What Took Me So Long? Transit and Resistance

Tyler A. McNeil CC-BY-SA 4.0 International

Ever noticed hikers spending more time driving to a hike than they do on the trail itself? I notice, these days.

I live on a multi-unit property. I mean 500+. No one else here takes the bus anywhere, though there’s a bus stop on the corner. To get to a train, people drive. There is no safe walking path to the station. And every snowfall brings the please-move-your-car chaos as fuming winter service vehicles spray driveway salts and push snow across the fields of concrete.

We’ve got to change. And by change, I mean understand.

To combat, beat, or fight climate disruption makes no sense. Living with respect for planetary limits and realities is a form of peacemaking. But if the only tool you have is weaponry, I suppose you’re going to see every problem as a war, if I may adjust Dr. Maslow’s famous quip.

Engage Yourself

Policymakers frame diversity, equity, and inclusion as a matter of “engaging” specific groups of people. How, though, are those policymakers moving through their own day-to-day lives?

To create inclusion, we must sabotage our own exclusive attitudes and practices. And there’s perhaps no better example of exclusive attitudes and practices than the ownership and use of private cars.

“Public transit is an equalizer, a way to provide access to marginalized communities,” says Adam Brandolph, a transit spokesperson in Pittsburgh. “Equalizer”? That’s pushing it.

Equitable transit is a matter of federal law. Yet race and national origin correlate strongly to class, so we get a segregated culture of transit. Bus riders are mainly brown and Black people, Spanish-speakers, migrants, essential workers…people without cars.

And while public transit can offer accessibility, it does that only where it’s available and accessible itself. Outside the city limits, it’s not so available and accessible. That sends a message about who can live where.

In all weather, people wait along the Main Line for the buses to and from Philly. Sometimes the bus stop is only a faded sign at the side of a busy road with no crosswalk. Were a dozen suburbanites standing with me on the roadside, improvements would be planned. But standing at a bus stop isn’t suburbanites’ thing, so the bus and its waiting areas become invisible. Who would look for them? Who wants to be seen waiting? Who wants to relinquish a car to sit next to people they’ve never met—especially bus riders they’ve never met?

Mea culpa. I drove a car for years, when it was the public infrastructure that needed my support.

Finally, I’m engaged.

“One and All”

Once upon a time, a century before the full-blown abolitionist movement and two centuries before the onset of the Anthropocene, Benjamin Lay, who lived just a few miles from here, went on long walks from city to city, preaching an anti-slavery message to other Quakers. There was no public transit in those days, and Lay refused to get on a horse or travel in a carriage pulled by a horse. Abhorring the oppression of stablehands and horses alike, Lay was a committed pedestrian.

Before cars, the word pedestrian meant not-an-equestrian. Lay was exactly that. A conscientious objector to human supremacy over the beings whose evolution we broke.

Along with life partner Sarah Smith Lay (a minister), Benjamin Lay avoided animal products. The pair wove their own clothes. They wore nothing dyed—again, to avoid animal products and the products of human bondage. The couple converted a natural cave into a library, where they lived.

Benjamin Lay was “a class-conscious, race-conscious, environmentally conscious ultraradical,” writes historian Marcus Rediker, who “imagined a new world in which people would live simply, make their own food and clothes, and respect nature.”

In 1738, Benjamin Lay entered the Quakers’ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Many in attendance owned slaves. Lay splashed them with red pokeberry juice and spoke a prophecy: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” Two decades later, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting adopted the abolitionist cause and renounced those in its congregations who traded in slaves. The historian Marcus Rediker has revived Lay’s story as an example of the making of “history from below.” A sailor for more than 12 years, Lay had developed a strong sense of solidarity for workers, including some who’d been enslaved. “One and all!” was the sailor’s motto.

Lay pioneered the politics of consumption, Rediker notes. “He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century—and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

It’s a safe bet Benjamin Lay wouldn’t be caught dead in a Tesla.

The Real Thing

We who burn through resources like there’s no tomorrow might want to rethink what our lives have stood for. How did we live on Earth? Is the question. Did we study the fits and starts of a climate caught in the throes of the Anthropocene? Did our lives cultivate a respect for Earth’s systems and its living communities?

Climate breakdown makes towns uninhabitable. It steals away habitat that can never be replaced. It tears nature’s zones and patterns apart. It turns people into refugees. Inch by inch, we’re closing in on ourselves; and the privileged, too, will falter. Cars, road-making, and sprawl will all accelerate this. Whether ExxonMobil drills for oil or lithium, infrastructure funds serve to pave over nature, and we get more of the status quo.

Our almighty economy rips up forests not only for roads, but also for grazing and feed companies. Yet there goes everyone in their cars to the grocery store to buy animals’ eggs and flesh and milk. So now we’ve destabilized the whole shebang. At this point, we’re driving wildfires and feeding killer weather events and were using phrases like new normal. We could, instead, commit to live simply and gently on the planet. To grow food, not feed. To turn public transit into a social good that’s respected, relied on, and maybe even beloved.

Richmond, Virginia, which—no surprise—reports a striking correlation between bus ridership, race, and class, vows to keep its buses fare-free until June 2025. Yes, cities must support public transit riders. Help them. Help us. Ride with us: essential workers, cyclists, people with modest incomes, and the climate-conscious who’ve had it up to here with cars. Private cars are a human health hazard, and they’re hell on free-living animals simply trying to carry out their age-old migrations. Cross any intersection in my locale on foot. Then maybe you can imagine how all other living beings feel in the presence of Homo sapiens in a hurry.

That’s what we’ve become, in our late state of self-domestication. We happily confine ourselves in these containers made of metal and glass, believing they bring us freedom. It’s no sign of freedom to forget what we naturally evolved to do: move on foot. But we are so used to driving that we don’t even consider it a deliberate commitment. Driving is a commitment. It’s a decision that bolsters Shell, BP, or ExxonMobil every time we do it. Get a plug-in car? That perpetuates the sprawl, the concrete, the constant construction, the iridescent yellow paint that crumbles into roadside runoff. EVs shed more petroleum-based microplastics than regular old cars do. The chemicals they spread kill salmon and other marine animals. So at the end of the day, it looks like EV makers have offered us yet another Earth-damaging consumer trend to chase. And we double down on the Anthropocene.

We need to resist. We need reversal at a deep, civilization-changing level. Something that’ll be forced on us if we shirk our responsibility to the living world.

Benjamin and Sarah must have known.

Ped Xing

From this 500+ unit property, the nearest grocery store is just 0.3 miles away. I’ve walked there many times. But Swedesford Road, with its ramp to several major roadways, cuts across that little walk. There’s the underpass with no pedestrian walkway and it’s hazardous to go through it on foot. There’s a longer route with a crosswalk, but then you have to walk a few yards on Swedesford Road itself. So that option is somewhat touch-and-go.

I’m the only one from here who walks over the road for groceries. But I see others, people dodging traffic to get from their construction, cleaning, or coffee shop jobs at the Valley Forge rest stop along Route 76, on their way to the Philadelphia-bound 124 bus. They walk across Swedesford Road to wait for that bus every day of the week.

I’ve mentioned these folk to the people who live here, people who drive 0.3 miles through that underpass and to the grocery store.

But the people who live here say they haven’t seen them.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.