Thursday, April 12, 2018

The benefits of riding the bus

A version of this post has been published on LinkedIn.

I had a nice chat a week ago with a homeless person of about my age on a CapMetro bus in Austin. He showed me the suitcase, duffle bag, jacket, and novelty cane he had just pulled out of a trash bin that he said was filled with such unsold items discarded by a local business. He then told me about the difficulties he was having getting food stamps and about the stormy day recently when he and others were prevented from entering the homeless shelter because the bed bug infestation was particularly bad. He told me that I look a lot like Frazier Crane, then fell asleep, his head leaning on my shoulder. I did not mind.

I’m traveling via bus in Austin lots these days, since my car — which I’ve always had here before — is back in the San Francisco Bay Area. I use Lyft sometimes but usually only when I really need to, such as when the bus system lets me down. And it does let me down sometimes, in various ways, some unnecessary. But for the most part, it gets me reasonably close to where I want to go, and I’ve greatly benefited from the exercise I get from all the additional walking I now do.

With traffic complaints at an all-time high in Austin, perhaps more of those who could take the bus but instead choose to be a part of the traffic problem should join me. With discomfort with going to an indoor gym for exercise increasing to the point of a startup that facilitates exercise outdoors in public spaces being selected as one of the “visionary” finalists in the SXSW 2018 Cities Summit Place By Design awards competition, perhaps more of those who seek exercise outdoors should “take back the streets” and those usually empty residential sidewalks by walking to and from bus stops.

Yes, CapMetro bus seats are less comfortable than those in the car I used to drive here, the bus will sometimes lurch and bounce unexpectedly, the noise and rush of the traffic at some bus stops can be unpleasant, and taking the bus is easy to view as inconvenient, but as Tim Wu recently described in The New York Times:
“Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up in the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.”
Yes, a CapMetro customer will sometimes ride the bus with people who are homeless or are of some other group he or she prefers to avoid. “Go out the front door,” yelled someone sitting near the rear door at a homeless person about to exit a bus I was on recently; “he smells” he then said to me, responding to my glare. But these people are human beings. At SXSW 2018, Steve Selzer argued that in today’s increasingly frictionless world, it’s easier than ever to avoid confrontation; products and services we prefer to use are isolating us from different perspectives and experiences, helping to make us less empathetic and resilient people.

Slide from Steve Selzer’s SXSW 2018 presentation
Indeed, it is frighteningly easy to marginalize others in our society, even when one was once similarly marginalized. And it is frighteningly easy to succumb to the “tyranny of convenience” and the emotional design and marketing that keeps people in their cars or attracts people to more hip means of outdoor exercise.

Yes, the bus system has its flaws, some that could and need to be fixed, but it also has its benefits, some that might even be significantly life changing, for one’s self and for others.