Being a pedestrian in America is a little like being vegan in a community of cannibals. Americans and everyone else who has spent considerable time in the country look at me with a mixture of horror and pity when I tell them I don’t have a licence yet.
“How do you get around?”
“I walk to work. I live just a mile away.”
“Ohhh, how convenient!”
This last is said with some envy as well, because if there’s anything that seals the paradox of being American, it is that driving is a superior freedom, a necessity, and an onerous task.
Then the conversation proceeds thus:
“Well, you know you can take classes right?”
“Those are four classes, six hours total, for $300.”
“Oh wow. I can see how that would be a problem. What about practicing with your friends?”
“I don’t have that many who live nearby. And they put their cars and their insurances at risk every time they help me with practice.”
“When I got my license I was 15 and my parents helped me drive. What about asking your family?”
“I have no family in California. My other family are older cousins with their hands full with two small kids, and they live in Texas.”
“Well, I mean… why don’t you just rent one of those Zipcars or whatever?”
“I need a license to rent a car. And insurance. And I need a driver with a licence above 21 years of age with me in the car at all times.”
“And in case you’re wondering, taking the test itself involves turning up with your own car, complete with insurance papers. And if you don’t have a car, you’ll have to ask the driving school to send around an instructor. And one of those classes costs $100.”
Let’s get a few things straight: I despise depending on people. I hate having to coordinate all my travel two hours in advance, navigating through the light rail schedule and the Caltrain schedule, memorizing stops and times and bus routes. I particularly dislike waiting at public transport stops, where the only other people who seem to take public transport are deluded hipsters and obnoxious people. And, of course, former or current international students in my predicament. Every time I ask someone for a ride somewhere, I cringe within and promise myself that I’ll chauffeur them around when I get my own car.
To me, the root of the problem is straightforward: the infrastructure in this country for public transportation is sorely lacking. The US seems to have very little trouble spending money on defense and collecting internal intelligence, but a great deal of difficulty spending any money on useful educational programs and public infrastructure. I’m grateful indeed for buses, for the light rail transport, for the Caltrain and the BART and for taxis. But when it takes twenty minutes to walk to the nearest station, when buses arrive barely on schedule, when no one is sure which direction this Caltrain is going in, and when transport arrives once every half an hour or an hour on the weekends, I start feeling the pinch of the car-less in this country.
But of course, since I am here by the munificence of the American immigration authorities, I don’t have the luxury of complaining. All I can do is beg a lesson out of willing friends, take the next driving test, and hope I don’t fail.