Sunday, June 12, 2016

Strong Towns: Learning Virtue Through Public Transit


Bus interior
I take public transit to learn virtue. That is not the only reason, but, in truth, it is one of the main ones. If you are already criticizing this as a privileged assertion, please stick with me.

Sharing bus seats with strangers thrusts me into a form of the public square, which can be uncomfortable and ripe for opportunity all at the same time as I encounter a diversity of people. It strips me of my (perceived) independence. It forces me to rely on and trust other people and others’ schedules in order to get to my destination. It is humbling. Virtue is not usually one of the benefits touted by supporters of public transit, yet it can be a valuable outcome of the system. I believe public transit has the capacity to shape me for good as a person, not just my physical environment and local economy.

My first experiences with public transit began when I moved to Washington, DC, just after college. Every morning I navigated the Metro from my house in Arlington to my work at the Reagan Building in the District. I was young and eager, and the world of public transit felt raw, exciting, and slightly terrifying. There were times I exited at the wrong stop and, like a fish rising to the surface, suddenly found myself in an unfamiliar place. Rush hour was often an up close and personal encounter with humanity as I stood with my nose in some taller stranger’s armpit, both of us swaying with the jolts and turns of the rails while hanging on to the overhead bar.

Since my DC days, I have lived in many other places where taking the bus or riding in group taxis has been the most feasible mode of transit. Now living in the Twin Cities, public transit is completely optional for me. I own a car. I ride a bike. Parking is free and easy where I work and where I live. In fact, utilizing public transit is actually more of an inconvenience in many ways. But every time I wait at a bus stop or step onto a train car, I am reminded of my place in humanity, as one among many, maneuvering a world together. It compels me to practice virtue.
By no means have I mastered any of this, but here are a few things I have been learning by riding public transit over the years.


Waiting for the bus or train requires patience, especially waiting for one that is running late, which, in turn, usually means I am running late for wherever it is I am trying to be. I used to get really angry while sitting there, anxiously checking my watch wondering when the train or bus was coming. The problem is, no matter how angry I become, my ride does not come any faster. I have slowly learned to make a conscious effort to roll with the clock and the circumstances. Rather than stew about the unreliability of the system, I try to take in my surroundings, noticing things like people, sidewalks, and local businesses. It turns out that these extra minutes are valuable space for observation and contemplation if I embrace them.
It takes courage to step into new territory and figure out the system. I have learned to ask fellow passengers these questions, which gives me a great chance to begin conversations with strangers and learn more about the city I am exploring.”


There are times I have found myself lost within a public transit system, not quite sure which stop is mine or where I am on the map of multi-colored lines. Particularly in new cities I find myself wondering: How often does the bus run? Do I need exact change? Am I on the right bus? Do I have to pull the cord to signal my need for a stop? Not everyone is daunted by these questions, but many of us are. It takes courage to step into new territory and figure out the system. I have learned to ask fellow passengers these questions, which gives me a great chance to begin conversations with strangers and learn more about the city I am exploring.


Public transit is a great equalizer. On a bus or train, I encounter people from all walks of life. Together we are all dependent on the capacity of this vehicle to get us to where we need to be. In this space, I am more aware of the mom working to keep multiple children in tow while weaving a stroller through the aisles or the elderly gentleman who struggles to stand when his stop comes. I listen to other languages, observe different customs, and wonder from where and to where people are going. My time on public transit puts me more in touch with the realities that other people live.

I recognize that learning virtue through public transit is a luxury. Because it is a choice, I have the freedom to engage it in a way that does not significantly impact my livelihood. For example, I am not dependent on a timely bus to get me to my job on time, so that I can keep my job; thus, I have the luxury of learning patience through an imperfect bus system. There are, however, many who do not have this freedom, which is all the more reason for those of us with this privilege to opt for taking public transit. Patience, courage, and empathy are all important virtues that help us become effective advocates for better systems that serve all people. In our insular world of cars and social media, we need to learn and practice these virtues in our public sphere. For many of us, riding the bus could be one small step.
(Top photo by Edmund Audran)


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