Monday, December 16, 2013

Travel & My Deep Abiding Love Of Public Transportation

I am, wholly and completely, a (mid-)rural Midwest kid.

I'm still thrown by how empty the train was that day.
This means a lot of things. I am familiar with many versions of tator tot casserole. I've gone trick-or-treating in so many layers that my costume was rendered indistinguishable. And though I'm not yet thirty, I've been driving for well over half my life.

Out here, you learn to drive about the time you can reach the pedals ... and then you drive that first car until it doesn't run anymore. It's easy for even non-motorheads to have long, drawn-out conversations about their vehicles and the ailments they've had. All you have to do is mention mileage in a group and it quickly becomes a contest to see whose car has racked up the most miles so far.

In this unleaded upbringing, buses and trains are less than practical. Amtrak doesn't cross the state (although they used to have bus service to a couple of places) and buses don't seem to drum up the business necessary to sustain service to all parts of town. What's more, a large portion of us live out of range of what would be a normal city route anyway -- or in towns with small enough populations that it's laughable to even consider a transit system.

The novelty of such things is largely why, every time I'm in a large city, I find myself fascinated by their public transportation systems, to the point where I have my own goal list. Yes, I'm that big a nerd.

It's true: I love riding buses and subways and light rails. And while a good chunk of it is that novelty (like riding the world's tamest roller coaster), there are other factors. Some of it is my engineering need for a puzzle: can I navigate an unfamiliar city AND find the most efficient route from Point A to Point B?

The bullet train may prove difficult...
And some of it makes my usually quiet inner sociologist perk up. There are few places better suited for observing normal, day-to-day crowd behavior. In fact, you can learn a lot about a population by watching a crowd on a bus or subway. Who rides? Do they pack a pile of bodies on? Are they polite? Do people avoid foreigners? Can you actually SEE someone's pocket get picked? Do people talk, read, stare off into the middle distance? Do they sleep? (Standing up?)

What's more, I've found that subways in particular tend to reinforce cultural stereotypes. American subways are noisy but people like their personal bubbles. British subway riders are polite ... and like their personal bubbles. Russians are rather brisk. (This is also the only place I've witnessed a pickpocketing.) Chinese subways are ... uncomfortable. Koreans carefully avoid you. (And everyone is on their phones, from small children to the elderly.)

But the second you step off a subway, people can be entirely different. Any English-speaking Russian will smile if they have the chance to give you directions. Koreans will be fully into conversation with you (and hugging is normal, as long as they know you). British residents are ... still polite, but markedly more friendly. (As for China ... Well, I'm just always uncomfortable in China.)

I even notice a difference in myself. I love talking to strangers, but on a subway I'm silent. I NEED a personal bubble 99% of the time, but put me on a bus or train and I'll sacrifice that bubble in an instant if it means we all make it on.

So as I prepare for this next trip, I'm taping my old Seoul subway map together, checking out Denver's light rail system (just in case), and making sure I can carry all of the random necessities without painting a big, "I'm a tourist! Steal my camera!" target on my forehead.

Not that it won't be plenty obvious without the target...

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