In (genuine) praise of public transport

Despite its many, many shortcomings, Margaret Cabourn-Smith would still like to take a moment to sound a celebratory horn in the name of public transport.

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

Public transport – we all love it right? *ducks*

I know, I know, it’s overcrowded, unreliable and full of smelly idiots who aren’t us. I’m still a fan.

My theory is that the people who run the country should use public transport at least once a week. Because it seems to me that they could do with knowing who they’re actually working for. And all of life is there; the bleary-eyed shift-workers literally rubbing shoulders with the opera-goers studying their programmes and fingering their pearls. And yes, people can be annoying and smelly and loud but they’re also helpful, interesting and sociable. No, really.

I live in London and get the tube a lot. I love the diversity of passengers – all ages, races and nationalities are represented. Tourists, bankers, blue-collar workers, rude girls, wide boys, schoolchildren all brushing up against each other.

My sisters and I once got on a carriage with a few seats left, but none together. We dutifully sat separately – just too far apart to carry on our conversation. Our eyes kept meeting and we got the giggles. It got worse and worse because of the embarrassment of it; and our laughs aren’t the dainty sort.

“We’ve all witnessed horrible incidents… but I still think it’s better than each of us travelling in bubbles, hating everyone from a distance.”

Gradually, others joined in at the bizarre spectacle, until the whole carriage was laughing. I remember watching a lone man get off (I’m not even sure it was his stop) and as the train pulled out he was still doubled over, laughing on the platform. It was so funny and so joyful.

Another time I was among a cheering crowd on a night bus as a man managed, against the odds, to buy a hot dog through one of those tiny windows as we sat in traffic.

I was once travelling to work in a bad mood, especially irritated by a young couple smooching by the doors of a tube train. I may even have tutted. Suddenly, they said a brief emotional goodbye and the guy took his rucksack and got off at his stop.

His bereft companion quietly stood looking out the window and tears began rolling down her cheeks.

tubeA few of us exchanged glances. As one, we turned to look at the middle-aged woman standing nearest to her. She literally stepped up and handed the weeping girl a tissue, who took it and put her head on her shoulder. Our silently elected spokesperson quietly said, “It’s OK,” and offered a reassuring hug. Not a dry eye in the carriage.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that mostly, journeys aren’t like that. We’ve all witnessed horrible incidents too – tensions, vomit, violence, intolerance, disrespect. I KNOW. But I still think it’s better than each of us travelling in bubbles, hating everyone from a distance. I’d still like us to try to negotiate our society together.

Because isn’t that what life’s like? One day, you’re giggling for no reason, the next, you’re puking into your handbag. We’re all different; we’re all the same. I hate to say it, but we’re all in this together.


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Written by Margaret Cabourn-Smith

Margaret is a comedy writer performer popping up on your TV and radio who over thinks and over talks.