The Soul of the Commuter

The New Yorker has an excellent article taking a detailed look at an oft-neglected part of people’s day: The commute. At a general glance, talking about how bad traffic was is up there in terms of the worst conversation starters out there. However, the article contained many passages that made me smile in their particular relevance. Take for example the art of honing your transportation minutiae:

The commuter takes on compulsive attributes. Some people decipher where on a subway train it is best to ride, for optimum exiting, and, therefore, where to stand on the platform, by a particular pay phone or blackened patch of gum. On the E train, Rossi knows where she should be—the front positions her best for Penn Station—but she prefers to be farther back, where it is less crowded. Also, she never boards any train’s first or last car. “If there’s an accident, they’re the first to go off the track,” she said.

Anyone riding west on the Orange Line and planning to get off at West Falls Church metro (a popular bus hub for the Tysons Corner area) knew that their best bet would be to be ready to get off from the middle door of the third car since it stopped right in front of the up escalator. What followed afterward were many half-attempts at jogging as commuters squinted through the trees and glass towards the parking lot, as they tried to decipher whether the bus currently pulling away was theirs or not. The habitual nature of the commute also left you surprisingly familiar with the habits of your (situational) colleagues. Some would be reading a new paperback every week while others used the transit time as a chance for repose. Speaking of which:

On the train or the bus, one can experience an illusion of fellowship, even if you disdain your fellow-passengers or are revolted by them. Perhaps there’s succor in inadvertent eye contact, the presence of a pretty woman, shared disgruntlement (over a delay or a spilled Pepsi), or the shuffle through the doors, which requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations. Train riding has other benefits. Passengers can sleep or read, send e-mails or play cards.

I know that getting rid of my car upon moving from the relatively suburban Arlington, VA to the middle of Washington DC in Columbia Heights was a very easy decision to make. My commute by car took me rarely over 30 minutes but left me shackled with the responsibilities of operating a vehicle. By contrast, a combination of biking, metro and bus either provided its own entertainment or left me and my iPhone to my own devices. With that trade-off in mind, I find it very difficult to sympathize with travailleurs that subject themselves to an hour or more of driving each way, every day in order to secure either a few hundred more square feet or some other marginal benefit within the isolation of the suburbs.

Read the whole thing. On a related note, here are some scenes of Italians commuting in 1948, from the movie Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief):

They packed buses tight...

...really tight.

...really tight.

They also rode bicycles

They also rode bicycles

And sometimes just walked

And sometimes just walked

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