When I was growing up outside of Washington, D.C., taking the metro into downtown was always thought of as an adventure. It was something I wasn't allowed to do by myself until I was older, and it always made me feel like some kind of savvy traveler.
I enjoy riding the metro systems in other countries too, because it affords the chance to see the locals in their true environment. I think that might be why when I started commuting to work in San Francisco from the East Bay on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), I was SO EXCITED! It would be another opportunity to see people in action everyday and get to know a place. As a west coast transplant, this added a new level of thrills.
This isn't the story you usually hear about BART. Usually, what you hear is horror stories. About how it doesn't run on time, or there are too many medical emergencies or police activity. The truth is, people complain like this everywhere. It is what you do when you spend a large part of your life in the throws of commuting. If you were driving you would complain about the traffic, if you were biking you would complain about the lack of bike lanes (I know I do!), if you were walking, about the bad drivers. That is just what humans do, apparently. So here is a new conversation, one about social interaction. Let's break it down:
1. Cell phones and ignorance. Everyone is always on their phones. People don't even look up to board the train. We are so accustomed to this it doesn't seem strange, until you look up yourself and see around you everyone absorbed in their own worlds. I am not sure if this is supposed to make me feel better, but I have noticed this phenomenon all over the world, not just in San Francisco. It is tied to access to the internet and smartphones of course, but something I think we don't spend enough time contemplating is what it is doing to the fabric of our society. When it becomes normal to constantly be staring at a screen, does that mean we no longer have to interact? I often feel embarrassed when I look up and see every single person seated or standing next to me glued to their phones. I usually then put mine away. But why do I feel that way? No one actually cares if I am surfing the internet or not. I could be doing something very productive actually, or reading a classic novel. Would I feel that way if everyone had their newspapers out?
Yesterday I was riding the BART home, and the conductor was being kind of ridiculous and threatening to put the train out of commission if people kept pushing onto the train and possibly breaking the doors. Everyone kind of chuckled to themselves, since this happens daily. I had been listening to music and had only heard the "out of commission" part, so turned to a fellow rider to ask what was happening. He told me and we had a little laugh about our shared experience. Then very quickly we returned to our headphones. Why is that? I would have loved to chat longer with this gentleman, but I felt like the etiquette was not to do so. Why don't we talk to people we sit next to for extended periods of time? Certainly that would be more entertaining and healthier than involving our gadgets. Yet it isn't commonplace to do so.
What really amazes me is when something strange or funny does happen - there is a communal smile that spreads throughout the train car. We all kind of look at each other knowingly, without saying anything. I know I am not the only person who gets a sense of joy from that. What if more interactions could be that way? Is everyone just being shy?
2. What is everyone actually doing? This is the next question. I would love to run a study where I poll people each day on my commute as to what exactly they are doing. If the data comes back and 50% of people are on Facebook 100% of the time, I would be really concerned. But maybe people are doing or reading interesting things. I would want to know! This is a tech hub, maybe there is some amazing game or blog or app out there I am missing out on, but if I were to pool the collective minds of the BART ridership, I would be way ahead of the curve. Every time I get the guts to start asking people though, I stop myself, because I think people would find it weird. But maybe not. It is definitely on my list of top social experiments.
Sometimes I feel like thinking this way makes me really out there, but I am hoping that I am not alone in these thoughts. Others just haven't come out of the woodwork to express their similar opinions. But if we did - if people agreed that something is wrong with how we interact in public spaces - we could revolutionize the way people commute, and perhaps even, community interactions as a whole.
This speaks to a larger problem plaguing the Bay Area, which is the growing divide between rich and poor, tech and homeless. And by divide I mean, the gap between grows, but actually the fences around each house get closer together. The current solution as far as I have seen is to ignore. Ignore the homeless on the streets, or the feces and urine smells everywhere, ignore the enormous apartment complexes going up in poor neighborhoods. But maybe a movement on the trains could help change that, at least a little. Where else do people of such varied backgrounds come together naturally?