Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Love Public Transportation

I do. I love public transportation. The depth of my passion is due not to its environmental sensibleness, or its contribution to a well-organized city, though those are great too. No, my passion for public transportation is based on the way it makes you feel about the people around you.

For a long time I didn't drive at all, and so I was missing the contrast between driving and not driving. And then I started doing a little driving, and I was astonished at the immediate sense of other cars being IN MY WAY and other drivers being ANNOYING IDIOTS who didn't know what they were doing or couldn't be bothered to put down the phone/cheeseburger/eyeliner/tall skinny latte long enough to pay attention and, well, you know, DRIVE.

You might think the feelings raised by driving stay put in your mind, directed only at drivers, not at fellow citizens. Or, rather, at fellow-citizens-as-drivers, rather as fellow-citizens-as neighbors. But in my experience this isn't how it works, with me or with anyone I know. You drive, and your sense that the people around you are rude nincompoops who can't be bothered with basic safety gives you a feeling of righteous indignation that lasts the whole day, and prompts thoughts like "What ever happened to civilized society?" "People today suck," and "That's it, I'm never going out to dinner in that neighborhood again." And that's just driving. If you factor in the hassles of parking, forget it.

Not only does taking public transportation not cause these feelings, it actually gives you other ones in its place. You see people on the bus who are completely and totally different from you. And what are they doing? Same thing you're doing. Waiting in the rain, riding on the train, reading their book, playing with their iPods, looking around at the scenery. It's like an experience cooked up to remind you how much you have in common with all the different people around you. It's the opposite of dehumanizing.

It's not perfect. Sometimes there's some horrible kid blasting music and taking up three places. But. Overall, it's this way. And I will go out on a limb here and say that even listening to people use their cell phones is not the end of the f***ing world. Sometimes it's annoying, sure. But many times those phone calls end with the warmest thoughts. "I love you, I'll see you soon." Parents to kids, kids to parents, friends to friends, lovers . . . I actually enjoy remembering that all these people can't wait to talk to the other people in their lives. How nice is that?

The main downside of taking public transportation is that it is slow. True. But at least you can read, and you arrive in a peaceful frame of mind. Also people don't often recognize is that there's a steep learning curve with taking public transportation. I mean, the first few times, you're trying to find the schedule, you're not sure whether the bus is always late, you don't know which route . . . it's a huge hassle. After about two months it's the most seamless thing imaginable.

I was reminded of these reflections today because I saw a wonderful set of drawings in The New York Times, in which two people unhappy about route cuts set out to draw and describe all the actual people on the bus routes that are going to be cut. You can see them all there: the older couples, the little kids, the "guy in an orange jacket." All present and accounted for in the art. I loved the pictures, and I thought to myself, yeah, that is what it is like.

Check out the Times thing here.

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