Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Quality of Life Crime

I am addicted to opportunity. That sounds almost positive out of context, but the opportunity I'm talking about is cigarettes. I hardly ever buy a pack but, I'll bum a couple in the course of a week. Being attentive to the 'bumming market', I know that there is a geographical threshold downtown where free smokes end and 50 cent lucy vendors loiter. By the bus stop it seems almost impolite to ask a stranger for a free smoke. To pay a stranger, or at least offer payment, is a courtesy acknowledging that individual's financial obligation associated with paying for his own vice. But overall bumming a cig requires trust and sometimes a conversation while waiting for the bus. Responsible panhandlers rely on the social support of the groups around them and must be prepared to repay that social support at a later time. I spoke with a man (Mr. H; not pictured) who escaped being arrested for asking for a cigarette.

Mr. H told another story where he saw street preachers having their freedom of speech revoked. He continued by extrapolating his experience to a more extreme example. He seems to suggest that there is no limit to the absurdity of the law and violated freedoms.

The question remains whether quality of life laws stifle the natural social dynamic of the street or truly benefit the public. The bus stop in Rochester is a gathering place lower income urban population. Many of the folks who ride the bus do it because they have to and have no choice. I don't like my two hour commute but I can't afford a car. The presence of police at the bus stop who attempt to ensure our safety the quality of our commuting experience does little to dignify the bus as a commuting option. The degradation of quality of life and basic comfort is a result of a failing commuting system. A system which is losing customers who ride the bus by choice, rather than by consequence of their socioeconomic situation. These are the people asking you for some change or a smoke.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

This Train is Bound for Airport Station...This Train is B...

Short story by Rumple Jones

A blondish child smells polished leather sitting in his stroller as he is lulled to sleep by the white noise in the tunnel and the sway of the metro car. "We are taking a trip" repeats the mother of three in her permed head. The father might as well be wearing a polo shirt and or khaki shorts. He hasn't taken the effort to take off his sunglasses as the train enters the tunnel. Meanwhile the daughter suddenly remembers the precise location of the packed snacks and candy. The now sleeping child is the center of those red leather suitcases like swollen petals of an orchid.
"We are taking a trip" the mother thinks closing her purse. When the brother asks, the father is prepared saying "we have nine more stops to go." And when the sister asks, the father is prepared saying "no." And when the mother asks, the father is prepared saying "no honey."

Oh but, the little girl knows that the packed snacks come in three varieties:
-"The Good Parent"
Nuts and mixed fruits, bland trail mix.

-"The Messy Variety"
Sticky-finger-making sweet foods.

-"The Parental Guilt"
Last Halloween's spoils which were never rationed out as promised.

Everyone must be reassured.
"We are taking a trip"
"Three more stations to go"
"You can hold it"
"Maybe when we get there"
And with much fidgeting and luggage scooting and precarious territoriality of a UMCWASP family on public transit, they have compacted their presence to a mere three seat in-cove near the door. The sleeping child swallowed by the flower, the daughter with sticky fingers, the son slowly leaking into his pants, the father with expensive socks, and the mother contracting a cold she has no knowledge of.

by Rumple Jones

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Regular Crowd

How many times does one encounter the same person on the bus before asking him or her about more than the weather? Secondary relationships are less involved, cognitively efficient and integral to daily life. Stereotypes form naturally and weaken our desire to learn more about our fellow passerby, janitor, or cashier. So it happens that the crowd is rarely a place of meaningful social interaction. But how does the regular crowd become just that and transcend those secondary relationships? How do we over come our comfortably anonymity?

The bustling crowds on the street are effectively unbustled once the people become commuters. Sitting still for a prolonged duration, we present ourselves to strangers. However silent and uneventful that space, we never feel awkward or obligated for keeping to ourselves. We comfortably accept an oath of public anonymity and sink into our thoughts forgetting ourselves. "The guard is down and the mask is off even more than when in lone bedrooms where there is a mirror. People's faces are in naked repose down in the subway" writes Walker Evans.

Darren is an RIT photo student from Istanbul who made the move to Rochester keeping in mind the public transportation routes. Like many international students he settled at Rustic Villiage apartments and commutes with a regular crowd of fellow students via express bus, school shuttle or the city bus that arrives at RIT. The buses run roughly every 90 to 60 minutes. Every semester there forms a unique regular crowd around a certain time. Darren remarks that the bus is a unique "social entity" because it relies on the balance of many factors.

Since the crowd is comprised of a similar demographic and is connected on a level beyond transit, there is a greater familiarity among the crowd. The student commuters feel a sense of belonging and exclusiveness apart from the other commuters, which encourages interaction within the group. The mere consistency of exposure that the students have to each other may also spur on some conversation. And if students don't sleep or read, the duration of the ride gives them enough time to hold a conversation.

This is one isolated example where the conditions encourage a sense of community and interaction. Darren and I compared our experiences of Istanbul and Moscow transit systems. When buses arrive every few minutes in a heavily populated city, the regular crowd dissipates into coincidental groupings of more varied commuters. There are moments when the bus tram or train is spilling over and a out of common civility a line forms. The short falls of the public transit systems bind people together much more strongly. The complaints become conversation topics and the waiting line may evolve into a small group of regulars. However, when the cogs of the public transit system are spinning efficiently, there is no lag. In the hurried pace of transit, there is less of a sense of community, belonging and the interactions are superficial, and sparse.

The perception of the European cosmopolitan citizenry bound together by an urban experience may be much less romantic than it seems. Studies indicate that an increased accessibility to public transportation does not indicate a greater social cohesion as much as it provides accessibility and universal mobility around the city (Wickham, 2006). When choosing public transportation as an option, commuters are more considerate of the future environmental impact of cars than the social value of their commuting experience (Joireman, Van Lange & Van Gugt, 2004). The dichotomy is clear to Darren and many others: increased transit service, however inclusive and beneficial, dissolves the regular crowd. On the other hand, collective experience never fails to tie a society together. Recent social research has revealed that Americans are losing social ties due to their isolated lifestyles. One may wonder if our common gripes about gas prices will find a seat on the bus -as social entity- and a friendly ear too.

More to come: Student commuters submit their accounts of the bus as a social entity...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

"Anywhere is within walking distance, if..."

I had some gift cards left over from the holidays and decided to make my way out to the Pittsford Plaza Barnes and Nobel. I met Justin H. at the bus stop waiting for the #7. Justin is in the tenth grade and divides most of his free time between work and spending time with his family. He was on his way to Wegmans where he works as a cashier. After exchanging complaints about the recent weather we started talking about life and work. Justin's commute to work ranges between two to three hours, but he lives just under 8 miles away (an 11 minute car trip). He crosses two towns in order to reach his job and he doesn't seem to mind. "People where I live don't have any patience, when they have to go they have to go," Justin said. There is a less strenuous work ethic and the people are simply friendlier out in Pittsford.

Our long awaited bus arrived, but the driver informed us that the #7 doesn't reach Pittsford Plaza on Sundays. As discouraging as this sounded to me, Justin, cheerful and intent said, "We could walk." It was clear by his vivid geographical description that he had walked the five miles many times. Walking briskly through unplowed snow we stopped momentarily in front of Cobbs Hill Park where we could see sledders and their parents. I was surprised to hear that Justin had never gone sledding having lived in Rochester his entire life. We passed a bowling alley a while later and he remarked "I haven't gone bowling in a long while." As we checked our watches and walked faster I had a stronger sense of Justin as an industrious and optimistic young man. He soon warned me that we would have to walk without the sidewalk in the next leg of our walk.

Stephen Wright once wrote that "anywhere is within walking distance if you have the time." Justin is seems to be the type of individual who will make the time. The deficient transit system, as annoying as it may be doesn't seem to phase his effort. He is capable of working within his community, but he chooses not to and perhaps with sound reasons.

The crime rate of inner city Rochester is much higher than that of suburban Pittsford. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's estimates the zip code in which Justin resides has 800% more families under the poverty level than the entire town of Pittsford (12.1% compared to 1.5% in 2000). This may only be speculation, but it seems that Justin is willing to travel farther for the optimistic and successful crowd and atmosphere. To him, it may be a daily routine or an occasional chore but in the greater scheme, every trip he makes to his job he transcends economic and social boundaries.