This September, BART celebrated its 40th anniversary. Besides a reason to celebrate BART for free ice cream giveaways and a promotion giving away 1,000 $40 BART tickets, it is interesting to look back and see how the role of the public in public transportation has changed in the United States and abroad.
Before BART made its way across the Bay Area, hundreds of district meetings took place to encourage the public’s help in determining BART routes. With all that input behind us, the significant portion of us who ride BART trains today don’t have a driving desire to attend BART board meetings to give public feedback and suggestions regarding transportation. Communication between the public and public transportation management in America has taken a backseat.
At any point while boarding a BART train, it is rarely necessary to come into contact with BART’s actual management. With everything about BART standardized, from the time you board the train to its selection of stops to the time spent traveling, any passenger can see that BART management’s decisions guide our actions in the stations. It’s easy to catch a ride because BART has taken care of all the logistics of traveling. To move, we just need a ticket — not communication.
Even though it is assumed that computers and thorough logistical management allow for BART’s ease of transportation, it is possible to experience an even easier traveling experience that does not depend on as much automation.
Every summer that I travel to Lima, Peru, instead of looking out for electronic bulletins that list destinations and times for departure, I can catch a ride from any bus at any hour on any street without dependence on electronics. All I had to do during my stay this summer was listen to the bus ticketer yelling out the destination off the side of a moving bus. With the bus ticketer tirelessly repeating names of cities and routes every few meters, the ticketer had a voice that could be heard while traveling anywhere in Lima. Over the static roar of honks vibrating onto the sidewalks and the weight of heavy traffic on the road, the voices of many ticketers on buses around the area created almost a metropolitan chant — a harmonic listing of places where people were heading.
Still, although a ticketer’s voice is more personable than BART’s automated notifications, even a ticketer’s voice becomes an audio backdrop like BART’s destination notifications. The voice of the ticketer becomes of little importance, since travelers only need to hear it for their own individual traveling purposes. With the Andean metropolitan population busy chasing to catch up to the rest of the world financially, it doesn’t really make a difference whether a person or a machine notifies them of a destination. When there are places to go and people to see, luxuries that make traveling easier become commonplace.
But in Lima, it is not just the ticketer I often ignored. Cut off from the noise of the world on a bus playing top-40 songs and Spanish classics, I almost didn’t notice when the music on the bus lost its static. Lifting my head from the windshield, I saw a man blowing into pan pipes and rasping a rippled wood cylinder with an Afro hair pick. After living in California for most of my life, it was easy to forget that not everything I experienced or heard while riding public transportation was the result of a machine. Again and again, musicians were not the only ones who stepped in and out of these vehicles. A vendor occasionally strolled up and down the aisles of seats, selling colorful hard candy or sharing a personal anecdote of struggle. Vendors of sweets and sadness would only step off my bus to board another in order to begin another cycle of pathos to appeal to passengers for change. Eventually, the accumulation of tragic stories and varieties of candy began to all sound and taste the same.
While people in the states ordinarily use public transportation like BART to a reach a destination, people abroad use buses to market a product or service they might have to offer. But, as a commodity we take for granted, the daily use of public transportation leaves us immune to noticing the voices, whether automated or human, around us. The sound of the city seems to take on the role of elevator music. It’s there, but it doesn’t make a difference if we listen to it or not. We selectively listen to what we need to hear. Though public transportation in Lima is nowhere near as standardized and computerized as BART routes, a passenger in Lima also does not have to communicate with ticketers or bus drivers unless there is a problem that disrupts the process of transportation.
In the end, it’s no shock that we have nothing to say to BART. The easier things become, the less we have to say. So, happy birthday, BART — what else can I say?
Contact Jacqueline Alas at [email protected]