Last year, in Creative Loafing's first-ever Transportation Issue, we visited with Michael and Michelle Childress — a couple who wanted to use public transportation, but found it nearly impossible to incorporate into their lives ... and not because they're not willing, but because it's just not doable.
A year later, their story is pretty much the same: They're wearing out their automobiles and driving all over town, they'd still like to take the train (if they could), and the bus is practically useless in their world.
They understand that utilizing public transportation would save their family money — money they could use since Michelle is still unemployed. But the family time they would have to give up to save a dime isn't worth it, they say. And walking or biking instead of driving? That sounds good, especially since there are a number of stores and restaurants near their home; but it's not safe outside of their suburban neighborhood thanks to a lack of sidewalks and crosswalks, drivers who disregard the speed limit, blind intersections and a busy four-lane highway.
The Childress family lives in Mountain Island Lake, located about 10 miles northwest of Uptown. Michelle has been unemployed since May 2008 and is about to graduate from UNC Charlotte with a degree in marketing, the field she was working in before she got laid off. Michael works for a technology company in Rock Hill and regularly travels internationally for work. Their 5-year-old daughter, Jayden, attends kindergarten at Mountain Island Charter School, and dropping her off adds about an hour to Michelle's daily commute — since it's in the opposite direction of the rest of her trip and the school doesn't offer bus service.
As before, Michelle said she "has no issues with public transportation, but I just don't benefit from it." Neither does Michael, who estimates his commute would balloon to four hours per day if he didn't drive himself. "I wouldn't be able work any overtime," he said, with Michelle adding, "And we'd never see him."
While public transportation would have been a time-consuming nuisance last year considering their already tight schedule, it's completely out of the question for Michelle these days. A year ago, she was carting Jayden to a day care near her university and decided the bus wasn't an option; to get to UNC Charlotte, they would have to first ride to Uptown and transfer to another bus — not to mention the lack of seatbelts. And the reality that no bus is going to wait on a mother who might get snagged by a well-meaning teacher at their child's day care center made the option seem impossible.
This year, Michelle has to schedule her classes around the neighborhood carpool (she drives another student to school and two back). "I can't have any classes before 9:30 a.m. And, to be able to pick her up, I have to leave campus by 2:15 p.m." Moreover, now that Jayden is in big-girl school, either Michelle or Michael have to take off work when there is a school holiday. For spring break, he had to give his employers a three-month notice, otherwise, Michelle said, "she'd have to go to school with me" since their budget is so tight at the moment.
Michelle would like to return to school after graduation to work on her Ph.D. and said two things would help with that endeavor: 1) "If I-485 were completed from 77 to 85, that would lessen my drive time — you have to go all the way down [to where I-77 and I-85 connect] to come back up." 2) "A train would help. Then again," she corrected herself, "I'd have to go all the way to Uptown [to catch the train]. How long would that take me?"
"If costs were the only factor, then public transportation would be the only way to go," Michelle said, "especially now with rising gas prices." But, she continued, "The current system doesn't make sense for most people; we all live on the outside of Uptown."
As far as high gas prices go, "They suck," said Michael, "they drain the bank account."
He would really like to replace his aging pickup truck, which has nearly 200,000 miles on it, and they've thought of moving. ("We're doing things to increase our curb appeal," said Michelle, who would like to move closer to her new job, assuming one of her recent interviews pans out.) Instead, however, the couple plans to ditch the truck, rehab her old car with a rebuilt engine and pay off their SUV she drives now — all of which they hope to do within a year.
All of those expenses are difficult to manage, though, since she's been on unemployment for two years. To make things worse, during our April 16 interview, she checked the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina's website and found it had recently been updated with a note, in a bolded red font, that read, in part: "... cannot pay any Extended Benefit claims for weeks later than April 16, 2011."
"There went the budget," Michelle said.
On May 14, she'll graduate and, she hopes, she'll have a job by then. ("I have three really good prospects right now," she said.) But, she's bracing herself for the transportation woes that could come with that change.
There is a bus stop on the outskirts of her suburban neighborhood, but it's an express bus that only goes to Uptown, and she's not yet sure if she'll be working there. "It's great, but if you have kids it's really hard," she said, citing the impending need to find after-school and summer day care for her daughter — businesses that often close by 6:30 p.m. and charge parents $10 for every minute that they're late.
To those who have children and use public transportation, she pleads: "Please give me the key ingredient." Until she figures out what that is, the Childresses will continue commuting in their cars and hoping for a better, more affordable, alternative.