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SUV-lovin' SOBs--Katie Alvord wants you to brave the wilds of mass transit


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THIS BUS STOP smells like urine. An inky swamp of soggy newspapers covers the floor and bench, while a pleasant little pool of thick red liquid--Is it a melted Popsicle? Is it blood? What the hell is that?--lies steaming in the gum-encrusted corner. Countless cigarette butts are strewn about. And it's hot. At 1 o'clock in the afternoon, it's a whopping 93 degrees outside, but inside the covered shelter--at the corner of fourth and C streets in Petaluma--it's at least 10 degrees hotter.

I think I'll stand outside.

I just have to remember to avoid stepping in that big calcified dog-leaving that so festively adorns the sidewalk nearby. I peruse the street, hoping for the arrival of the Greyhound Bus that (if all is right with the world) is carrying Katie Alvord, author of Divorce Your Car: Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile (New Society Publishers; $17.95). The Michigan-based writer--a transportation iconoclast of the highest order--is in the midst of a 4,000-mile cross-country book tour, which she is conducting entirely car-free.

I plan to intercept Alvord's bus en route from a book-signing in Oakland to her drop-off point in Santa Rosa, where she'll mount her handy folding bicycle and ride to Sebastopol for another bookstore appearance this evening.

Before any of that can happen, though, the bus has to drive through Petaluma, where I am still waiting.

A bevy of buses runs by varying services--from Golden Gate Transit and Sonoma County Transit to the local Petaluma service--rumble up to the stop from time to time, admitting or discharging a stream of public-transit aficionados. I soon discover that, by hovering close to the vastly proportioned vehicles, I can find momentary shade from the murderous sun.

So I wait. And wait.

The Greyhound is not technically due to pass through town until 2 p.m., but the scary Greyhound rep I spoke to on the phone warned that I should be here at least an hour ahead or I'd run a serious risk of missing the bus altogether.

"Our buses," he insisted, "often come early."

The bus arrives at precisely 2:06. Katie Alvord is waiting inside, lounging in air-conditioned luxury. Waving me back, Alvord points me to the seat she's saved in the row directly in front of her. There is nowhere else to sit. "There are a lot of people on the Greyhound today," she beams.

ALVORD REPRESENTS a trend that, according to the stats running throughout her book, is quickly sweeping the country, though at 6 percent Sonoma County still enjoys the lowest percentage of commuters using public transit in the nine-county Bay Area region. And then there's that public transit strike in Los Angeles this week that has stranded a half million carless commuters.

Still, Alvord says, America's love affair with the car seems to be cooling off. Whether as a protest against an increasingly fast-paced world, as a means to reduce automotive exhaust and fight global warming, or as a way to avoid being stuck behind the wheel in gridlocked traffic, thousands of people are divorcing their cars--turning to buses, trains, and bicycles or resorting to carpools and car-sharing programs--happily claiming that the whole car-human thing was a dysfunctional relationship to begin with.

She defines two kinds of car divorce: Car Free and Car Light, where the vehicle is used only when absolutely necessary.

Divorce Your Car features a witty foreword by Alvord's ex-hubby, Sonoma's Craig Scarborough, who admits the 10-year marriage was made "inappropriate," in part owing to his own love for "fun things with internal-combustion systems."

Alvord's entertaining, eye-opening book has gained her a great deal of attention--and more than a little hostility.

"One talk-show host that interviewed me on the radio," she reveals, as the bus climbs the on ramp onto a bumper-to-bumper Highway 101, "began the show proclaiming, 'What you are proposing is nothing short of un-American!'"

If so, Alvord doesn't care.

"I'm car-free and a much happier person because of it," she insists. "If someone wants to pursue a simpler lifestyle, divorcing their car fits right in."

Simpler? As my unpleasant, time-killing experience illustrates, traveling car-free brings plenty of unpleasant inconveniences--not the least of which is the sunburn I earned waiting the prescribed hour for the bus.

Alvord--who's heard every excuse in the book, and they are all in her book--is fairly tactful in her response to my complaint.

"As an experienced bus rider," she remarks, "you learn which services typically run a little late and which ones are smack-dab on time. And even if they tell you to get there an hour in advance . . . that's ridiculous. An hour early? That's just impossible."

I believe she's now laughing at me.

"I mean, duh," she says, grinning. "As for the other kinds of problems you're talking about--the cruddy bus stop, the slow schedule, and lack of facilities--those are things that have stemmed from our lack of investment in transit for many, many years.

"Let your decision-makers know that you are using those services and that you want to see them improved, from general statements about it to specifics, like, 'I was standing at the bus stop, and it was a really unpleasant experience.' "

You could make the phone call to Sonoma County Transit or to Greyhound or to the county supervisors.

Alvord looks out the window, where traffic is crawling as we zip by in the diamond lane. Referring to those car-addicted folks who'd like to add a few costly lanes to 101, she says, "Adding lanes doesn't solve congestion problems the way people expect them to be solved. Because what happens when you add extra lane capacity, after a brief time, you end up with more traffic than you started with."

The bus pulls into the station in Santa Rosa, and within minutes Alvord has assembled her folding 10-speed bike, attached the trailer-hitch suitcase, and is ready to ride.

"Living car-free is not for everyone," she admits before she leaves. "The thing is, you can structure your life so that it's not that inconvenient."

With that, she pedals off, leaving me to take the bus back home.

As she pulls away, I notice the giant letters printed on the back of her T-shirt: One Less Car.

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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