It’s not easy to warm up to public transport, but here are nine tips for those brave enough to try.
Public transport in Chennai, is like the coffee in our office canteen. It may make you cringe at first, but pretty soon the practicality and low price overcome its cosmetic limitations, and it becomes part of life. Once your expectations are sufficiently low, you will be occasionally hit with a cuppa that will knock your socks off.
Public transport may not be everybody’s cup of coffee, but there are a few physical and mental qualities which if worked on, can make your bus/train/ auto/pedestrian experience a lot easier. This list is drawn from my experience with the public transportation system in Chennai.
The more I walk on our roads, the more I realise the folly of being too careful. But to get cocky too soon is dangerous. I spent at least a year being a perfectly lawful commuter before becoming confident enough to break some rules.
For example, it is ludicrous to expect pedestrians to habitually use the subway outside Chennai Central station to get to the other side of the road. It’s woefully unsecure, badly maintained, overcrowded, inadequately lighted, and out of the way. During monsoons, I’ve known the subway to transform into a calf-deep stream of stagnant water, the sight of which could dampen the spirits of even the most sunny dispositions. Luckily our traffic policemen usually empathise, and hold the traffic while the herds of pedestrians cross the road. Nobody complains because it’s that time of the day when catching that train is more important than preserving your life.
Walking on pavements in this city is a test of your athleticism. Make sure you hop over the manholes, squeeze between the two slow uncles ahead of you, dodge the occasional motorbike and swerve away from a urine-stained wall. But if you’re really unlucky, you may find yourself in a street with no apparent pavement. Unfortunately there is no personality trait that can save you from a speeding truck. Keep calm, and jaywalk.
Granted, you’ve had a long hard day, the heat and the sultriness has you questioning your will to live, and you are in no mood to socialise with your chatty co-passenger. I’ve found however, that listening to strangers can be strangely comforting at times. It distracts you from your own grievances, and very often puts things in perspective. I often find myself grudgingly grateful that I’m not the one carrying a cranky infant, or the one with a daughter-in-law who refuses to buy the grocery.
When I first started using the MTC bus service, I used to detest being asked to keep somebody’s bag on my lap. I valued my comfort too much and thought it unfair that I had to suffer because someone else couldn’t come early enough to get an empty bus. It’s not something I enjoy even now, but I’ve come to realise that carrying a heavy backpack can be really tiring, not to mention, unsafe when it’s crowded, so I’m not as bitter about it as I used to be.
Similarly, if you have a usual route, it helps to not be nasty. It won’t kill you to give up your seat for someone who looks like he/she needs it more. What they told us in kindergarten was true. If you’re nice to people, they’re nice to you. Of course you need to draw lines for yourself. There are days when you just need that seat. And I, for one, may accept backpacks but never babies.
This one comes only with experience. There will come a point after extensive public transport travelling, when you will develop a subconscious ability to sense when a passenger is about to get off the bus/train. After you spot a candidate, stealthily move towards him/her. A commonly used tactic is trapping the person inside in such a way that when he/she has to get down, you are the only one who can squeeze into the coveted space. This may earn you a few dirty looks and swear words, but if you wanted the seat so badly you’ll learn to not care.
You want to be popular in the autorickshaw circles? What you need is spunk. Unfortunately, spunk is a trait that you’re usually either born with, or you’ll never have. To find out if you have it, you just need to shed your shyness and ego. Don’t be cute, be frank. Tell him you earn peanuts so can’t afford to overpay. It works more often than you’d imagine.
7. Brute force
Most of us tend to undervalue the role of strength in public transportation. Anybody who has frequented the bus service will know of the dreaded jammed window. I’m not joking when I say a closed window can suffocate you during summer. There is a very good chance that the seat you plop down on has a jammed window that can only be fixed with an almighty shove and a grunt. So get fit.
8. Adequate change
One of the easiest and most sure-shot way to a satisfying commute is possessing the right amount of change. Bus conductors do NOT take kindly to Rs. 100/500 notes, so keep them out of sight as far as possible. If you have no choice then be suitably apologetic. Grovel if you must.
9. Olfactory insensitivity
Warming up to public transport cannot take place unless your nasal glands have been sufficiently unsensitised. When my daily commute involved a daily bus ride to Porur, I trained my nose to stall inhalation during the couple of minutes when the bus passed a massive garbage dump. Nasal control is even more invaluable for pedestrians who need to deal with public urinators.
Disclaimer: I am not a professional public transport counsellor. I am merely a (presently) non-vehicle-owning sub-editor. If you are invincible, flexible, amicable, generous, perceptive, tenacious, strong, constantly have change, olfactorily insensitive, and you still manage to fall off the bus, make a new list.
(Nandita Jayaraj writes for ‘By The Way’, and is a guest-blogger here. She writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet her @nandita_j)