Thursday, January 27, 2005

Some thoughts about public transport

Christina and I had a bit of a painful trip home today -- a trip that normally takes 30-40 minutes took over an hour and a half. Basically, the subway we usually take was suffering indeterminate delays due to "signal problems and police action" at the Harvard subway stop, so we decided to take the bus home instead. Between waiting a while for the subway, walking to the bus stop and then suffering through the bus trip, a few things became clear to me.

Observation #1: Subways are less stochastic than buses. Subways are not subject to the vagaries of traffic, don't have to deal with the time penalty of new people getting on and having to pay at each stop and have a pre-determined number of stops. This makes taking a subway much more predictable, and hence, preferable to a bus.

Observation #2: Being on a subway/bus with lots of undergraduates will make you lose brain cells. Our bus route took us past Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute of Technology and probably a couple other of the tertiary educational institutions that seem to sprout out of Boston's soil like mushrooms. As a result, we got to spend lots of time listening to the conversations of 18-21 year-olds and, boy oh boy, are they ever fascinating. Not. I think all conversations we overheard can be reconstructed through pseudo-random recombinations [only loosely constrained by grammar] of the words/phrases "like", "oh my god", "totally", "beer", "bar", "suck", "drink/drunk", "hot", "cute", "class" and "exam". [I'm sure I didn't sound any better at that age, but that doesn't mean I can't find it annoying now.]

Observation #3: Lots of people seem to have no sense of privacy. It's somewhat unfair to single out a particular age group as having inane conversations -- my subway conversations aren't exactly scintillating gems of erudition either. But, and this is a key difference, I try to pitch my voice such that the only person who can hear me is whoever I'm talking to. Lots of people don't seem to have that filter, whether they're talking to somebody face-to-face or on their cellphone -- whether you want to or not, you overhear their conversation. I always wonder whether they don't realize this or just don't care, perhaps being of the opinion that their life is so fascinating that of course everybody would want to hear about it.

Observation #4: Music is insulation. I'd never really thought about why so many people seem to be listening to music on the subway or bus, but today it struck me that it's a form of insulation. You don't have to deal with hearing other people's conversations, can control what you hear and it provides a way to stay entertained while your mode of transport trundles ever so slowly towards its destination. I may have to start listening to music too.

All this brings me to a few proposals:

Proposal #1: Each subway car should be outfitted with a decibel meter that indicates the noise level inside the car. This would allow passengers to avoid getting into a car that contains noise-generating entities like rambunctious teenagers and young men who want to show everybody how tough they are and hence spend lots of time cursing loudly.

Proposal #2: Somewhat in line with proposal #1, there should be kids [up to 18], young adults [18-25] and adult [25+] sections on public transportation. This would prevent friction due to incompatible population segments.

Proposal #3: Public places, like the aquarium or zoo, should give each set of visitors helmets with a built-in microphone and radio system, tuned to a frequency unique to that set of visitors. This would allow each group to talk to each other but not have to hear everybody else.

Ok, so I'm a curmudgeon who really likes undisturbed private space. Maybe I should just build myself a Fortress of Solitude [on a tropical island, though, not in the Arctic] and retreat to it.

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