The Commute and Observations


I take public transport to work. It’s something that I’ve been doing for about 6 months now. This might not be newsworthy to many folks and if you’re living in a metropolitan area like New York City or Hong Kong, taking public transport to work is an integral part of one’s day.

As much as I claim to have humble beginnings (relatively) from India, I’ve been privileged enough to find a place quite near to where I studied or where I worked. I didn’t have to use public transport for work or school although I did have to use them quite a lot for my other extra-curricular activities. The 2 years I was at NC State for my Masters, I loved taking the Wolfline, which is a public transport system but yet is operated by the university and is more appropriately a university transport system.

Having moved homes in December last year, I had to decide if I will drive all the way to San Francisco or take the Bart from East Bay. I ruled out the former in a heartbeat since I realized I wasn’t crazy enough to sit behind the wheel for 1.5 hours in traffic each way.

If you don’t live in the area, you might not know that Bart is notorious for its shabby service and patrons have always complained about vagrants smoking joints and spitting weed on trains and incidents of crime in Bart stations. Having never been on Bart before in my life, I had also heard a few incidents from a bunch of friends. And understandably, I was initially skeptic about using the service.

But the last 6 months have been the best in terms of commuting to work. I used to take the shuttle to work for about 1.5 years prior to this but I’ve always felt I was less productive on the shuttle owing to motion sickness. On the other hand, the Bart is wonderfully convenient. I get stuff done if I get a place to sit and if not, I just bring a book (or a paper) along and read it over my 45 minute one-way commute. People complain a lot about the Bart and I just have to say these are entitled folks. :) I should say it’s a privilege to use the service rather than sitting behind the wheel in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And trains have been mostly clean and I’ve never had any major issues. And yes, it’s just been 6 months. Hope it stays the same.

But the main topic of this post is not about the Bart but an increasingly prevalent phenomenon on the Bart. A public transport system is a perfect place to observe people and practice your body-language interpretation skills. That lady’s eyebrows are getting narrower as she’s peering into her phone. Perhaps something’s wrong. This guy’s shoulders are relaxed as his fingers are scrolling on his phone. Perhaps he’s browsing his Instagram feed. The lady is smiling uncontrollably looking at the phone. She’s perhaps seeing videos of her 3 month old niece drooling on her bib. These are interesting to observe and I like imagining about what these people are thinking as they go by their day.

If you had noticed the common pattern in the previous paragraph, kudos to you. It’s the smartphone. Almost everyone I see on the Bart is peering into his or her phone. No exceptions at all. Old, young, middle-aged, man, woman, teen, Asian, Indian, Latino, Caucasian. Everyone! Every damn person! The Bart is damningly devoid of chatter and human vocal sounds. The only sound you hear are the screeches and rumblings as the train wades through its course into the City of San Francisco.

Occasionally you’ll see an old couple filing into the train from a station and happily chattering about the world, about their family, about their grand kids (perhaps) in Japanese. And they’ll be surrounded by hoards of people with a tilted head peering into their phones with wires (yes Apple, not everyone is using earpods) dangling from their ears and snaking its way into their hoodies. Times like this make you jolt out of your little world confined into this magic device in your hands which purportedly is the gateway to bliss and happiness.

Is this the right step for mankind? Are we losing the human touch? Are we getting increasingly insular? Are we speaking less to strangers? Are we not making random acquaintances with folks on the train? More importantly, are we afraid to even lift our heads and see reality and instead prefer to see the world through the screens of a powerful von Neumann machine?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t know if a decade from now, humans will still be holding on to smartphones. I don’t know (or cannot remember) how things were before the summer of 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone. I don’t know.

For now, all I can say is I enjoy taking the Bart and like painting alternate realities for all those fellow passengers with their tilted heads peering into their smartphones.