Ed. note: This is cross-posted on the U.S. Department of Transportation's blog. See the original post here.
I hope Fast Lane readers recall my post last month after spending some time with UPS driver Jay Valentin; experiencing our road network through his eyes was a tremendously valuable morning for me. So valuable, in fact, that I wanted to do something similar alongside someone who relies on public transit so I could get a ground-level sense of her experience. And yesterday, I got that opportunity when I joined Lan-Anh Thi Phan in her Takoma Park, Maryland home and accompanied her on her morning commute.
Lan is a nurse -- a patient care manager in the Oncology Ward of MedStar Washington Hospital Center here in the nation’s capital. Lan and the nurses she helps oversee provide care for patients battling cancer. And her reliance on public transit to get to this important job makes it clear: When we or our loved ones depend on dedicated caregivers like Lan Phan, we also depend on a safe, efficient transportation network to get them to work so they can deliver that care.
Fortunately for Lan's patients, she has chosen to live in communities that offer excellent transit access; for 10 years, Lan has ridden transit or walked to work every day. Living in Takoma Park now, she relies on the Montgomery County RideOn bus system and the Metrobus system to get to Washington Hospital Center each day, and each day -- with only a single exception when the systems were shut down because of a blizzard -- she has arrived to work on time. While that's good news for her, it's also good news for the patients at Washington Hospital Center.
For no other reason than simply not wanting one, Lan has never pursued a driver’s license. “I take public transportation by my own choice; I refuse to learn to drive,” Lan explained.
She has always lived in areas where public transportation is available and reliable. Although her mother, Thuan, argues that earning a driver’s license is “one of the learning skills you have to have,” Lan told me she is “very content” with public transportation. And, when colleagues complain about the traffic congestion they face driving each day, she chuckles and reports, “I don’t have to worry about that. I let someone else carry that worry.”
Before leaving on our commute, Lan and I chatted while I ate an apple and she prepared her regular egg breakfast. She and her husband Benjamin are expecting their first child in two months, and Lan maintains a strict nutritional regimen.
I learned that Lan was born in Vietnam, and she and her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 13. A University of Virginia graduate in Nursing now pursuing a Master's degree in Nursing Administration at George Mason University, Lan says she uses her commute to read books, catch up on work, and talk with other passengers. Riding with her on the RideOn number 12 bus and WMATA's 63 Metrobus, it's easy to see that she has plenty of opportunity to chat with others -- there was a busful of passengers even at 6:45 in the morning!
Although she has to ride two buses operated by two different transit agencies, our transfer from the 12 to the 63 at Takoma Station was pretty seamless. As you can imagine, after a decade of riding, Lan has the schedule down pat. The 12 was due to arrive at Takoma six minutes before we needed to catch the 63, and that allowed plenty of leeway for us to transfer. Many of the Number 12's passengers hopped on the Metrorail's Red Line, while others switched to the many buses that stop at Takoma.
The 63 begins its inbound route at Takoma, so it was not crowded at the start of our ride. Along the way, however, it began to fill up with young children and their parents on the way to school and others on their way to work.
One young girl with a Barbie backpack reviewed her school lunch menu with an accompanying adult. Nearby, a dad with three young children held one daughter who couldn’t stop peppering him with kisses until the bus arrived at their stop and he marched all three kids off to school. And there were other young children, traveling alone, who would seek out and find their friends to sit with as the new school year got underway.
A lot of riders had their heads down, focused on their smartphones -- that's something else they couldn't do if they were driving.
The bus deposited us at our stop -- within about a mile of the hospital center -- and after a 10-minute walk, we arrived at the employees' entrance just before 8:00. Because of her pregnancy, Lan welcomes the exercise her last mile provides.
On the ward, it was my privilege to meet a few of Lan's patients, including Martha, a D.C. resident who is a huge fan of Washington's NFL team. Of all the ways I've adapted to our nation's capital in the past 14 months, however, I remain a die-hard Carolina Panthers fan, so Martha and I agreed to disagree on our pre-season prognostications.
I also met Aaron, a Capitol Heights resident who could not have been more proud to let me know that he had a hand in building DOT's current headquarters nearly a decade ago. Aaron stood up from his hospital bed, strong and tall, to greet me as I entered his room. You could see that he appreciated Lan’s care and attention.
It's people like Martha and other patients who rely on the care Lan and her staff of 66 provide. And the transit network that has enabled Lan to be on time every day for 10 years is one part of ensuring that those patients get the care they need.
I'm impressed by so much of what I saw and learned yesterday morning with Lan, and I can't thank her enough for inviting me into her home, sharing her commute with me, and introducing me to the remarkable patients she and her colleagues serve with such dedication.
It was a strong reminder to me that when we need our caregivers, like Lan, the bus needs to be on time. And, when our loved ones have an emergency, our medical professionals can’t be stuck in a traffic jam caused by inadequate highways. These are the practical realities at stake when we talk abstractly about transportation policy and funding issues. And I hope it serves as a strong reminder to you, too.