Tuesday, 29 January 2013

In defense of public transport

Fellow expat blogger Selena is a Texan living in England. Recently she wrote a very heartfelt piece about her experiences on public transport. To put it simply, her post was not very complimentary, but it was very funny.

She has been transplanted from the place with the most drive-thru liquor stores in the US (yes, really), to London, which this year is celebrating the 150th birthday of the tube, the oldest subway system in the world. That's a definite culture clash.

In contrast I myself have been transplanted from a place where retirees get free bus rides (and certainly use them) to the land where planners removed sidewalks to fit in parking lots.

I told her I felt I had to defend public transport just a little. So here it is, a Brit's defense of public transport (though I know true Brits write 'defence' and not 'defense' I have to use the American spelling now).


Public Transport
Selena's first criticism of public transport (namely the London tube) is that it's almost impossible for newbies to navigate. But the London tube map is hailed as one of the great successes of design - a marriage of form and function - beautiful and understandable!

Yes, maybe at first you will end up going around the Circle line the wrong way; discover that some stations are actually quicker to walk between (what's the point of them?); or take three hours longer than expected due to weather, strikes, or engineering works. But overall it works, and the Olympics were testament to that - just ignore the fact that they drafted in thousands of volunteers to show spectators which stations to use.
These days it's not hard to plan your journey online, even with sporadic construction or random closures due to pigeons on the line. And when you get really good at the Tube you can have all sorts of fun: You can become expert at games such as Mornington Crescent and this cryptic game. The London Tube inspired subterranean public transport across the world, so it must be okay, right?

The effort to drive is huge. First you have be examined on how to control a large piece of machinery. You don't sit need to any tests before you hop on a bus. As long as you have correct change and acceptable body odor tolerance, you're fine!

Planning a route to drive is infuriating. Even with Google Maps and Sat Navs you can never accurately predict roadworks, heavy traffic or road closures.

If you take a wrong turn you often have to do a massive detour to get back on track. With public transport you just jump off and get on a different train/bus, but in a car it's actually treacherous: Do you take that U-Bend and cross four lanes of angry traffic, or do you drive an extra 20 miles back the way you came?

In the city you have to learn the patterns of intersection lights, get stuck for hours at multiple red lights, dodge jaywalkers and tourists, and you're expected to know the whole city's randomized system of one-way streets. I swear city planners switch up the one-way system every now and then just for fun.

And then you have to park your car somewhere. This can take hours in certain places, wasting precious gas money and shopping time driving past giant SUVs taking up two spots and shopping carts lazily abandoned everywhere. When you finally end up at the opposite end of the parking lot you feel you may as well have walked anyway.


When you're traveling by train, plane and underground you really don't want to be laden down with unnecessary shit, so you get really good at traveling light. It becomes a source of pride when you show up for a weekend break with just one half-empty weekend bag, or an overnight function with just a change of knickers and a lipstick in a tiny purse.

Public transport makes you efficient. You keep your Osyter/Octopus/Calypso/Opus/Charlie/Freedom/Smartlink card in your pocket, and everything else on your back.

You gain a sense of freedom by being able to pack so lightly. You know if anyone calls you last minute for a luxury trip to the Bahamas leaving in one hour, you'd be at the airport in time with just your toothbrush, bikini and sun cream, and you wouldn't even have to check in. My rule for travel now is - if I can't lift it, it's not coming with me.

And that's the other thing - all the lifting, carrying and walking is healthy! I saved a fortune on gym memberships when I used public transport. I'd happily walk 45 minutes to work each day. Now I have to drive to the gym and it just feels so wrong and contradictory.


Public Transport
Petty people politics is never so apparent as on public transport. It's tough out there, jostling up against all and sundry on the rush hour tube, rubbing your shoulders against other people - who knows where they've been - and touching the same poles and sitting in the same seats. It'd make a hypochondriac's skin crawl.

Plus you have to endure their rudeness. Shoving in front, listening to loud music, folding their newspaper into your field of vision, giving their luggage the last seat on the carriage so you have to stand. There's no such thing as personal space on public transport- how dare they sneeze/text/fart/argue in your vicinity?

If you're having trouble securing a prime seat on public transport there are very detailed and militaristic guides to help you. When I was a kid at youth theater we'd play a game known as 'keeping your seat on the bus'. Basically you make silly faces until nobody wants to sit next to you. Trust me, it works. 

But all of this is part and parcel of living in a world with other people who are just not a cool and considerate as yourself. Plus it gives you the prime opportunity to hone that truly British sport of complaining. If you ever find yourself starting a new job in London, you'll instantly make new friends the moment you walk in the door and say "Oh my gosh, the Central line was just awful this morning, did anyone else have a ghastly time trying to get in? I couldn't get a seat at all and we got stuck for fifteen minutes at Bank and…" Trust me, it works.


The thing is, driving isn't any better. People speed, honk, tailgate (known in the USA as driving up your ass, as far as I can tell),  blind you with their lights, don't indicate and they always cut in front of you, guaranteed.

Gesturing to rude and inconsiderate road users is usually not that helpful
Drivers are in a hurry, they're rude, and they always think they're a better driver than everyone else. This has been extensively researched and it's true - it's a Lake Wobegone effect manifesting at 80mph on a four lane rat race.

And the worst thing is - all the tutting in the world won't do a darn thing! On a crowded tube, Brits take great pleasure in tutting loudly to display their displeasure at another passenger's actions. It's our favorite form of dissent. In a car this does nothing, and you end up becoming one of those deranged, enraged drivers flipping people off and honking at anything, spreading the blood boiling road rage across the region.

You stomp into work, not with a hilarious and frustrating tale of how crowded your train was, but with a loud tirade full of obscenities about the selfish road moron in front of you with the stupid bumper sticker.

It makes me stressed just thinking about it.

I've told Americans how shocked I am by Pennsylvania drivers and they all say the same thing, "Oh, just wait until you get to New Jersey/New York/California/Maryland/Anywhere, they're terrible at driving!"

And I shudder at the thought. On public transport at least you can sit back, plug in your headphones, eat a questionable prawn sandwich, and zen out all the way to Zone Six…

What side are you on? Which public transport system makes you crazy? And which US state really has the worst driver?

PS, if you've never seen this parody of Going Underground, about the London tube, you're in for a very sweary treat (really NSFW).


  1. I was looking at this geographic map of the underground today and wondering if it was really more helpful, or if I'm looking at it from the perspective of someone who already knows the underground well: http://also.kottke.org/misc/images/tubegeo.gif

    Also, don't forget the treat that is the Glasgow underground: if you fall asleep and miss your stop just wait a bit and it'll come round again! Genius.

    1. I love and miss the Glasgow underground, even with its sweaty diesel rubber smell. That's the smell of home to me!

      The public transport system here is called SEPTA and I just don't like the name. The trains are silver bullets though - retro chic.

  2. I couldn't agree more Gill, but you haven't seen metro passenger tutting until you see a Parisian tutting on the metro.

    Also Please revert to spelling defence and calling petrol petrol. It's just not right.

    1. I'm sorry, just know that in my heart I say petrol, but I have to assimilate because otherwise people don't understand me.

      In my current job people got confused with the way I say 'schedule' and now I'm confused and don't know which way I'm supposed to say it.

      I also have trouble with writing the date sometimes. It's been harder in January than any other month. When it's between 29/1/13 and 1/29/13 it's not a problem, but I have created issues with incorrectly writing 1/12/13 and 12/1/13.

  3. HAHAHAHAHA I had all these interesting smart things to say and then I clicked on the YoutTube link and now I'm dying. The Amateur Transplants is one of Jon's FAVOURITE (hehe) bands and he played that song all the time. he has this one totally memorized... http://youtu.be/2R7QX0zIjgY

    1. obviously completely wrong and un-PC. I know. sorry.

    2. ho ho, it's okay Betsy, I know you are smart and interesting anyway! An old flatmate of mine had the Amateur Transplants album and I kind of forgot about them until today, I realized that song was pretty apt.

      (btw have you and/or ever watched Brasseye?)

  4. 1) Texans are...well, Texan. As someone who had the misfortune of living there for a few months, and meeting several, I can honestly say that many of them proclaim to hate pretty much everything that isn't exactly the way it is there (or they at least really dislike East Coast girls like me who don't worship the Texan way of life...yeah I may have a personal vendettas with this attitude :-p).

    2) My hubby was US Army, and they would write the date 29Jan12. Awkward, but makes much more sense once you get used to it. It's funny how many different ways there are to carry out a common procedure like writing the day.

    1. I just red a Reddit thread complaining about how Brits like to complain about everything, and how sarcastic we are. It was a revelation to find out that's the stereotype of my culture, though thinking about it it's kind of true, so I swear it's not just a Texan thing!

      At any rate, I am a very defensive driver and I'm not looking forward to the day I have to drive somewhere like California.

    2. And don't worry, all of this is intended to be very tongue in cheek (though I am a scared driver)

  5. I love this. I was at the bus station standing in the cold rain yesterday and the bus that I was waiting 14 minutes for didn't open its doors, because it was full. I got this tweet and read your post. It completely made my day. Oh, the irony!

    Great job of countering all of my points. I especially like the ideas of learning to pack lighter and walking more. My husband used to charge me "Matty Dollars" (don't ask) for every pair of shoes I packed that I didn't wear. Now that I have to lug that shit, I pack much lighter.

    And you inspired me to walk at bit more. Instead of waiting on another full bus today, i walked from the Tube Station. It was a nice evening for it.

    Great post as always!!!


    psst... Let Britanny know that not all Texans are that bad. I'm thinkin' she isn't gonna take my word for it. ;)

  6. Here, here! I am a huge fan of public transportation and have used many underground systems (including The Tube), and while they do have their faults I much prefer them to driving. Yes, there can be difficult people who invade your personal bubble on public transportation, but I can just slip on a pair of headphones or open a book and transport myself to a different place. Or sometimes I don't and end up having interesting conversations with people.

    I generally find public transportation to be a more relaxing way to travel to work than driving in a car surrounded by frustrating traffic where you have to be paying attention at all times even when you are not moving. When I lived in Boston I had a one hour commute to work. This commute would have been absolutely awful if I was driving, but because I was on the bus I was able to get a lot of reading done which was a lovely way to start my morning! Also, like you mentioned, complaining about public transportation is a fun way to bond with people! The first time you can't get into a train car because it is full is like a right of passage.

    After reading some of the other comments I also want to put in a good word for Texans! I was born and raised in Austin and that city is amazing. Like Selena above me said, we're not all that bad!

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