Is there anything as frustratingly, uncomfortably, maddeningly brilliant as public transport?
I write, squashed up into the corner of a replacement bus between Guildford and Haslemere. It is a wet Saturday morning. Every seat is occupied by someone looking almost as miserable as I feel, with exception of the teenage couple canoodling in the corner. The bus is running so late that I will probably miss my onwards train and be forced to sit on a rainy platform next to a screaming child whilst South West Trains makes yet another polite apology for ‘minor delays’.
The gentleman beside me is chewing on something that smells like it died a very long time ago. A young woman is shamelessly discussing her Friday night out with a friend on the phone. There’s a leak in the ceiling next to me. And to top things off, a lady with a muddy pushchair just ran over my foot.
No, there really is nothing quite like it in the entire world. I don’t know whether it’s the drip from the ceiling narrowly missing my forehead, the overpowering smell of my neighbour’s aftershave, or the fact that the bus driver is clearly due for an optician’s appointment, but there’s something about the sheer mass of people, the combination of all walks of life, the different conversations, occasions, destinations, that really gets me going.
I’m definitely not one of those exceptionally joyous people on public transport. Quite the contrary. I too get flustered, sweaty and stressed as I hurry to grab my yoghurt pot which has rolled from my carrier bag down the busy aisle of the bus. I too curse the way my Oyster always happens to run out when I’m furthest from a machine. Once, on a particularly unfortunate occasion, I was travelling by train from Reading to Henley and ended up in Exeter St David. (Long story). So no, I don’t enjoy travelling on public transport any more than the next person, and – whether it’s trains, buses or tubes – I have certainly had my fair share of unfortunate experiences on the damn things.
Yet there’s something frustratingly irresistible about them.
I took a taxi the other day. It was easy, it was smooth, and it was certainly ten times faster than taking the tube or bus. Glamorous, in fact. I arrived at the party feeling like Kate Middleton, minus the Prince and the paparazzi. My hair was intact, my feet were dry, and I hadn’t even broken a sweat.
But something wasn’t right. There was no adrenaline. No sense of achievement. No hilarious story of being asked to hold a woman’s marrow on the tube while she reached for her purse. It was too easy. No fun.
I’ve been in London for three months now, and I’m no longer the clueless tourist I was when I arrived. I look at those seat stealing, Oyster-swiping, Citymapper-worshipping Londoners and I realise I’m one of them. I’m one of those same London-savvy bus riders who sat there and laughed at me the first time I tried to take the 55 from Old street to Oxford Circus and got my purse out to pay. (Why did no one tell me they didn’t take money anymore?!)
And it was that day – that same day they decided to divert all normal bus routes without warning – that I swore to myself I would never, ever get on a public bus again.
It’s safe to say I didn’t stick to that promise. And thank goodness I didn’t. If I’d refused to take public transport I would never have witnessed a jazz band flashmob on the autobahn in Berlin. I would never have got chatting to a Glaswegian bus driver called Alan, who once won a bravery award from The Queen. If I’d refused to take public transport I would never have met the most amazing people in Sri Lanka – like the tsunami survivor who lost half of his leg, or the schoolboys who passed us notes through a train door, or the woman who offered me fifty pence for my hair.
A taxi may be glamorous and safe. A taxi may get you from A to B much faster than any train or bus. But you don’t meet interesting people in a taxi, you don’t overhear hilarious stories, and you certainly never end up in Exeter when you set out for Henley.
So I’m changing my pledge. As I sit here on my replacement bus service on a rainy Saturday morning, I solemnly swear to always travel by public transport. There’s nothing more uncomfortably fascinating in all the world.