Subway or the Highway

Public transportation facilitates immersion in a place.

by Valerie Truong | 4/4/19 2:05am

The sun was setting in the Mataderos neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and I had just attached myself to the longest bus line I had ever seen: It wrapped around the corner and ended right next to an overflowing public trash can. Ten minutes passed, and the line and general discontent only grew. Another 15 agonizing minutes passed. Finally, a half-filled bus rolled up to the stop. I took one look at the line and knew that I’d probably have to wait for the next bus. 

But the bus somehow kept swallowing passengers, and before I knew it, I stood near the front of the line. I and a handful of others squeezed through the doors, and the driver announced that he had to close them. This bus was so full that I had to stand in front of the driver. I couldn’t reach the card reader to pay, and the driver had to keep getting up to check for oncoming traffic because he couldn’t see through all the passengers. 

At this point, I asked myself why I hadn’t just called an Uber. It would have saved me a good hour and spared me a great deal of discomfort. But some part of me realized that I enjoy taking public transport, despite its inconveniences and seemingly-constant violation personal space. I learn a lot about a place from riding its various forms of public transportation, whether buses or subways or trains. One of the most visible cultural phenomena on the Argentinian bus was fashion: In Buenos Aires, it took the form of embellished platform sandals and Crocs. Taking public transit is a way for me to experience all those unspoken rules and norms of a society — some of which are universal and others of which are more specific to a certain place. Whether riding the subway in New York City or taking a bus in Buenos Aires, it’s common courtesy to offer your seat to senior citizens and pregnant women, place your bag on your lap and say “excuse me” or “permiso” if you’re trying to get past someone. 

More specific to Buenos Aires’ public transport is the multitude of ways in which people use it to earn some additional income. For one, you have the classic upcoming musical act. Some musicians set themselves up in subway stations, but many wheeled in speakers and microphones onto subway cars, along with all types of peso-collection apparatuses. I heard them sing everything from rap to traditional folklórico. Then came the vendors, selling everything from common snacks like alfajores and turrón de maní bars to accessories like hair ties and socks. Occasionally, salespeople handed out household items like scissors and notebooks. Finally, there were the panhandlers. Impassioned speeches were made as they distributed printed cards describing difficult life situations. Underlying all of this was a notion of generosity — I noticed that more often than not, whenever the panhandlers came around, five or 10 pesos exchanged hands. 

Of course, you can still learn a lot about a city by taking Uber or taxis. Cabs open the door to one-on-one conversations and allow for the exchange of personal stories. I met drivers from Argentina’s provinces as well as drivers fleeing Venezuela’s economic crisis. But I find it more difficult to realize a place’s values and norms when insulated from that sweaty and crowded agglomeration that is mass public transportation, from that reality in which adhering to your place in the bus line is almost a religion, examining and not buying a vendor’s items is expected and sitting in between two strangers is preferred to standing in open space. 

As much as I loved the craziness of the bus, it was clearly unsafe. The driver couldn’t see the road through the crowd of passengers. But I still made it where I had to go. What my experience made clear was that people — myself included — would rather get on the first bus and be that sardine in a can than wait for the next bus. And it’s true: Researchers at U.C. Berkeley found that frequent, consistent service, along with reliable transfers between stops, are what matter most to riders. Significantly less important is whether rides are crowded or whether seats are available. Of course, safe and efficient public transit is ideal, but even when transit isn’t perfect, there’s still something beneficial about taking it.

Granted, some cities have terribly inefficient public systems that just aren’t functional. Still, public transit is the only option for many people who can’t afford to buy and maintain their own car. But if you’re lucky and have the agency to choose how to get where you need to go, consider sacrificing some time and comfort in order to connect with the people around you. So take the bus — you may well appreciate the mundanities of the journey, and even learn something new.