These days, declarations of responsible politics necessitate disclaimers, so I’ll get mine out of the way first: I would never have set foot on the bus had my car not quit working. No — I amend that: I would never have set foot on the bus had a conflict with the California Franchise Tax Board not collided with the failure of my 1993 Jeep Wrangler’s catalytic converter in the aftermath of two financially reckless trips to New York. And does it matter? The point is, here I am: on the 26 at 11:02 a.m.; back home late nights at 20 minutes after the hour. Or pedaling madly to Wilshire Boulevard to load my bicycle on the Rapid Bus’ big black rack, into which I almost always slam a finger, and which the bus driver almost always summons me to adjust. (“We charge for bikes now,” a Rapid driver told me solemnly one day. “How much?” I was shocked but not incredulous. “Five dollars.” He smiled. It was April 1.) Down in the catacombs of the Red Line, I read on my feet, barely looking up when I walk through the doors. Last week, I burned through three magazines and finished two novels.
In two months, I have become a bus rider. A bicycle and Red Line commuter, too, but mostly a bus rider. And notice that commuter sounds better with bicycle and train than with bus, and this is significant: There is a stigma to being a bus rider in Los Angeles. People who grew up secure in their family’s wealth or red-diaper babies with working-class pedigrees are probably immune to the stigma; me, I had a grandfather who did jail time and parents who tried to forget about it. I am stigma-susceptible. I think of Sandra Bullock in Speed, her shameful downward gaze, mortified that a girl like her got sentenced to the bus for driving her sports car too fast.
The stigma, however, is only the worst part. It’s worse than the urine smell that rises from old men’s pants on the 217 to Pico and Fairfax; worse than jostling for space on the Sunset 2 or 3 on the way to visiting friends in Silver Lake; worse, even, than the people who talk loudly to nothing in particular (and they’re not wearing cell-phone headsets). But — and I mean this — those are my only three complaints. Public transportation in this city is much better than anyone lets you believe. The buses run on time. They’re clean. The drivers occasionally crack smiles. You never have to worry about a DUI, and if you are one of the 65 percent who told a March Gallup poll that individual U.S. citizens are doing too little to protect the environment, you can walk haughty: It’s not for me that George W. Bush will plunder our national monuments and tear up the sensitive caribou calving grounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I don’t need his stinking oil.
“You won’t change anything this way,” says my friend Tim, who walks almost everywhere he goes anyway, not as a political act so much as a frugal one, another advantage to the driveless life. “It won’t work.” But what does he mean, work? According to the Web site of Charles Dines (www.changingtheclimate.com), a Bay Area businessman who, with Robert Lind, started a novel campaign to plaster SUVs with consciousness-raising bumper stickers (“I’M CHANGING THE CLIMATE!” they say. “Ask me how.”), cars and light trucks in the United States produce almost a fifth of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, and every gallon of gas spits out 28 pounds of CO2. Most SUVs on the road get around eight to 13 mpg. Driving less won’t fix everything, but it does make some difference, and it’ll make more if the meme spreads.
I mean, think of this: What if bus riding became cool, and driving stigmatized? “We are trying to use ridicule and social embarrassment to change the habits of the American consumer,” says Dines’ site. “Increasing publicity will turn the SUV from a status trinket to the badge of shame it is.”
Anyway, promoting the idea that it’s meaningless for one person to limit her impact on the environment is a sure way to kill the planet even faster. Jeff Softley, who for a decade has promoted Earth Day as 24 hours to live without nonrenewable energy (www.earthdayenergyfast.org), has been fighting this defeatist mindset for as long as his campaign’s been running. “Last year Sharon Begley took that stand in Newsweek,” he says, “saying that individuals couldn’t make a dent in the health of the environment, only corporations can. But corporations listen to consumers, and if consumers have an awareness of energy — if they think, ‘When I turn on a light I’m contributing to pollution caused by burning coal,’ or ‘If I drive, I’m spewing carbon dioxide into the air,’ their way of thinking will have an influence.”
Recognizing the longtime bipartisan conspiracy that has kept United States policies environmentally unsound, Softley has tried to keep the Earth Day Energy Fast apolitical in the past. This year, however, the swords are drawn: “In light of the policies of the Bush administration, I’ve pulled no punches in terms of a political statement. This year, I’m pitching it as a protest. Send a message.”
A sharp decline in the demand for Texas Tea may be the only message that will count to a president so hell-bent on antagonizing the environment-minded. “I will not accept a plan that will harm the American economy and hurt American workers,” trumpeted Bush when he rejected the proposals of the Kyoto Climate Summit, which attempted to adopt a legally binding protocol to reduce greenhouse gases in the 37 countries most responsible for global warming. This, after reversing his stance on the reduction of industrial CO2 emissions a mere 60 days into his presidency, despite poll results showing that 81 percent of the country favors higher pollution standards for business and industry. Even Bush’s own EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, acknowledges that scientists know what they’re talking about when they assure us that, if things continue as they are, the average global temperature is likely to rise 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, adding 35 inches to the level of the seas.
Earth Day is Sunday, an ideal day to contemplate the daily practice of taking energy for granted, and think about the ways environmentalism might pay off. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, appliances and lighting create 13 percent of consumer-related air pollution; home heating and air conditioning do the same order of damage. But driving, says the UCS, has them all beat: Over one-quarter of the 14 tons of household carbon emissions comes from cars and light trucks. If cars averaged just four more miles per gallon, the average household’s contribution to toxic air would decrease by 5 percent, and if you stop driving altogether, that figure rises to 25 percent. Plus, at current gas prices, you’ll save some $200 a month — enough for 20 compact fluorescent light bulbs and a low-flow shower head. Perhaps change, like God, is in the details.