Here’s a minority opinion: I like public transportation. I know what you’re going to say, “But it’s crowded! But it’s smelly! Not to mention noisy, slow, and inconvenient!”
Hear me out. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio where public transportation is virtually nonexistent. Throughout my childhood, my sole method of getting from Point A to Point B was riding in a car.
However, during my college years, when my appetite for adventure clashed with my light wallet, I learned the joy of public transit – whether that was riding the New York subway, catching a train from London to Exeter, hopping a Greyhound bus for an eight-hour trip to Chicago, or taking a bus to work every day in Ireland. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways to get around the world that don’t involve your foot on a gas pedal – and can be better for your wallet, the economy, and the planet.
Public transportation puts us in touch with the rest of humanity, encouraging connection with strangers. When my mother and I traveled around Cyprus by bus in 2017, we struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to us who turned out to be an author from South Africa.
On another bus ride, we met a Cyprus-born woman who gave us travel recommendations, and we adjusted our plans to visit the hidden gems she mentioned. These conversations would never have happened if we drove a private car, and our trip would have been all the less rich for it.
There is also a “we’re all in the same boat” mentality on a bus, train, or plane that fosters a sense of togetherness. If you’re frustrated, at least you’re not alone in that frustration, because the same delay or time change affects everyone.
And if the flight is particularly turbulent, you exchange relieved glances with your neighbors when the plane lands safely! For me, driving feels a bit lonely by comparison.
While living in Galway, Ireland, I commuted to work by bus. And yes, it was the all-famous red double-decker variety. This commute involved an eight-minute walk from my apartment to a bus stop, then a twenty-five-minute ride, followed by a ten-minute walk from the drop-off point to the office where I served as a temporary receptionist.
I grew fond of this route because walking was built into it. The daily dose of fresh air was an uplifting way to round out my workday, and the short bouts of exercise did wonders for my mood. Even when I had to walk in the misty Irish rain, I cheered myself in the knowledge that I was experiencing the essence of Ireland.
Things I Heard on a BusAs Erol Ozan writes, “You cannot understand a city without using its public transportation system.” Taking the bus to work put me in touch with Irish weather and Irish locals, allowing me to listen to their conversations and marvel at the sights outside my window. Thus, I was immersed in the culture and customs of the area.
It’s widely acknowledged that public transportation is one of America’s great shortcomings, and it took some jaunts around Europe for me to understand the enormity of the problem. Serge Schemann observed about Paris: “What [this city] has done right is to make it awful to get around by car and awfully easy to get around by public transportation or by bike.”
Of course, Paris is not the only city to embrace this phenomenon – Amsterdam is my favorite example of a city that is designed for non-drivers. The city’s tight, labyrinthine streets and expensive parking rates discourage driving, alongside government-sponsored initiatives to reduce car usage.
Of course, there are cities in America that fit this mold, but when it comes to our suburbs, public transportation falls far behind. In Ireland, I could use Bus Éireann to reach nearly any town in the country, but here in Ohio, the options for getting from my hometown to downtown Cleveland are extremely limited.
Regional Transit Authority
There is a bus and train system, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), that offers a route, but only in the early morning and evening hours. By contrast, the bus that transported me from the suburb of Doughiska to Galway city center ran every eight minutes, all day every day.
Vox reports that “American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country.” The crux of the issue, they suggest, is that “European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.”
I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances that make public transportation difficult in America, but I do wish we had better infrastructure for it here. Whenever I visit Europe, I am confident I can get nearly everywhere I want to without renting a private car, but the same can’t be said in this country. That’s a shame, because for every $1 billion we invest in public transportation, 30,000 jobs are created, commuters save thousands of dollars annually, and carbon emissions are drastically cut.
As we move into an uncertain future of global warming and environmental catastrophe, we need to brainstorm better solutions for transportation. I wish more people saw the beauty and possibility in public transit, rather than sticking rigidly to the capitalism-driven, independent American mindset of owning a private vehicle – and often, a private vehicle that is far larger and more gas-guzzling than it needs to be.
I recently watched a video online with CCTV footage of a child being separated from her mother on the NYC subway. The instant the daughter jumped off the subway car onto the platform, the door closed behind her, trapping her stroller-pushing mother behind it. Two commuters immediately jumped into action, guiding the little girl to a police officer until her mother could return.
These moments remind me that anywhere humans gather, we look out for each other. And as often as violence happens, I believe gestures of kindness and heroism outnumber it, even if they get far less news coverage.
Public transportation is a place where we can come together for the sake of our wallets and our world. Let’s foster it.
Article: “The real reason American public transportation is such a disaster.” Vox.
Article: “We need an energy revolution.” The Hill.
*Natalie Keller is a former resident of Galway, Ireland and works in the world of libraries. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various online platforms, and she is currently editing a novel, much of which is set in the Emerald Isle. She loves to hear from readers at [email protected].