Monday, December 18, 2017

An ode to BART

I recently met an SF resident, a friend of a relative, who I'll call Trina. She said blithely that she had never taken BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, our local subway system).

"I just Uber everywhere," she said, shrugging.

To well-heeled Bay Area tech workers, the cost of Ubers everywhere might be chump change. But it's actually incredibly costly in terms of its effects on governance and society. Folks like Trina choosing to never step foot on a BART train has detrimental consequences for the system's maintenance and further development--as Keith Barry writes in Wired, public transit is underfunded because the wealthy don't rely on it.

On another level, there's something about public transit that teaches you about how to be in the world, how to sit with people who look and talk and think differently from you. After high school and college, where people from different kinds of family backgrounds get squished together in lunch periods and dorm rooms, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities to meet people who are different. (Side note: educational systems aren't exactly always shining paragons of diversity, either.) Place of worship? Millennials are less likely to attend religious services than older generations. Relationships? Modern folks are increasingly likely to marry someone of the same education level.

But then there's public transit. Riding BART, I've heard couples fighting and tech bros talking about weddings in Napa. Smelled tobacco and vomit and bergamot perfume. Seen shirtless street performers and hipsters in orange Patagonia puffers leaning on their bikes, kids in polka-dotted strollers and weathered old men with belongings in plastic bags. I've rested my head on the window and considered my reflection, swimming in the scratched-up glass next to the towering container cranes of the Port of Oakland.

In Ubers or Lyfts, I squirm on leather seats and charge my phone. Sometimes I talk to the driver, if they're game, if I'm not too tired. The last time I took a Lyft, back to my apartment from a pre-birthday dinner with my sister, our driver started with "You're my first passengers--ever! I just started driving!"

"Congratulations," I said, "uh, welcome to Lyft, I guess?"

As we went the wrong way and our driver pulled over to do a U-turn, she commented again, "Sorry, this is my first time, thanks for being so patient." She apologized a couple more times, asked us if the music was too quiet or too loud or if we wanted to listen to anything else in particular and if she should turn the heat up.

Drivers for Uber famously can get kicked off the service for getting less than around a 4.7 rating; I'm not sure about Lyft. It made me feel icky about our driver's solicitousness. It felt like it was something out of that Black Mirror episode "Nosedive"--in a dystopian, pastel-colored land of seemingly perfect people, everyone rates each other on their phone after every interaction, and your rating, much like a credit score, determines the class of goods and services you can access. It's certainly not quite Black Mirror, but Uber and Lyft link your behavior to access, too.

On BART, you have to think about what we owe to each other when it isn't mediated by ratings and money. How to share space and give directions to a lost tourist and when to stand up and offer your seat to someone else. You can't pay a premium to get a roomier train car or skip stops or quiet the train's metal-on-metal scream on the tracks in the tunnel under the Bay. When there's no more space for hands on the center pole, you'll learn how to stand upright in a crowd. And when you're grumbling in your head about all the strangers around you, you'll realize that it's those strangers who will catch you if you fall.

1 comment:

  1. Yes and you don't have to feel bad about the pollution of your journey if you're using a timetabled service that would have run anyway whether you're on it or not. (Your extra weight is negligible, as is your journey's influence on future timetabling decisions.) I'm a big fan of local buses, although in my city the passenger demographic is biased toward those who, like me, cannot cycle. That said, I must confess it does take a certain level of skill to navigate around the public-transport system (and to time your travel to match it) so I can see why some people just call a taxi.