August 15, 2019
What I’ve Learned From Taking Public Transportation
101 trolley to 69th Street Transportation CenterSource: New Life | Penelope Peru Photography
Standing shoulder to shoulder, smushed together like sardines on a silver bullet that travels 55 mph from either end of the city, a “whoosh” falls upon your ears. The doors open and a school of passengers part the sea of those waiting to board. As you funnel out unto the boarding platform, the strong, unmistakable scent of urine wafts through your nostrils.
Ah, good ol’ public transportation. It may not be the cleanest or most consistent way to get from point A to B, but it has taught me what it means to be free.
A Bit of Context…
I don’t drive – and not because I’m totally against the idea, it really boils down to simply not having gotten around to learning how to drive yet.
Besides, I hadn’t really needed to drive around throughout my adolescence. I was homeschooled and had a stay-at-home mom, so if I needed something we’d venture out together.
Once I started college, I was able to bum rides off of friends and eventually my partner, XtaSeay. However, bumming rides all the time is… Well, it’s uncomfortable. Even if you’re two peas in a pod, even if you slip your friends gas money no matter how much they insist you don’t have to, relying on others to get around eventually leaves you feeling a bit like dead weight.
When I First Started Taking Public Transportation
Although I’ve lived within walking distance of trolley stations and bus stops all of my life, it wasn’t until I caught a bus back with a friend of mine from our college campus to her apartment. Giddy as can be, I was bouncing in my seat.
A few months later, I found myself barricaded in the newsroom on my college campus with the editor and a few other reporters as an unexpected snow storm thrust itself upon the area. One by one, each of us trickled out until there were two; the editor and I.
As the storm picked up in speed, the college decided to close for the day. As fate would have it, XtaSeay was already back at our house and I certainly didn’t want him driving through fresh sheets of ice just to pick me up. The editor of the college’s newspaper at the time and I caught the bus back to his house, a three hour journey due to the conditions outside. Once the snow came to a halt and roads began to clear up a bit, XtaSeay scooped me up and delivered us back to our nest.
That March, I grew more and more curious about where I could go from the stops and stations throughout the area. At the time, I was working on the third issue of The Burgundy Zine, “Grow,” and had made arrangements to photograph and review a few shops in one of the neighboring towns.
With two bills and two quarters, I excitedly waited for the shuttle bus substitution in place of the trolley to take me to Media. Of course, I made the mistake of sitting too far from the “WHEN BUS SUBSTITUTION IS IN EFFECT, BOARD HERE” sign and missed the first bus. In the end, it took me six times longer than it should have to get there, but I wasn’t discouraged. I internalized it as a lesson learned.
My heart was racing the first time I boarded a bus alone. In spite of legally being an adult, I wasn’t sure if it was “okay” or “safe” to board simply because I grew up with very protective parents. As my mother would say, “Technically, Bug still doesn’t have permission to cross the street!”
That same month, XtaSeay had also started his new job and wouldn’t be able to pick me up from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was getting rides from a friend of ours for awhile but would eventually begin taking public transportation to get home.
Getting My SEPTA Card
Trolley tracksSource: New Life | Penelope Peru Photography
After taking a trip to New York City last April, I found myself yearning for more. I was awestruck by the way skyscrapers dwarfed the hustle and bustle of the crowds that flooded the city streets; I was enamored by the variety of places to see, go, and eat; and most of all, I relished being in the presence of others. Even if no one peeped a word in my direction or spared me a second glance, it’s refreshing not to be alone, to feel the energy and vibrancy of everyone all at once.
NYC gave me a newfound appreciation for city life, something I had never thought twice about – although I’ve lived within minutes of Philadelphia for 19 years. It was that spring that I realized what XtaSeay and I were missing out on by not taking advantage of the resources that were at our fingertips.
On April 24th, we took our first trip on the Market-Frankford line, passionately referred to by locals as “The El,” and caroused the city of brotherly love. I had a vague sense of how to navigate Philly from the occasional trips my family would take into the city throughout my upbringing, but him and I still relied heavily on our phones for finicky directions.
XtaSeay at Logan SquareSource: Philadelphia in April | Penelope Peru Photography
Shortly thereafter, I got my SEPTA card. Unfamiliar with the process, I registered online without realizing my card would arrive in the mail within a few weeks. A few days later, I rushed excitedly to the customer service desk at a transportation center.
“HI I MADE A SEPTA ACCOUNT ONLINE AND NOW I’M HERE TO GET MY CARD,” I blurted out.
The customer service woman raised an eyebrow, to which I explained that I had an account but needed to obtain my card in order to board The El.
“You… Made your account first,” she asked as if I had two heads. “Umm, you’re supposed to get your card first and then register it to an account. Hold on, please.”
She turned to another woman working with her and laughed as she explained that I had made an account before getting my card. I didn’t get what was so funny – surely I wasn’t the only one to have done this before, right?
“I think I can issue you a card and you can just add it to your account,” the woman said a few moments later. “You might have a card still coming in the mail, which you can cancel or hold on to once it comes.”
When it came time to pay for my card and add funds, I wrestled my credit card with the card reader.
“Sorry, sorry,” I quipped. “I guess I’m just so excited to get my SEPTA card, I’m swiping too fast for it to read.”
At that point, the customer service agent nearly fell out of her seat, hooting, hollering, and snorting from laughing with such intensity.
“You… you… You’re excited to get your card,” she shouted in disbelief, “Why, I ain’t ever heard of someone excited to ride a SEPTA! Hey, hey! Did you hear that? This girl said she’s so excited to ride the SEPTA, she can’t even get her credit card to swipe.”
Somewhat embarrassed, I could feel a delicate flush begin to wash over my face. I explained to her that I was homeschooled and didn’t have much experience with public transportation, so it was exciting for me to finally have the liberty to go anywhere.
“Ohh, you were homeschooled,” she said after collecting herself. “I’m sorry.”
What I’ve Learned From Public Transportation
From then on, I’ve spent every day off I have – rain or shine – exploring Philadelphia. In just a few short months, I’ve accumulated a list as long as my arm of my favorite places to go, I’ve memorized various subway, bus, and trolley routes, in addition to mapping out the city in my head.
Of course, becoming comfortable with public transportation within Philly naturally prepared me for getting just about anywhere and everywhere I need to for pennies on the dollar.
Public transportation liberated me. It has taught me that I am not limited by my own two feet and lack of a steering wheel. The independence I’ve gained has been priceless.
When I do eventually get my license, I don’t believe that I’ll cease taking public transportation all together. Let’s be honest: parking in the city or even in certain townships can be a real pain in the tusche. I don’t mind if it may take a bit longer to get somewhere, even if it means I’ll have to leave extra early. Long routes allow me to squeeze reading into my often haywire schedule, an activity that I find valuable to my wellbeing.
Public transportation is also a more eco-friendly alternative to driving, which I personally find to be an added bonus. Subways and metros emit 76 percent less greenhouse gasses per passenger mile than the average single occupancy vehicle, the US Department of Transportation reports.
While others may cringe at the sound of a trolley’s horn or the clanking and rattling of the subway as it zips down the tracks, I find it all somewhat thrilling. I don’t mind taking multiple buses to get to my final destination. If anything, it adds to the adventure: where will I go today and what might I find along the way?
Needless to say, don’t knock public transportation ’till ya try it.
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