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The Zen of public transit

Though most public transit riders focus on their digital instrument of choice, my preference is to capitalize on the opportunity to observe the individuals who share the venture.

Light rail riders aboard a Green Line train.
Courtesy of Metro Transit/Eric Wheeler

Note: In light of the prolonged disruption of mass transit systems and interminable discourse re. expansion of LRT it seems timely to pause and reflect on the virtues of public transit, without which life in this community would be far more stressful than it already is….

In this class-conscious society there remains one environment that is generously shared by all who choose to avail themselves of the freedom that public transit offers. Public transit is the common ground that provides a unique shared experience with legendary equanimity.  One of the many advantages of public transit is that it gives the rider time and inspiration to ponder the mega-issues embedded in the economic, political technological and social conditions that typically pigeon-hole all of us, in spite of the revered premise that we were theoretically “created equal.”

Though most public transit riders focus on their digital instrument of choice, my preference is to capitalize on the opportunity to observe the individuals who share the venture. The stories, created in my head to fit the visible presence of my fellow travelers, provide a unique mental picture of people who choose or need to share a seat and a bonding experience. Given my frequent, though geographically limited, travels my observations are personal, definitely not universal. It would be far more enlightening – and fun – to capture the reflections of a mix of transit riders.

One conclusion drawn from personal experience is that, on the LRT, it’s every passenger for herself re positioning one’s perch;  meanwhile, on the bus, where civility persists, seats are reserved for the elderly and people with disabilities. The elderly arrive in droves after and before rush hour – the fare difference matters more than employed riders may be aware. With rare exception, reserved seats rule. Veteran riders know to relocate when they hear the ramp shooting out to welcome a wheelchair-bound rider. White canes signal a hasty shuffle of seats.   Agile youth defer to self-identified elders, often seniors grappling with a grocery cart or a few reusable bags from Aldis or Target. The reserved seat policy is broadly interpreted to include parents with strollers.  Failure to abide by the unwritten rules elicits disapproving glances from veteran riders.

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In the age of the digital device du jour, the level of public transit-related human interaction is in decline. Teens and YA’s threaten their eardrums and annoy their elders with the pulsating beat that must have some redeeming purpose. Voracious readers open their Kindles with one hand as they flash their Go-To card with the other. Some unreconstructed riders actually read the daily paper with a practiced dexterity that demonstrates rare facility with the print format; many others bury their noses and minds in a thriller or romance novel checked out from the public library.

Conversation tends to be route-based. On the LRT there’s little chitchat. Riders are mission-driven, focused on their next stop, no time for sociability.   On less traveled bus routes friendships are forged as workers, shoppers, “regulars” first nod at each other, eventually dare to exchange words, venture to share observations on the weather or the last night’s game. When regular riders fail to board the bus, seasoned riders worry and wonder. On longer bus routes between the burbs and the workplace passengers have been known to share birthday and other celebrations.

There are “hot topics” on the bus where conversation still survives. Altered routes and schedules top the list of common concerns. Recounting of the miseries of the day in the office tends to stifle the mood. Young children capture the attention of work-weary riders, eager to get home to their own children and grandchildren.

There is one intriguing passenger type that gives me pause — It’s the Zen-like rider who seems to create a island of mindfulness that somehow transcends the moment. This person shows no emotion, closes his/her eyes or fixates on a single object, seemingly oblivious to all surroundings, including cell phone abusers and exhausted toddlers. Though there is much to admire in their detachment, my people-watching predilection runs counter to the discipline it demands.

Needless to say, the time-honored stereotype of execs clutching their brief cases has long given way to smart phones and related paraphernalia. A stealthy glance over the elbow of a nearby “suit” leaves the curious voyeur to wonder at the work-relevance of action figures, crossword puzzles and sports replays.   Thumb dexterity is a must for the regular commuter.

Obviously, the public transit experience reflects the season — These are summer thoughts.  During winter months the mood changes, focus is on survival, the triumph of commuter over ice, un-cleared bus stops , unpredictable schedules — the thrill of finding a seat when valued space is reduced by requisite arctic outerwear.

Though amenities are sparse, public transit is increasingly the choice of those who care about the environment, road safety, staggering parking fees and personal stress management. It’s all about attitude. Bottom line: Public transit is all about the opportunity to psychoanalyze one’s fellow traveler, to relinquish traffic navigation to a competent driver who knows the rules and the road, to let one’s mind wander, to experience the power of the Go-To card, to interact with strangers on common ground. Any one of these attributes of public transit trumps the frustration of being stuck in endless construction and/or rush hour traffic.

This post was written by Mary Treacy and originally published on Poking Around with Mary.

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