should i rent a car on vacation? + a rant about public transit
Next week I'm going to Los Angeles and face an issue many of you might come across on vacation: should I rent a car?
I don't normally even consider renting a car when I travel to big cities. Either the city is walkable, has great public transit, or a friend lives there who can drive me around. A well-designed mobility system (which includes public transit but also plain walkability) can really be an immense sense of joy. Especially because I grew up in Atlanta, a city not known for great public transit, I revel in how well the 'L' can get me where I need to go when in Chicago and always challenge myself to learn the extensive NYC MTA map.
But since I don't have any friends in LA, I don't have the luxury of a car, forcing me to public transit as my only option (other than renting of course). And even for a public transit enthusiast like me, studying the bus and metro maps for Los Angeles was discouraging. At first, I was delighted by the cheap cost for a weeklong pass. but excitement quickly turned to dread when I realized how long it would take to get around. What seems like a simple fifteen mile straight shot from UCLA to downtown takes nearly an hour and a half on public transit. Unfortunately, being a fan of public transit means that I get more intimately acquainted with its frustrations than the average person.
So I understand when public transit gets a lot of crap. Elon Musk had this to say about it:
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”
“It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
He's not the only one that feels that way. Most public transit in the States does suck. Poor funding due to lack of support and bad transit design mean that transit rarely gets most people where they want to go. And outdated systems struggling to deal with the sheer capacity of commuters naturally end up chronically behind schedule. It's to be expected.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Sure, we have crime here in the US, but avoiding public transit and retreating from public spaces is not a solution for poor gun control and mental health treatment. And escaping to our cars just means we've traded bad public transit for sitting in traffic for hours. Most cities are only this sprawled out because we need huge parking lots for our cars. Is that what we want?
Elon misses out on public transit's merits. And anyone who's used the MTA in NYC has glimpsed its beauty. You get to see people from all walks of life that you might not otherwise see from the insulated bubble of your car. The violinist busking in the corner. The poet with their typewriter. The hawker peddling his wares. You develop an empathy for your fellow citizens when you're exposed to them like this everyday, in the humbling space of a subway car where everyone is the same. We're sorely missing this empathy in the US nowadays, and we'd find it if we would just get out of our cars and look at and talk to each other.
Public transit also naturally forces you to get more exercise walking to and from places. It's what one of my favorite YouTubers calls the gym of life. I don't know about you, but I would much rather get my exercise going places and doing everyday things when I'm not thinking about it than on an exercise bike or treadmill. (And I even like working out!)
Anyway, back to Los Angeles. After looking more closely at the details of taking LA's public transit, renting a car suddenly seemed very tempting. For a couple hundred dollars I could trade all that waiting for and on buses for driving and save myself many hours. Most travel times would be at least halved, since Los Angeles is a city built around the automobile.
But then I thought about it some more and realized that I didn't want to deal with the stress of driving a car in some of the nation's notoriously worst traffic on vacation, nor do I want to have to worry about parking or not getting into accidents or getting gas. And perhaps most importantly, I don't want to contribute to the problem. I get confused when people moan about getting caught in traffic. What do you mean? You are traffic.
From what I can see, the best way we can support public transit is by using it. Of course, we can also support pro-public transit policies and politicians, but something most people can do is opt for public transit and alternative modes of transport when possible. Sure, it might take longer and be slightly less convenient, but who knows? You might just find yourself enjoying it.