Whenever gas prices push past $4.59, I'm transported to a time when that specific number made me adopt riding the bus to my job from SLO to Santa Maria. I can't make that same choice now, and that's a problem.
My beater vehicle was not a gas-sipper, but it was all I could afford sharing rent in a very out-of-code "room" in a home eventually razed and turned into medical offices while working a low-paying adjunct teaching position in Santa Maria. Mileage matters when you're commuting 66 miles each day round-trip on a shoestring budget.
That price was the tipping point between paycheck-to-paycheck and ever-increasing debt.
I watched the smugness of those with privilege purchase hybrids or better-mileage vehicles, and I resented their blindness to my dilemma. Especially when I thought about my students, who had less than I. Yes, I could have gotten a better-paying job in town, but this was my calling, and I'm grateful that I did it. If not me, someone else would be telling this same story.
So, I tried the bus; I lived near downtown SLO, a quick bike to the main bus station and I was off—the commute that usually took 32 minutes now took more than an hour, but it was fine.
It was fine because I got to see neighborhoods I'd never seen before, learn about the people who loaded the bus through their conversations, and I found I could spend my time prepping for class on the way and grading on the way back—both things I didn't get paid for anyway. It was a time to sit, relax, maybe take a nap, and not deal with the mental load of driving.
When I quit teaching, I worked from home or at a bikeable distance. My husband and I only used one vehicle, and that was just to leave town, move things for work, and get big grocery loads. That gas guzzler no longer defined my choices.
When we had the opportunity to buy a house, this changed. The ones that worked for us were out in Los Osos, and not relishing the commute into SLO, I checked bus schedules and figured I'd just repeat the process.
This is nearly impossible. A 20-minute commute by vehicle became more than an hour and a half, because my bus route has to go from Los Osos to Morro Bay and then there's a break for the driver that I have to wait for. I don't have grading and prepping to sate me. I need to get things in SLO, or do work in SLO. The bus wasn't an option this time. If I wasn't going from a hub to a hub, it wasn't going to work.
Instead I bought a two-door hybrid in bad shape—it does the job, but I feel the added wear and tear, greenhouse gasses, parking issues, and a lack of ease whenever I downshift its gutless little engine on a hill. I frankly just don't go to SLO if I can help it.
If SLO, and SLO County, want to be models for environmentalism and social justice, now is a great time to turn to solutions that benefit the broader community. Traffic issues brought up in Save Our Downtown's op-ed piece aren't from SLO residents ("SLO is losing its small-town vibe. Here are ways to get it back," Jan. 25, The Tribune). According to the SLO County Workforce Development Task Force, approximately 60 percent of SLO's workforce commutes in. Traffic is from people like me—who serve SLO residents and utilize SLO services. It's servers and tellers, postal workers and cooks, cleaners and adjunct professors, caregivers going to medical appointments and team practices. And, yup, it's business owners, too.
Our buses have great drivers and are in great repair. It just takes too long to get anywhere unless you're a college student—or a Santa Maria commuter, apparently. Those using buses face an inevitable time suck, which hurts their ability to support the community and impacts their caregiving, their chores, their self-improvement, their employment availability, their self-care. According to the Metropolitan Planning Council, the lowest return on investment of $1 invested in public transit was 20 percent, and that investment makes it easy and cost effective for people to get where they need to get. In turn, it would allow us to benefit from legislation like AB 2097, which prohibits parking minimums within a half-mile of quality transit—parking's a big issue in SLO all over—my own business experiences high parking loads that stop us and our neighbors from meeting demand. If busing was better, we'd do better.
Wince at gas prices, but remember there are people out there giving up cars, not because they want to, but because they have to. These same people are giving up jobs because of a lack of public transportation options or the cost of fuel to fill their old gas guzzlers. In turn, it means it's harder to hire, harder to get great service, and harder for everyone to make this community awesome.
Gas prices will go back down to $4.59—maybe—but these issues will still remain. Invest in better public transit, and riders will show up and bring up the economy and quality of life we've been missing. Δ
Kristin Tara Horowitz is a SLO YIMBY lead, Cal Poly grad, and a SLO small business owner. Send a response for publication to email@example.com.