In the United States, people climb aboard public transportation 35 million times each weekday. Taking public transportation to get around is a daily necessity for anyone who can’t drive or doesn’t own a car. Beyond that, many of us choose public transportation to save money, to avoid sitting for hours in gridlocked traffic, or to reduce our carbon footprint. Regardless of why we’re on board, public transportation may be one of the last great equalizers. Because whether we’re crammed into a ferry, bus, train, light rail or subway, one thing is clear: We’re all in this together.
If there’s a complaint to be made about taking public transportation, it’s that fewer and fewer of us modify our behavior depending on whether we’re in a secluded, or communal, setting. We live at a time where there’s not much distinction between our public and private lives. Thanks to mobile phones and social media, the notion of a “private” conversation or activity feels about as quaint as a quill pen.
Thanks to mobile phones and social media, the notion of a "private" conversation or activity feels about as quaint as a quill pen.
Commute hours in particular are a strange mix of overlapping personal and communal time. For some of us, commuting marks the tail-end of a harried morning routine, and, for others, it’s the start of the work day. As a result, we merge on public transportation with a lot of different goals: apply mascara, join an investor call, order groceries, eat breakfast.
When riding public transportation—whether it’s during commute hours or any other time of day—we serve the common good by remembering that we are in a public space, not an extension of our kitchen or cubicle. We’re all participating in an experience that’s only going to be as good—or as terrible—as we make it. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts:
1. Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene
There are consequences when a group of people comes together in tight quarters. Frequently, malodorous ones. The kindest thing we humans can do before setting foot in a public space, let alone a small, stuffy, overcrowded space where the heater is stuck on high in the middle of July, is bathe. And, use deodorant. And, brush our teeth. And, (do I really need to say this?) refrain from clipping our fingernails.
2. You will smell like what you eat
You’re squished into the middle seat on a cross-country flight with a toddler behind you who won’t stop kicking your seat. It seems the ride can’t get much worse—until 11A breaks out the tuna sandwich. Just because eating is allowed on some forms of public transportation doesn’t mean it’s not kinder to abstain on most. Consider where you are and the impact of your hard-boiled egg, anchovy spread, garlic fries or kimchi salad on your neighbors. If you must snack, the less stinky the better… and it’s always nice to follow up a meal (or a cup of coffee) with a breath mint.
Just because eating is allowed on some forms of public transportation doesn’t mean it’s not kinder to abstain on most. Consider where you are and the impact of your hard-boiled egg, anchovy spread, garlic fries or kimchi salad on your neighbors.
3. Be courteous, whatever the cost
It used to be, when riding a bus or train, it was de rigueur to give up your seat for a pregnant woman, an older person, or anyone holding a baby. These days, that gesture is fraught. Not wanting to offend anyone by suggesting that they’re old, or infirm, or pregnant (in case they’re not) we stare at our phones and hope someone else will do the right thing. If you’re worried about insulting someone, make it a practice to check in with all kinds of people to see if they’d like your seat. A quick “Would you like to sit? I’d prefer to stand,” should do the job diplomatically.
4. Talk to strangers
When riding in some mode of public transportation it’s tempting to plug in the ear buds and hunker down in a hoodie-enabled cocoon. Most of us spend our travel time hunched over a phone, scrolling through our news feed or catching up on Facebook updates… anything to avoid making eye contact, let alone small talk. While this may feel like an unselfish approach to public transit, it’s not good for us as individuals or as a society. When we’re plugged in and tuned out, we miss what’s going on around us, such as someone asking us to move aside or inquiring which station is next. As such, we miss out on the opportunity to connect with the people around us. And, that’s too bad. Striking up a conversation with the stranger standing next to you can make you feel happier.
If public transportation is the last great equalizer, maybe it’s one of the first places we as humans should try to exceed expectations. With a bit of consideration for the reality of public transportation–what it is and what it isn’t—we can change the experience for the better. Who knows? The “strangers on a train” phenomenon might just lead to a lasting relationship. So check your selfishness at the closing doors and lean into the community of it all. If we all do, we might actually enjoy the ride.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. Once a professional chef, she now primarily cooks for a discerning party of four… with mixed success. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Through her writing, she enjoys tackling the thorny issues around parenting, generational cohorts, and cultural trends, endeavoring to do so without being too snarky.