Carmen Mendoza and her two school-age children used to take the bus every weekday to school (for the kids) and to work (for Carmen). They walked to their first bus at 5:35 a.m. and got off the last one, according to Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, sometime after 7:30 p.m.
As many as nine buses connected the places of their lives, stitching home in Bell Gardens to an Atwater Village charter school for Carmen's son, another charter school in Chinatown for her daughter, and work for Carmen in downtown's garment district. Afterschool activities and collecting a 7-year-old grandson were fitted somehow into their transit routine.
Lopez gave this story the sheen of American aspiration -- Carman Mendoza and her husband working long hours at low-wage jobs; the kids attending schools miles from their working-class neighborhood. It's the hopeful story we want to hear -- unrelenting effort in one generation so that the next might -- might -- have something better.
This being the season to warm hearts at any cost, the follow-up to Lopez's column brought news that business owner Hector Delgadillo and his employees read Carmen's story, dug into their generosity, and bought her a 2004 Kia Sedona minivan so that Carmen and the kids might be freed from public transit.
Smiles and tears and expression of genuine gratitude followed.
Too bad. If the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (called Metro) had provided Carmen with a better transit experience, she might not have wanted to join the car-bound millions who commute in Los Angeles. But I can hardly blame her for taking the car rather than the bus.
After all, her KIA minivan, although no luxury vehicle, includes loads of passenger leg room, a driver's seat with lumbar support, adjustable air conditioning and heating, one-touch power windows, front and rear reading lights, and an AM/FM radio and CD player with six stereo speakers.
Compare that to the knees-against-seat-back benches on even the newest Metro buses, where a thin layer of upholstery conceals stamped metal, where a TV monitor up front mutters continuously, where everything you need for the day has to be carried on your back, where heat and cold are facts rather than personal preferences, and where you have no control over any part of the experience except the choice to get on and get off the bus.
Transit advocates (and I'm one of them) argue that drivers in Los Angeles face hellish traffic. They have insurance, gas and other consumables to buy. They risk the health of the planet. And over time, the local option to use public transit is becoming more pervasive (although Carmen's choices left her riding eight or nine buses with layovers and transfers in between).
I don't actually know the reasons why Carmen Mendoza chose the KIA over the maze of buses she rode, but lack of access to public transit wasn't one of them.
No Metro ride will ever be as comfortable as even a 10-year-old KIA, but Metro could have spent just a little of the billions Metro collected from taxpayers since 1990 to make Carmen's ride (and mine) a little better.
All of her bus stops could have been fitted with seating, trash receptacles, security lighting, and canopies to shield waiting passengers from the sun and the rain. Her stops could have been made minimally safe, minimally accessible, and minimally clean. Those minimal standards could have been applied to the buses themselves.
That wouldn't have reduced the number of transfers or the length of Carmen's waiting at bus stops, but it would have made the experience so much more humane. Good public transit isn't measured solely by accessibility or even by frequency. It can be measured by the degrees of Carmen's weariness.
She's happy she has a car now, but she might have preferred the bus.