In praise of – Buses

(Elizabeth has begun a post topic on bus ride observations and linked to a wonderful post by another blogger about encounters on the bus there too.)

Whether you call it the ‘loser cruiser’ or the ‘winner wagon’ chances are you have all used that most maligned of public transports – the bus.

But why is it so often scorned by those arbiters of transport taste?  Trains seemingly continue to conjure an atmosphere of romance despite long since spurning the far more textural coal and steam for a more insipid electric propulsion.  Trains are the proper setting for intrigues, affairs, murder and enlightenment.  Buses are apparently stigmatised by the presence of teenagers (either the surly and intimidating or obnoxiously rowdy specimens), drunk people, smelly people and… talkers.

But I put it to you that bus rides can be so much more than the unpleasant interlude between work and home.  Buses are your key to the city, a mobile platform with which to view the daily business of the town, even your unwavering guide through the maze of everyday urban transit.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Christchurch boasts a pretty good bus-based public transport system.  If you commute to work using the bus (i.e. spend $21 per week) you get to ride free all weekend.  There are services called the Orbiter and the Metro Star which circumnavigate and cross the city.  If one were so inclined one could simply ride around all weekend getting to observe and experience the garden city in a manner which no other mode could afford.

And then there are the drivers.

Characters one and all.  On a freezing winter evening having waited at the bus stop after work, the bus arrives, the doors open and you step into the warmth, sharing a small, grateful smile with the driver.  They know, on those days, that their service is life enhancing.  I hope they go home to warm homes and families, brimming with work satisfaction – they brought a bus-load of people home safe and sound tonight.

Once, dark and cold at the bus stop, having been slightly caught out by the weather that day I waved what must have appeared to be a desperate arm to the driver and the bus pulled over.  I jumped aboard as the driver grinned and said “I wouldn’t leave you behind”.

I think my morning rides are my favourite, however.  I tend to catch the bus post-commuter rush as I like a little more space on my journey.  You can watch people at your leisure and read.  There’s something about the light and the quiet.  It’s as if everyone is deep in lauds, preparing for the days labours or perhaps asking for some divine intervention to commute, divert, or somehow cancel said labours.  Maybe we’re all just half-asleep.  In one or two memorable dreams I am indeed naked on the bus or in my jim-jams.

My current favourite driver is on a slightly later timetable than I normally catch but on occasion (OK, quite frequently) I’m running late enough to get the singular experience that is he.  The first thing you notice is his friendly, cheery smile and thick Eastern European accent as he actually welcomes you aboard like a kind of Russian Captain Stubing.  You manoeuvre down the aisle towards your seat of choice in the raised bit at the back of the bus and sit down, get settled, gloves and scarf off, book out, check out the other passengers and are suddenly assaulted by some hardcore Christian worship songs blaring smugly through the bus sound system.  Now, I don’t know if it’s within regulation for drivers to play their own CDs on the bus.  I seem to remember some years back a kerfuffle over what radio stations they should be allowed to play and as is always the case in those situations, compromise led to everyone losing.  So if things are now laissez-fare regarding drivers’ musical predilections then we certainly have a more interesting commute on our hands.  Like some ancient Chinese curse, my ride into the city (and sometimes home) is an ‘interesting time’.  The full-on Christian music (it sounds like the same band every time, usually live) is ecstatic in its praise and passion and after several rides like this I find myself strangely uplifted by its effusive giddiness even as I’m simultaneously nauseated.  I cannot help but smile as I swap bemused glances with fellow passengers.  I see people actively turning up their ipods.  And every time someone gets off the bus the driver merrily calls out “you have a nice day!”  It gets really friendly at the exchange where there is a mass disembarkation and it feels like everyone’s leaving a party there’s so much fond farewelling going on.

Other journeys, different drivers, have been accompanied by ‘best of’ NZ hits from the eighties, the whole gamut of crap commercial radio and joy of joys, one evening with Radio NZ National.

I feel for all you solitary drivers, idling in your metal cocoons, insulated from the mortifying world of human interaction (and the output of your exhaust pipes), gnashing your teeth as you’re passed by another winner wagon in the bus lane next to you, the joyful sounds of music and the smiling faces of all us losers beaming out on your stagnant parade.

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4 thoughts on “In praise of – Buses

  1. Buses are a wonderful way to get a collection of people together and such an opportunity for even brief discourse. I recently took a bus from home to work on a cold wet day. I met up with a man I had not seen for some years. I used to coach his boy at cricket. It was nice to take the chance and talk to him as we waited evn though I felt a little embarassed to do so. Thankfully it was a nice chat catching up on what his boy was doing. It gave a little spark to my day.
    The bus offers a chance to communicate within our community. More and more as we live in houses with higher fences and gated communities, the fear of the “community” grows. As we are social by nature, I believe we are gradually losing our humanity in the modern world where communication is more hi-tech and done remotely (email, texting etc).
    Although bus conversations may be small and ‘trivial’, they are a start. Let us not become like the joke I heard about the London underground at peak time:
    “How can you tell the tourists on the London underground?”
    “They are the ones talking to people.!”

  2. Hi Ciaran,

    When I first lived in Auckland many years ago I couldn’t afford a car and spent my first 3 years busing around the city. It had it’s challenges in a city built for the car, as Auckland very much is, but I got heaps of reading done (on my 30-40 minutes commutes to and from work) and especially at the end of the day it was a great ‘wind down’ between work and home.

    • Thanks for the comment Helen! Yes many of my Auckland friends can recount tales of no-show buses and everytime I’m there I seem to find a traffic jam caused by a broken down bus. Still, benefit of the doubt – they probably have a bigger fleet to look after… nah, they’re just crap! Anyway, you’re right, I really like the bus ride to and from work, particularly getting to read for half an hour but also these great little vignettes we’re encountering.

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