8 Observations on the Human Condition Via Bay Area Public Transit Systems

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By contributor Kate Getty

AC Transit Map (October 1976)/Via AC Transit

I just moved to the East Bay off one of the most consistently worst highways in all the land. I-80. So I’ve learned more about public transportation in this one month than I did when I lived off the Muni Judah line and took the N pretty exclusively for two years, which I don’t remember much. It’s like I blocked it out. Maybe it was the constant overcrowding. Maybe it was the “will this car get stuck in a dark tunnel?” roulette every single trip. Or maybe I moved the month BART strikes loomed, giving the entire concept of public transportation just all that more resonance in its importance in my life and the lives of my fellow Bay kids.


Either way, I decided to take a regular weekday and sit on the train, the bus, the ferry, even a streetcar. For four hours. To experience commuting all the different ways. I eavesdropped. I overheard. I got scared. I got bold. I did that thing where you put on headphones but don’t turn them on, listening in on everyday conversations about groceries, or how they just bought a “club” for their car. I read too much into everything, turned everything into metaphors, and came out of it -- very glad I did it.

Well, except for some of the smells.


Here is some of what I learned this time around:

1. People on BART don’t talk to each other much. So it’s not the greatest train to sit and try to eavesdrop. There is a smoothness to its operations that seems to put people more at ease. Maybe they pump something through the air system, like they do at Target. It subdues the soul. Even on a crowded, three bikes and a rush hour train, BART is silent besides overhearing someone’s bad techno and the hushed “excuse me’s” of people in the morning.

2. The F Train is hard to love because it is hard to love tourists that seem to hit high-pitch notes of fear when their little fold-up map doesn’t tell them exactly which pier to get off at. But the F train is also hard not to love. It adds a sense of whimsy to the day, and views of the Embarcadero, and I got on the Louisville, Kentucky streetcar and that’s where I was born so I took that as a wink from the universe.


3. The 22 is the bus of the city. More stories are told here, more action happens, and more lives are changed, just by being on this bus.

4. Ferries are beautiful and give you rare views of the city, from angles that Instagram will wonder hashtag where are you, are you taking the day off for one of those Bay cruises with dinner theater  Also, ferries have bars on them. And the bartenders on ferries are the coolest people. Just talk to one of them.

5. Cable cars are not realistically for someone who lives and works in San Francisco to use as a part of their lifestyle. Well, there is probably that one guy in a suit, looking at his watch a lot, sighing dramatically behind the crowds of fanny-packed camera phones forgetting to take in the view, but filming everything. I can’t blame them, really, because it’s a damn gorgeous city. But, just a reminder, take an actual look around sometimes, too, fair visitors of the Bay. That’s also how you don’t run into other people.

Muni Metro Map/Via Muni

6. For some people, public transportation is a place to be. A roof. A way to block wind, or sun, or just a seat to sit down. A way to pay $2 and ride around a beautiful city, instead of being harassed by cops or wondering how you will buy your next meal. For some wandering, walking citizens of our city, the bus is a moment of refuge. A blessing to be off their feet. So please, let’s all try to share the space.  I have a feeling that if we all just shifted our frame to “There is room for us all here,” there really will be room for us all here.

7. TransBay buses are so chill and it’s like nobody uses them because everybody is convinced BART is the only thing that goes places, and fair enough, I did too before I moved East, but seriously. Try a bus. I did and it was like, whoa, why have I not been doing this all the time? (Find your closest bus here and cue this now.)

Cable Car Map/via Cable Car Museum


8. Public transportation is the great equalizer. Look around. There are so many different types of people, all in one space, brought together by necessity. And there is a certain peace to that, a certain knowing, a certain familiarity. Like a “we’re all in this thing together” under everything. Because literally, we are all in this “thing” together. But this thing happened when my train got delayed: “a train broke down in the tunnel from the East Bay to the city” and then a “health emergency” on another train furthered the delay. Our conductor kept updating us as he found out info, and because he did this, we were all calm. And I noticed something happen. This stupid thing was happening, everyone who needed to be somewhere was going to be late, and there was nothing we could do … so people just started talking to one another, pulling their ear buds out of their ears and speaking actual “good-morning” type words to one another, laughing, sharing in the “aw shucks” of the context. Now, I’ve seen this go the entire opposite way. Train stuck, fangs come out. People sighing passive-aggressive movie theater sighs, rumbling expletives under their breaths. I’ve seen it get really ugly. But this time, I was caught in a car where we all could do nothing but be exactly where we were, stuck, quiet, together. Connected. Resigned to make the best of it and be nice to one another. Then, with a quick announcement, the train starts moving, and without anyone really saying anything, we all put our earphones back in, heads back to screens, and numb off again in trances. Back to silence. But for a moment, it was different. And it’s cool to see it, and to know we all turned to one another when that train was stuck. It’s in us all. To want to be connected. And when we all just stay open to it, I think it’s actually our natural inclination to be nice to each other. And that’s actually pretty cool.