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Defending public transit

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“I like travelling by Underground. This is a defiant admission. I am always hearing, reading, I hate the Underground.” So writes Doris Lessing in her essay “In Defence of the Underground.” She talks about the fascinating assortment of people one observes, the conversations one can eavesdrop in on, and the ease of moving about without being stuck in traffic; there is also the fact of not having to afford a car or figure out where to park it. In Colombo, every time I take a taxi or a tuk-tuk I pay from ten to over 30 times more than I would to travel the same distance by bus; similarly, maintaining a bicycle requires a fraction of the expense as does a car. As for people-watching, the possibilities are endless. Here there are often rowdy schoolchildren, or elderly ladies in saris amidst young men in jeans and t-shirts; I can’t follow the Sinhala conversations but many people speak to their companion or on the phone in animated English.

The powerful tend not to use public transit and thus don’t lobby for improvements; many people may be afraid to use it, and it can, especially in the places I tend to frequent, be fairly uncomfortable: hot, and jarring. Buses do not always come to a full stop to allow passengers on and off, and elsewhere the frequency of transit, choice of destinations, and ability to decipher the system leaves much to be desired. But none of the problems are inherent to public transit; if those of us who love it despite the problems, and those who wished to use it, demanded that investments be shifted from road to rail and from cars to buses, then the services could improve vastly. In the meantime, it helps to talk often about the pleasures and other advantages of moving through a city not isolated in a steel box but rather together with others, experiencing urban life, not always at its best but rarely without revealing something of interest.