Enjoyable Encounters on Public Transportation

November 25, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Isa Hopkins recently wrote an article in Grist about her love of public transportation, not because it’s energy efficient, affordable, or convenient, but because of the people on board. My first instinct was that she must be a little crazy, or she always gets lucky when she rides the bus or train.

But then I got to thinking about some of my most enjoyable experiences on public transportation. I studied Sociology as an undergraduate, which in no way makes me a sociologist, but I do love observing social interaction, especially among strangers. There really isn’t a much better place to observe people than on public transportation, in a train station, or at an airport (hey! those are all transportation-related).

The one memory that really comes to mind happened on the Paris Métro, on Line 1 one day on my way home from school. It was December, and Paris was in the holiday mode. Two men in Santa suits got on the train, clicked a button on a boombox, and started dancing… followed by removing layers of clothing. I don’t know what the French call it, but I think the train experienced a Santa strip tease. The spontaneity and the smiles (some larger than others) elicited by the riders was pretty cool and gave a different feel to the usual stone-cold stares of riders on the Métro.

Back here in Chicago I commute into the Loop every morning. The train usually jerks violently just where the Brown line merges into two tracks instead of being at the side of the Red line tracks (near North Ave). On one occasion, this has thrown me into a stranger which is usually met with mutual understanding of the circumstances that got me there. But occasionally this woman, likely college-aged or just graduated, is also in the same spot as me and we strike up a small conversation about the amusement park qualities of the Chicago ‘L’. It’s friendly, informal, and makes me smile on my way into work for no other reason than people still know how to make small-talk when it’s just easier to stare at your phone.

I love riding public transportation in any city I go to. I don’t think there is a finer way to understand a city and its people than to use the network the locals use. As one commenter on the article pointed out:

You do not know a city, until you have taken its mass transit. There you will find it all – the beautiful and the damned and you cheat yourself when you drive everywhere and think you know what is going on in your city. You do not.

I don’t think I could have found better words. How often do you interact with so many different people than when you’re in the same vehicle as them? I’m not talking about the congested, pressed-up-against-everyone times you take transportation – just the opportunities you get to sit comfortably amongst strangers. You just don’t get that in self-contained pods along a freeway (obligatory “but you get comfort, peace and quiet, and cleanliness in a car” comment not required here, I’ve heard it before). Being near others for a part of the day gives people a certain look into the farce and the drama that is human interaction.

Of course, anybody who rides public transportation knows it is not without its bad moments. In my opinion, the worst can be summed together into “any time I have to ride the Red line during a Cubs game.” It’s nothing personal against Cubs fans (maybe a little – I am from Wisconsin), but the train feels a little more beer-soaked and rambunctious.

If you’ve got a good public transportation memory, feel free to leave it in the comments or tweet me @transitized.