterwords Cafe. Jared described Dupont as the “former” gay neighborhood, saying that more recently the queer community has been slowly moving out of the area into new parts of the city. And that isn’t the result (or at least not the DIRECT result) of planning decisions; it’s just the natural evolution of a city.

But to me, it feels very hard to see WHERE this evolution is taking place (which makes me sound like a Young Earth Creationist), because at times, Washington feels very utilitarian. This may because venturing into the city on a Sunday means seeing a very quiet place–since people aren’t working, many of the shops are closed and the downtown streets are largely empty. This would make sense for a small town, but for a major metropolitan area, it comes as something of a shock. Maybe it’s just my fast-paced living*, but it’s kind of frustrating to see that the city is shaped by the work day to such a large extent. Even CVS’s and grocery stores close on Sundays. It also feels as though there aren’t places to live within the city, because the city promotes work, not life. Again, I know that I’m wrong about this–there are apartment buildings above most of the offices (woohoo mixed-use planning!), although whether those are for residents or for people who travel to do work in Washington I don’t know.

I also know that I’m wrong because, during my explorations (I call them explorations so that they sound more exotic and dangerous. Imagine me wearing khaki shorts and a pith helmet and carrying a machete as I navigate the dense jungle underbrush. It’s what I do when I’m walking down Connecticut Avenue, and it really adds to my day) of different neighborhoods this weekend, I DID see many people out on the streets and in the parks (lots of greenspace in D.C., and that’s very nice).  The streets weren’t crowded, but it was clear that people were moving about rather than moving through, enjoying a really lovely day. It may be important to note that these people were out in neighborhood streets rather than the central downtown streets (which is where I was last weekend when I noticed how empty it gets). So perhaps life just manifests itself in ways other than consumerism (shocking!), and organic development takes place within the context of a planned administrative environment in the same way that weeds push through the sidewalk.  This weekend population could be a different demographic from the people who work in the city, or it could be that the city offers enough that people see it as more than just a business-office community. The business-office feeling I get does not pervade every element of the city, and other forces are at work than simply the nine-to-five workday. Like sunny days and a good fountain in the center of a HUGE traffic circle. You peoplewatch there, and it’s the greatest.

p.s. The title of the blog post comes from the Talking Heads song “Cities”, which I actually only really know from Phish’s cover of the song. And I guess that makes this post a quiet tip of the hat to Phish, which is touring again after breaking up a few years ago. I’ve never seen Phish, and it’s not necessarily top on my list, but my good friend Will has seen them many a time and always comes back with good stories about all the zany things Phish does at their concerts, so I’m glad to know that they’re out there, bringing that sort of joy back into people’s lives. The band also gave us Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream, which is my personal favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor.

*This is meant as irony. Jared and I spent Friday night watching TV and eating brownies that his mom had sent us. Thank you for the brownies, Mrs. Emmons!

This Friday, I moved in to my friend Jared’s apartment in Arlington, Va., where I will be living for the next three weeks. The apartment is beautiful, very tastefully decorated and well-outfitted and full of good company and basically way the hell better than any other place I could have found on my own. So first and foremost, a HUUUUUUUUGE thank-you to Jared and his roommate Tim for letting me crash on their couch and leave my stuff all over the place. I often tell people that I will repay them in baked goods for various acts of kindness and assistance. In the case of Jared and Tim, I think I have to buy them a muffin shop.

But this is technically the third time I’ve moved in three weeks, basically since I’ve come home from Denmark. I moved my stuff out of Denmark back to Massachusetts, unpacked in a pretty half-assed way once back in Massachusetts, re-packed my stuff and moved it down to D.C., took a subset of that stuff with me for my week in Providence for the Transportation Expo (which was oh so wonderful, I really can’t begin to describe how much it enriched my understanding of transportation policy), and then took that subset with me on Amtrak (first time on Amtrak and frankly I’m not that impressed) and rode that silver train down the New England Corridor back to Washington and on to Arlington, where, as I mentioned before, I stay for three weeks. Then, I move to American University for four, maybe five weeks, and then I have no clue where the hell I will be.

In summary, I will spend at most five weeks in any one given “living situation” this summer.  This, in combination with the fact that I’ve recently returned from Denmark, where I was living for four months, has left me with a few facts to face. The first is that I have no damn clue where most of my stuff is. I think I have various t-shirts and books and toiletries spread across most of continental Europe and the Eastern Seaboard. I should have tagged some of this stuff, I’d love to see where it all ends up. It would be like the garden gnome from Amelie. (And if you, dear reader, do not understand this reference, this reflects more on you than it does on me. Go see Amelie, dammit)

But the more significant fact is that all this moving around has really made me question what I think a home is. As an individual, I’m very quick to call a new place of residence home. As long as a bag of my stuff is there and it has a surface for me to sleep on, that place is home to me. I’m serious–I referred to several of the hostels I stayed in throughout Europe as “home”, even though I’ve spent longer periods of time in my high school history teacher’s classroom than I spent in those hostels (man, good times with the speech team…).  Now, partially this is just an example of how I belong to the overall trend of casual use of the English language that is prevalent in this culture, but I think it also points to my relationship with physical spaces. While it’s true that it’s easier to refer to a place as “home” than try to think of whether or not I’m in a hostel or a hotel or an apartment or what, I think I also give myself an immediate comfort with a place if I refer to it as “my home”. It means I can move freely within the place,  that my physical surroundings are not something to worry about, and that they are a part of me. It also means that I can walk around without a shirt on, which leads to conflicts when others do not share my same definition of “home” or “decency”. But whatever, I feel comfortable. Isn’t that what counts? (Consider this a pre-emptive warning/apology to anyone who ever ends up living with or otherwise sharing a place with me)

But moving around so much and so recently has made me question the ease with which I call a place home. If calling a place home creates a relationship between me and my surroundings, what does it mean that I have all these “homes” scattered across the country? It’s a positive, I suppose, because I think it means that I have several places where I can go and always feel welcome, and perhaps receive a bite to eat and a place to rest my feet (I might think wrongly, but I don’t know, I’ve never really put this theory to the test).I am fond of seeing the homes of my friends as my homes. In an odd way, I’ve always seen walking in to a house without knocking as a sign that that place is “home”, when in actuality I’m just being extremely rude. But hey, nothing dismisses a faux pas like acting as though you’re one of the family.

But calling so many places home may also mean that I am too quick to connect to a place, and therefore I can never really create a sense of longing for what is truly or uniquely “home”. There are elements of each of my “homes” that I miss: the smell of my family’s house in West Boylston on a summer morning, the Danish radio station that always played in my host family’s house, the couches in the basement hallway of Perkins, my freshman year dorm, sitting on the green benches at Goddard House, etc. etc. But which “home” is where the heart is, to cite the painful cliche? When I’m stuck outside in the cold and I close my eyes, bitterly ranting against the weather’s mistreatment, where do I picture myself getting warm? (The answer is obvious: Tatnuck Booksellers, formerly of Worcester, MA. But that place closed, and took with it a substantial part of my heart)

If the standards for calling a space a home are so simple, how will I ever truly shape my identity to a place? I’m currently reading a compliation called “State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America”, which is a collection of pieces written about each of the United States, with each state written about by a different author. It’s an excellent book that I highly recommend (my dear friend Mally gave it to me as a way to stave off homesickness when I went to Denmark, interestingly enough. And it worked. It kept me grounded in US lore and eccentricity as Denmark shifted from strange to familiar and I learned the local bus schedule and how to order coffee in Danish. Thank you, Mally), and calling a state home is frequently discussed throughout the book. Many authors argue that they would not be the people they are if they had lived/grown up in any other state (which is wonderfully ironic, since many of the authors often address their current location, which is almost always Brooklyn or Manhattan. God Almighty, it’s like there’s no other city in the country. Go visit the Twin Cities in Minnesota, dammit! Or try Montana! Or even Wilmington, Delaware looks nice! And I hear Ashville, North Carolina is beautiful!). So I wonder which of these places that I call home is quietly (or noisily, for that matter) shaping my identity.

And I wonder which place will keep drawing me back when I’m older. I consider myself a Massachusetts resident (but not, significantly, a Masshole), but when I met a CTAA delegate from South Dakota at the conference and informed her that I have South Dakota roots, she immediately opened up to me and metaphorically embraced me as a fellow SoDak, and even introduced me to other Midwestern representatives as a South Dakotan or a Midwesterner. I was honored to be so warmly welcomed, but in a way I wondered if I was being dishonest, either to myself or to the SoDak, by jumping in to the Midwestern pool so enthusiastically. I guess this is another advantage to having so many homes–I have a broadly-definied identity, and I have a wide sense of belonging, one that might even be larger than I truly deserve.

I do know, however, that right now, I am home. And this is partially because my books are on the kitchen table and my shoes are in the closet. It is partially because I went grocery shopping with the people who live here, and had a say in terms of what went into the cart (including pop-tarts, hummus, and strawberries. AWESOME). But it is also because I am among good friends, who know my likes and dislikes (and, frustratingly, know where I’m ticklish) as I know theirs. So I may not be here long enough to see the changing of the seasons (or even long enough to do more than one or two cycles of laundry), and perhaps it will only further fragment my sense of belonging, but while I’m here, I’m going to sprawl out on the couch, make smoothies at irrational hours, and call it all home.

p.s. The post title comes from Club 8′s “Take Me Home”, which is a very simple and very beautiful song. I have to admit, however, that I might not be citing the song properly. I couldn’t find lyrics for it online, and I am pretty bad at hearing/interpreting lyrics correctly. Specifically, I think the last word of my quotation is either “done”, “down”, or “dead”. I really can’t say for certain, but I decided to choose “done” because I think it best suits my needs for this post. If the band members of Club 8 ever wind up reading my blog and it turns out I have wrongly referenced their material, I will apologize. And ask them to come play a show for me (wherever I am at that time) because I really like Club 8.

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