Just a Thought: March 2, 2016
The upside of riding downtown
Last summer, I had the enormous good fortune to visit Serbia and witness life there in the context of one bighearted, generous family. They wanted me to see how rich the country is in culture and connection. And how the story of its people is far more complex than the one many of us in America have heard from news reports.
We traveled by bus several times during my stay, mostly just to get around Belgrade. It's uncommon for families to own more than one car – if that. So public transportation is ubiquitous and well-used by all walks of life, even for longer trips throughout the country like the one we took from northwest Serbia back to Belgrade one evening.
Summer sunset light colored the landscape and everyone moving within it a warm sepia tone, reminiscent of historical photos. As we rolled through pastoral villages, people climbed on or off, wearing stories on their suntanned faces of life lived in this beautiful, complicated country.
Outside our windows, families ate languidly at picnic tables with chickens scrambling about; an occasional goat or two grazing on the small parcel surrounding the house. And everywhere, gardens spilled over with August's harvest of tomatoes, known in Serbian as paradajz, pronounced – fittingly, given their succulence – like "paradise."
What I learned during my trip to Serbia could fill a book. But one of the most practical takeaways is how much I love using public transportation. It occurred to me that many of my fondest travel memories – the scenes that play themselves out year after year on the movie screen in my mind – are from trains, and boats, and buses.
What a joy it is to let the mind wander as someone else takes the wheel. To stare out a window at scenes unfamiliar; to watch as riders enter and exit, imagining the purpose of their travel and what their lives are like beyond the brief span of time you'll share with them. All of you are headed the same way, but with such fascinatingly diverse stories.
And so, since returning to Erie, I now take the bus regularly, and am intrigued by similar encounters with other lives. People make life happen in such vastly different ways. And if you're always driving the same route alone in a metal box with wheels, it's harder to remember that your way is not the only way.
We hear a lot about how fossil fuels are doing us in, and how we ought to adopt alternatives like public transportation.
Locally, we hear a lot lately about the debate over how to proceed once the EMTA's charter expires in September.
What receives less press is how pleasurable it can be to "ride the E." How relaxing it is to sit back and watch the world go by as your mind sorts through the day's stimuli. How – at least on my countless rides – drivers are unfailingly helpful. How fellow riders are kind and courteous, almost never exiting the bus without a "thank you" for the driver. How buses are on time, comfortable, and cleaner than many personal cars. And how much money you can save if you're able to do without a vehicle, which you no longer have to maintain, register, inspect, park, insure, and fill with fossil fuel.
Buses have long been symbolic, from Rosa Parks to the Montgomery Bus Boycott to The Graduate.
And in some ways, the EMTA is becoming another symbol of the political stagnation Erie has come to know so well.
But let's not allow that single story to hijack our entire perception. Because the EMTA – like this region it serves – is so much more than a problem to be solved.
Katie Chriest can be contacted at katie@ErieReader.com.