Living in a city can sometimes feel like a video game won by the player who finds the perfectly curated experience: culturally diverse (but not so much as to threaten) and devoutly authentic. As we pack up for the dreaded inconvenience of Thanksgiving travel, I am here to tell you that the winning experience is right under your nose: It’s called public transit. Take a moment and be grateful for it.
Let me explain by way of a story.
Last year, during a trip from San Francisco to see Brooklyn-based family, I woke up early one morning to return our rental car and then hop the subway into Manhattan for a meeting. The closest rental car spot was in Canarsie, a Brooklyn neighborhood I had never explored. After I dropped the car off, the rental car representative drove me over to Brownsville, another neighborhood I’d never visited, to catch the inbound 4 train. Still groggy, I climbed the weathered green stairs up to the elevated tracks above Livonia Avenue.
When I pulled my attention away from my phone to scan the platform and see who my fellow commuters were, I was pleasantly reminded that Brownsville is known for its West Indian population and, as I am not West Indian, I was the outlier.
That feeling—of being pulled out of my bubble and plopped into someone else’s very different everyday universe—is something I miss about living in New York. It is actually one of New York’s superpowers, and the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) has a lot to do with that. A robust, heavily-used subway system is the spoon that mixes our urban melting pots. It cuts seamlessly across the boundaries of little ethnic enclaves, scrambling up everyone’s best attempts to stay with their people.
Whether we’re talking about subways, commuter trains, or buses, they all have the ability to shoehorn us right into a complete stranger’s life for a survivable stretch of time—a trade we make in exchange for it taking us from point A to B, or in this case, to family.
But mobility companies have other ideas. As they present us with a glut of new options, they chip away at ridership on municipal transportation systems plagued by deferred maintenance and it becomes easier to overlook public transit’s social utility. All the new transportation tools out there—the scooters, the on-demand rides, the dockless bicycles—they all tout their convenience. And convenience is king, especially if you live in cities. But the problem with maximizing convenience is that—and please forgive me for saying so—other people are enormously inconvenient. To maximize convenience is to essentially minimize human contact.
Other people have terrible taste in music and listen to it too loud, they eat things that you don’t like the smell of, they never move fast enough, and they have the gall to talk too loudly about their lives when you are tired, or have a headache, or just want a brief moment of silence.
If you take an Uber or a Lyft, you will avoid all of those irritants, which I get it is a big part of the appeal. But conversely if you avoid public transportation, you will also vastly reduce the odds of being exposed to new music, unfamiliar food, news from someone else’s perspective, stories about how Uncle Alvin argued with Aunt Julie about homophobia and politics nonstop over Thanksgiving dinner, or—and this is the big one—having it visually and sometimes physically impressed upon you repeatedly that you are not the most important person in the world. Other people are all out there being inconvenienced while traveling to their weird families for Thanksgiving just like you.
Reminding you that you are inconsequential is what cities do. It comes complimentary! By dint of their ecosystem of inconveniences, cities force you to reckon with being an actual member of society. There is even a fair argument to be made that that is exactly what draws us to cities: They beat the hell out of us and we love them for it. Public transit is their best tool for doing so. It puts you in a confined space teeming with people you might never otherwise decide to spend time with.
A world without public transit is one where you are much less likely to be completely outside your comfort zone. Your Thanksgiving travel, and all of your commuting, would be the suburbia of transportation: much more convenient, definitely more expensive, and it will make you lonelier than King Midas. Be grateful for the inconvenience of travel. Convenience is the opposite of community.
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