I’ve seen some shit in this town. Drunks and dead people. Prostitutes and hustlers, as I’m sure some rap song goes. I’ve seen too many street kids hanging out on the sidewalk, smelled the skunk reek of their reefer passed hand to hand. When you ride public transport, you are exposed to these scenes quite often.
Bus stops and transit centers are always a bit … iffy, we’ll say. People with nowhere else to go go to the bus stop. Or rather depot. What else do they have to do with their time? Where else can they go to get warm without getting hassled?
When you ride the bus, you often see the less pretty side of life. I think it is this way in every city. At least it has been in every city whose transit center I’ve been to. DC. London. Paris. San Francisco. Sioux Falls. Minneapolis.
All these transit centers have distinctive passion plays that unfold on an hourly basis. Guys shooting junk into their arms in the storage locker hallways. Broken bottles of cheap liquor littering the restroom floors. The smell of ripe piss permeating the whole atmosphere. The buses themselves are often also uniquely scented and filled with similar scenes, but let’s focus on the fixed infrastructure, just for the time being.
It is this tableau that makes, I think, mass transit a hard sell to the masses. Imagine that you are a young professional, a few years out of school with a job that is likely to fast track you to an SL Mercedes and high-rise condo in the next year or two. Do you really want to sully your expensive suit with the scents of the mass transit center as you wait for your bus? Do you really have time to wait, Mr. Important?
No, didn’t think so.
Or, more realistically, imagine you are in your mid-thirties. You’ve started a family and have a steady, if unglamorous job. You are one of the many of us who are nothing more than drones, barely making it through the work week without going completely postal. Do you really want to spend the precious little time you have away from your job being faced with the types of scenes you see at the transit center?
The myth is that only the despondent and desperate use mass transit in most American cities. New York, obviously, is an outlier. But for the most part, the working classes view the use of mass transit as the realm of the indigent. The people who cannot afford their own car. Heck, mass transit is often even more maligned than commuting by bike (which we will discuss ad nauseam my pretties, oh yes we will, just you wait).
The scenes that play out at the mass transit center most any time do nothing to help improve the general public’s perception of mass transit. The freaks that hang at the bus stop can’t be productive members of society, can they? And since most of the people one sees at the transit center would, on the surface, appear to confirm this stereotype, it makes sense that any ‘upstanding’ citizen would not debase themselves by riding mass transit with these dregs of society.
Hell, the first time I saw two teens first groping and then actually having intercourse in the parking ramp stair landing, I was appalled and seriously questioned just why I was bothering with this whole mass transit thing. When I watched my first drug deal, I was shocked at the dealer’s lack of paranoia. The homeless guys asking for change or the group of street kids just down the way in their thrift store cast-offs smoking bowl after bowl of spice giving me a contact high even out of doors just don’t bother me much anymore.
For the larger part of society, though… whew. The drug deals alone are enough to scare them away from mass transit. Humans are funny. We project our sense of who we are to the world largely through displays of wealth and health – fancy clothes, cars, and the like – and through our peer groups – how many teen movies just wouldn’t work if this weren’t the case? For many, I suppose, being associated with mass transit would serve as a huge debit to their social standing bank accounts.
How do we get people over that hump? How do we get them to realize that mass transit is really more egalitarian than the creeps at the transit center would suggest? And does it even matter?
I hope that as oil becomes more and more costly and precious that more people seek out other forms of transportation beyond the current one person, one car paradigm. In reality, though, the issue is more one of getting past the preconceived notion of who rides the bus and why.
I ride a commuter bus from Palmer to Anchorage and back each day. The people who ride this bus are just like you and I. They are hardworking folks. They are people who are, as a rule, not creeps. They are simply people who have realized for whatever reason, that it is cheaper to let someone else do the driving. We are the ones who have realized that if we are sitting in our cars, by ourselves, on the highway that we are the very traffic we curse.
Heck, I might even say that we are the brave ones, looking daily on scenes that are better left to the imaginations of writers of horror and dystopian science fiction. We are the smart ones, the ones who realize that no matter what the world at large thinks about mass transit that it is a safe, generally convenient, relaxing, and frugal way to get from there to here and back again.