Travel trends towards the unconsciousness in a city. A routine is set and we tend to only think dynamically when we are forced to: during a service interruption, construction, a water main break. Even then we are directed towards our destination with detailed placards outlining the easiest route home now that our realities have been altered. We know what side of the track to wait on because we’ve always stood on that side going one way and the other side coming back. It’s less about direction than muscle memory.
That’s interesting but like most routines it becomes a banality after it’s done enough. What line we take home gets ingrained in our brain stems and it becomes as natural as breathing, just slightly more expensive.
There’s been a glut of excellent books on cities and what they do for us lately. Rybczynski Makeshift Metropolis, Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, and Owen’s Green Metropolis represent a new interest in novel views on where most of us live. Each one takes a different path towards urban analysis —historical, cultural, and environmental, respectively— and while there is mention of transportation theory and planning, predominantly in Glaeser and Owen’s books, the anathematic necessity of mass transit is not given proper due.
What is terribly fascinating about mass transit in the city is that it reflects very little of what a city is. I sense some disagreement in the air; so let me explain what I mean.
Cities —and I understand that more learned urban theorists will disagree fundamentally with me here, but I’m talking about the personal facets of cities— are essentially bound by individuals who consider personal space their biggest luxury. Apartments, offices, taxis, even that self-contained sphere of the treadmill, they all represent an urbanite attempting to escape the constant buzz of anonymity en masse.
The subway and the bus instantly take that fantasy away; we realize that our space is not our space but the conflated discomfort of hundreds of other riders. The city is an anonymous place, to be sure, but it is a series of random individual events rather than one extended journey. And we definitely never stand close enough to a stranger that we can identify a cologne or lack of deodorant.
I was riding the Q with my girlfriend the other day when 3 athletic —we wouldn’t find out how athletic looking until one took his shirt off— young guys came on the train and announced that they were “Black Guys Dancing on a Moving Train”. The talents were on par with any breakdancing group you’d see in Union Square, or more likely Times Square, but the added degree of difficulty was the fact that they were, indeed, on a moving train. Life in a city is like life anywhere else, with an added degree of difficulty. We deal with social nuance on a constantly shifting basis and often one experience after another. Exhaustion is a general outcome for most of us, but at least most of us can go home after a long day and revel in the departure of anonymity.
Some days are harder than others, and sometimes we’re on a moving train.