I am 20 years old, and up until last week, had only driven a car twice in my life. When I walked into the Michigan Secretary of State at the beginning of April to take the permit test, the lady at the counter gawked at my non driver ID. Anxious, I began to pull my passport out of my bag — maybe she needed another form of ID? But no, she was just shocked that a Midwestern college student didn’t have a driver’s license.
“How do you even get anywhere?” she asked.
I laughed it off; little did she know that in high school I commuted an hour and 15 minutes each way, every day — just not by car. I woke up at 5:45 a.m. to catch the 6:35 a.m. train that snaked its way through upper Manhattan and into the Bronx. The 15-stop ride on the one train typically had me reading the book chapter assigned the night before, or in the winter, watching the sunrise out of the plexiglass windows. Then came the 20 minute long bus ride with standing room only, often transporting hordes of my classmates and I at a time.
Driving wasn’t an option. There was no student parking lot.
It became a carefully planned routine. I would meet friends at the 103rd Street subway station, often taking the stairs two at a time to squeeze through the doors just before the train pulled out of the station. The 6:35 a.m. train and its corresponding Bx10 got me to school with 10 minutes to spare, just enough time to grab a coffee from the food truck parked outside and swipe in for attendance. If I woke up late, or forgot my basketball uniform on the way to the subway and had to run back to grab it, I would have to take the 6:42 a.m. train, bemoaning the seven-minute difference all the way to school.
It’s easy to take a good thing for granted if it’s all you’ve ever known. Especially if that thing looks like the New York City subway.
Although I may vehemently defend the NYC subway to anyone who tries to criticize it in front of me, I am well aware of its defects. It’s dirty, you’re usually 20 seconds away from getting kicked in the face by acrobats, someone’s always yelling about something, there’s rats, it’s always under construction, it hardly ever runs on time; the list goes on and on. But at the end of the day, I remind my friends, it exists.
Three years before most of my Michigan friends were even able to get their permits, my parents started letting me take the subway by myself (albeit on short trips). I didn’t have to rely on one of my parents being off work to take me to a friend’s house, worry about parking at concerts or sporting events or work out a designated-driver situation with friends for parties — and with the free MetroCards given to all NYC public school students, it was incredibly economical.
For a city more than 10 times the size of Ann Arbor, New York is infinitely more interconnected. My high school, located just within the city limits, drew students from four out of five boroughs, with many commuting in by train. I had friends who grew up all over the city, a massive web connected by the brightly-colored strings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority lines.
In my entire life, I have never lived farther than six blocks from a subway station, meaning that I have never been more than a six-minute walk away from all the resources that New York has to offer. Independent mobility was the expectation, not the gift that came when I turned 16.
So when I came to Ann Arbor, it was a rude awakening.
A three-mile trip to the doctor’s office, only an 11-minute drive, turned into a 40-minute winding bus ride. To make matters worse, the bus came only once an hour. To get to my 2:30 p.m. appointment on time, I would have to take the 1:07 p.m. bus, leaving me with almost twice as much time spent commuting/waiting than spent at the appointment itself.
Additionally, for a city with its own Amtrak station, there are remarkably few trains that pass through it, and almost none going east. The closest Amtrak hub is Chicago, meaning that what should be an hour-and-a-half-long train ride to my best friend’s college in Northwestern Ohio becomes a multi-day, multi-leg trip. Going five hours in the wrong direction isn’t just inefficient, though; it’s also expensive.
What used to be a five-minute walk to the grocery store became a full-day ordeal, as I now needed to ask friends with cars to drive me. Going to a concert meant pre-planning what buses to take, sometimes leaving early as the buses stopped running, instead of piling onto a subway car whenever the concert happened to end. The independence and flexibility I had never thought to treasure had disappeared.
For the first time in my life, I was trapped.
Now, before you mistake me, I’m not necessarily advocating for a NYC-style subway system in Ann Arbor. It would be incredibly expensive to build and disrupt daily life for many people. But a rail system could alleviate the housing crisis, giving many students more affordable off-campus housing options, as well as greatly decrease carbon emissions.
With the University only recently opening its eyes to the extreme lack of housing it provides its students and the continuing GEO strike, housing is a hot-button issue in Ann Arbor right now. Finding affordable and adequate housing seems to be almost impossible, and it’s not uncommon to hear students lamenting about the year-round process. With the creation of a rail line that connects Central Campus to outer neighborhoods of Ann Arbor, more housing would be within students’ boundaries, both physically and financially.
Additionally, with the implementation of a subway system, the city of Ann Arbor could reduce its dependence on cars, lowering our carbon footprint drastically. As a college town, small apartments and homes are the norm, so to really live up to our green arboretum namesake, all we would need to do is increase public transit ridership.
Although a subway system winding through Ann Arbor is a dreamy ideal, that’s all it really is — at least for right now. As a more practical and instant solution, more frequent TheRide schedules with more stops in and around campus would be very effective. Additionally, prioritizing buses with the creation of bus lanes on highly-trafficked streets such as State or Main could entice people to leave their cars at home.
It’s easy to imagine a car-free State Street with bus and bike lanes, outdoor dining options in the summer and fall and more efficient intersections. Never again would I have to get splashed with slush as a car tries to swerve through the hordes of students who couldn’t care less about traffic signage. Cutting a 20-minute walk to the Intramural Sports Building in 20-degree weather in half for a heated bus ride is a fantasy I often catch myself daydreaming about on those snowy winter evenings.
As I wait for the city of Ann Arbor to see my vision, I’ve begun to see theirs. As someone who’s waited four years to get my permit, much to the chagrin of my parents, I’ve really enjoyed driving so far. I appreciate the privacy and immediacy it provides in comparison to all kinds of public transportation. There’s no waiting for a delayed train and no worries about figuring out which train to take or what happens if you get on the wrong one. Being able to drive provides its own type of independence that I had been so ignorant of.
But like I said, it’s easy to take a good thing for granted when it’s presented to you as significantly flawed. Driving for me meant circling our neighborhood in New York for what felt like hours, looking for parking in a sea of cars that seemed to be collecting dust on the side of the road. It meant getting perpetually stuck in rush hour traffic, because in the city that never sleeps, it always seems to be rush hour. In the same way that getting anywhere in Ann Arbor without a car was incredibly inconvenient, getting anywhere in New York with a car felt like a waste of time.
As I head back to New York for the summer, I will relish my time spent on the subways, even when the AC inevitably breaks down on the hottest day of the summer, leaving me pressed up against my equally sweaty seat partner. I will remind myself of all the times I was stuck in Ann Arbor, wishing for an easier way to get to the grocery store, or my friend’s house when it’s cold out. And I guess I’ll finally get my license.
Statement Columnist Lucy Del Deo can be reached at email@example.com