Transportation and experiencing the public: being one among millions

By: Michael Petrany

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the great city of Boston for a couple of nights. The cause for this visit really doesn’t matter because I have very little to say about what I did there or what the city is like. Instead I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got there and how I got around the city. In the course of this trip, I drove my own car to and from Dayton International Airport, flew on four separate airplanes, took various shuttle buses at my connecting airports and used Boston’s subway system.

Okay, so what? Transportation is something we use every day. It’s boring, pedestrian, like brushing one’s teeth or making breakfast.

Or is it? How often do we actually stop to think about how we get around and what it might say about us, either individually or collectively? If I myself am any indication, the answer is almost never.

Driving in a car is often unavoidable, particularly in cities such as Cincinnati. And I do enjoy the simple pleasure of driving, but isn’t there something about driving a car that can promote self-centeredness if we are not careful?

What matters is only our destination. We choose our own path. We boil with rage when traffic slows us down, or when another driver cuts us off. Again — driving is necessary, and I do it as often as anyone else. But my visit to Boston, a city with an extensive public transportation system, prompted me to think more carefully about the way I get from Point A to Point B.

It is often argued that public transportation is the most efficient and responsible way of getting around. Fewer carbon emissions and a more economical use of resources are often cited in this regard. While these are certainly worthy reasons, I would offer an additional, less tangible benefit to public transit.

Taking a bus or subway through a city can shake us from complacent, privileged individualism and allow us to enter into the very lifeblood of our community. Public transit forces us into a situation where our choices are limited. We cannot choose when the train arrives.

We cannot choose our exact path and our exact destination. And perhaps most importantly, we cannot choose who travels with us, who sits down next to us and who gets off at our stop. The rest of the day we may play at being rugged individualists, masters of our own destinies, but for this brief period, we must sit and wait with everyone else. We actually become part of “everyone else.”

There’s no doubt that this can be alienating. Traveling alone on a New York City subway, for example, can be an exceedingly lonely experience — I am but one among millions.

But isn’t this a realization that is worth having every now and then? We recognize that our own lives do not constitute the sum total of reality, and that we live in an enormous human community that does not simply answer to our own private desires. Rather, we are in large part answerable to that community.

Indeed, I think public transit represents a way of truly getting to know one’s fellow human beings. Even without direct conversation, the mere exposure to people from all walks of life — excepting perhaps corporate CEOs in their posh limos, but who cares about them? — can go a long way towards broadening our horizons. We see a cross section of the diversity that forms our individual communities. A bus ride in Boston is completely different from one in Chicago, which is completely different from one in Berlin.

The point here is not to feel guilty about driving. The point is certainly not that we are all hopelessly self-centered, nasty, no-good people. I will leave those items to other commentators. My point is this: maybe it is worth stopping to think about these everyday things that we do, and what they might say about our basic assumptions in life. Maybe, just maybe, it’s worth realizing that the world does not revolve around us.

Michael Petrany is a senior from Huntington, W. Va. He is majoring in philosophy and biology with minors in German and chemistry.