Skip to main content

Column: Want to be one with the world? Hop on the subway


Let us now sing the praises of public transportation. It may be a small chorus: Public transit has had a rough ride lately. Ride-hailing services are eating into the customer base, funding is a constant battle, Elon Musk is throwing shade, and the New York City subways seem on the edge of catastrophe.

But I’m singing out. I’m not only a rider; I’m a fan. 

Illustration by Richard Mia

Yes, I know all the downsides. People on Chicago’s “L” seem to have forgotten how to use earbuds. They conduct private phone calls at top volume. Everyone is squeezed in cheek – and not only the facial cheek – by jowl with strangers.

Yet I remain a defender. Beyond the convenience, the freedom from sitting in traffic, and the precious minutes to sit and read (should you be blessed with a seat), public transportation has a quality no car ride can match: It is public.

It is an increasingly rare spot where people of all backgrounds and social classes share life for a while.

“It’s one of the most diverse places in cities,” says Brent Toderian, an urbanist and former planning director of the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, and a fierce advocate of public transportation. “It’s one of the places where the level of interaction with all sorts of people is still there, and it’s still honest. It’s transit as social melting pot.”

It is that, for better or worse. When you hear a man somewhere along the subway platform shout, “But I don’t want to put on my pants!” as I did recently, you may wish for a bit more privacy.

Toderian has seen some rough moments too, but he remains steadfast. “You can choose to see those situations as fuel for intolerance, or fuel for curiosity and understanding,” he says. “I’m not a kumbaya kind of person, but I do believe that the more we segment and fragment ourselves, the less aware and tolerant we’re going to be.”

He believes so strongly in public transportation that when Tesla CEO Elon Musk last December derided it as an inconvenient “pain in the ass” that surrounds riders with “a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer,” Toderian created the Twitter hashtag #GreatThingsThatHappenedOnTransit.

The stories poured in.

I met my wife on a train platform. … My wife helped deliver a baby in a bus shelter. … My mother has become good friends with a group of women she met taking the bus to work every morning. …

And there are kumbaya moments. Like the night Barack Obama was elected president and my daughter Nina took the L downtown to the victory rally. The train was a rolling celebration, with people on cellphones calling out the states as they were declared for Obama while everyone cheered.

Or the Boston version, which my daughter Robin experienced riding the “T” during a Red Sox playoff game. “Our conductor basically announced the whole game over the loudspeaker the entire ride, all in an extremely strong Boston accent,” she says. “The train was hanging on his every word and cheering. The Red Sox won and went on to win the World Series!”

It isn’t just the good times that unite riders. Mutual adversity is a classic bonding experience – and public transportation provides plenty of that. 

Like sharing an L car with a drunken passenger who is about to vomit. This is a common enough occurrence that it has happened to both Nina and me, unfolding in the same way. Both times, the entire car started rooting for the imminent barfer to hold off until the next stop. “You can do it!” people called out. “We’re almost there!” The inebriated passenger on my car made it, to our collective relief, bolting off the train toward a garbage can. My daughter’s car was not so lucky.

And how about all the nice people I’ve slept with on the train? They’ve borne up stoically as I’ve nodded off against their shoulders, which I do regularly, the rocking motion of the L serving as instant-action Ambien. It’s a kindness I appreciate, twice a day.

Do you enjoy learning about other cultures? Step aboard public transit, as graduate student Margaret Smith did while visiting New York a few years ago. She noticed a garbage bag at the foot of a man sitting on the subway across from her. She noticed it because it was oozing blood. Others had apparently noticed it too, because at the next station a police officer boarded and asked him what was in the bag.

“The guy just looks up nonchalantly, shrugs, and says, ‘It’s a goat,’” she recalls. 

It turned out that he was an African immigrant taking a freshly slaughtered goat home to eat. This was not going over well in the subway. “The police officer said, ‘We’ve been following you since the Bronx. You’ve been dripping blood all over the train system,’” Smith says.

You can feel as though you’re in another country riding public transit in big cities, but when you are actually in another country, taking buses and trains can bring even more memorable moments. Nina cherishes the courtesy she once encountered on a crowded bus in Kolkata, India.

Someone directed her to a seat that was protected from the engine heat by fabric. Then, as seats opened up, riders kept shuttling her to increasingly comfortable ones. “I asked this old woman why everyone seemed intent on getting me into the best seats, and she told me that I was clearly a guest in her country and she wanted to be hospitable.”

Public transportation is like magic for tourists – an instant entree into the everyday life of a city. On a recent trip to Berlin, my husband and I spent a week traversing the city by tram, bus, and subway, being jostled alongside the locals, looking at how people were dressed, and observing the differences in public transit culture (no music playing or loud talking! Go, Berlin!). And how else would we have had the charming experience of seeing people ride the subway with their dogs?

But you don’t have to be on public transit abroad to break down barriers between worlds; you can do it at home.

My friend Stacey Moncrieff recalls the time a young man started playing loud music on his phone – the same section over and over. She looked daggers at him, then noticed that he was engrossed in his notebook and writing down lyrics.

As the train pulled into a downtown station, a woman said to him, “I hope we get to hear your music someday.” “He lit up,” Stacey says. “He started showing her what he was doing and talking about the recording and how excited he was. Suddenly, everyone around me (myself included) was smiling. It was a magic moment.” 

Most of us, however, don’t board the train hoping for such a moment. We yearn for solitude and a seat.

But maybe we should reconsider, suggest behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder.

In a study titled “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they sought to figure out why people ride public transportation in silence. Social interaction is known to make us happy; so why, presented with daily opportunities to connect with our fellow straphangers, do we hunker down over our phones?

Because we believe – wrongly – that we will enjoy the ride more if we don’t talk to anyone, they found. 

They asked study participants to predict how pleasant various kinds of commutes would be. Most said they would enjoy a commute in solitude more than one talking to a stranger.

But the predictions tended to be wrong. When the researchers asked Chicago bus and commuter train users to either ride in isolation or strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger, and to then rate their experiences, they discovered that people found conversation more pleasant on average than solitude.

“Talking to a stranger was the thing that made the commute most positive,” says Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. 

Our error is most unfortunate, the authors write, especially since commuting is reported to be one of the least enjoyable parts of the average person’s day. It doesn’t have to be, they point out: “A surprising antidote for an otherwise unpleasant experience could be sitting very close by.”

It’s all there on public transportation – the good, the bad, the bad-and-good. But especially the feeling of being truly part of a big, buzzing city, surrounded regularly by a swirl of jostling, loudly yakking humanity.

For the price of a fare, it’s all yours. The doors are closing, as they say on the Chicago L at every stop, but you never know when another door might open.

• Barbara Brotman is an Oak Park, Illinois-based freelancer and a former writer for the Chicago Tribune. Read more stories from The Rotarian