I have never been an enthusiastic driver. You can ask my brother or sister. They will tell you. Whenever we need to drive somewhere together, I always let one of them take the wheel. (In truth, they are the one who insist on taking the wheel.) To me, driving is one of those activities that makes me very aware of my own mortality. I was once told that driving is the most dangerous thing we do. I was young when I heard this, maybe 15, just obtaining my permit after hundreds of hours of driver’s training in a dingy fluorescent-lit student center nestled in a strip mall on the outskirts of Canton. I thought about it more, What is driving really? Inserting ourselves in these massive shining metal boxes that zip alongside and even in opposite direction from other high velocity metal boxes. Growing up in the midwest, this strange game becomes even more perilous. For at least six months out of the year, these massive metal boxes slip and slide along icy snow-laden roads that the city of Detroit and its suburbs often neglect to shovel.
With this image in mind, I developed a somewhat timid and perhaps overly cautious driving style. I turn on my indicators for every movement, whether in a parking garage or my residential neighborhood. I sit upright and attentive, my seat positioned much closer to the steering wheel than the seat of a relaxed driver, like my dad or sister. When there is lots of traffic or rain or snow, I turn off the radio and ask any passengers to please stop talking, I need to concentrate, and then I glue my eyes to the road in front of me and my hands to the wheel, at 3- and 9-o’clock positions.
In Michigan one absolutely must drive to get around. There is no comprehensive public transit to speak of in the suburbs, and in Detroit, miles of city remain unconnected to trains and buses. Wherever they are offered, they are unreliable and many residents feel unsafe using them. So, out of necessity, I grew accustomed to driving, and attempted (with varying degrees of success) to rid from my mind the image of driving as an absurd and highly dangerous daily ritual.
I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2011 for college. The transition from a sleepy suburb to a major city was mostly kind to me, especially with respect to adjusting how I move across the space I inhabit. Though many people complain about the limits of the Chicago Transit Authority, to me the this network of trains and buses were a revelatory godsend. I was suddenly freed from the responsibility of driving! I not only enjoyed being a perpetual passenger, I also relished the newfound space in my mind where concerns related to driving lived. Concerns like, When am I going to wash my car, it’s getting terribly dirty, and why is that light in the dashboard blinking, I think it has been flashing for days now hasn’t it, and is this spot I am parked in legal or will I come back to find that my car has been possessed by the city?
I became fascinated with learning Chicago’s public transit system. I took it almost as seriously as my first year humanities class (which, to be clear, I was very serious about). I befriended one of my dorm neighbors, Laura, and she proved to be an excellent travel companion with a similar curiosity about the city. We made a plan to visit as many neighborhoods of Chicago, and did not let our hectic studying and class schedules determine if we made it out of Hyde Park, because if we did, we would have never left our desks.
Weekends became a form of pilgrimage for us. We planned our neighborhood trips around food, choosing a restaurant or a cafe to ground (and fuel) our journey, and then exploring the surrounding area by foot. We would hop on the 55 bus heading west or east, so that we could catch a train heading north or south, and then connect with the buses to get closer to our exact location once we found a train stop in the designated neighborhood of the day.
These little trips encouraged me to keep pushing my boundaries. Throughout the next few years, I found myself on public transportation for other reasons: internships, community service, a social justice program run by a wonderful woman that has become one of my closest mentors. In this way, the map of the city’s transportation system came alive to me. No longer was it a series of red and brown and green and blue lines tangled on a sheet of paper. It was a network connecting me to places I had formed associations of memory and formative experience in.
I have spent nearly two years away from Chicago now, and I live in Amman these days. I came back to Michigan for a family visit a few months ago. I found some time to catch an Amtrak train to Chicago during my time at home. I spent four days back in the city that nurtured my passage into adult life. Aside from seeing beloved friends, I can say with confidence that my favorite part about being back was taking CTA trains and buses again.
I spent hours whizzing along Lakeshore Drive on the 6, hours along the red line tracks that form the north-south backbone of the city. Sometimes I popped in my headphones and let my music be the soundtrack to the cityscape unfolding from my window. Other times I just listened to the noise of the bus, the gentle hum of conversation and people shuffling around me. I had no desire to read, like I usually do when seated for long periods of time. This is how I learned that there was something else I love about public transportation, other than the freedom it offered from driving. I love that it is public, that it carries not just one person, but a collection of people, and delivers them to destinations both shared and disparate.
This public aspect of transportation is something I miss dearly in Amman. Here, I do not have to drive. Taxis are the way that people without cars get around. They are much cheaper than the ones in the US, and the fares are price-controlled to stay that way, since so many people rely on taxis here. One might think that this would be enough to keep me happy, since I opened this post talking about my difficult relationship with driving.
It is true that taxis allow me to be a perpetual passenger. But they render the passenger experience private. There are no fellow passengers that partake in the experience of taking the car with you, unless you’re in a ride-sharing service car, and even then something about the limited space of a 4-door vehicle lends an air of enclosed privacy that buses and trains do not. In the taxi, there is little opportunity for discrete people watching, to ponder the characters that animate your city and wonder where they are going, and why?
In the moving room of a bus or a train, there is a chance to start a conversation with your neighbor, there is space to observe the interactions around you, there is camaraderie among the group when the weather is awful or if there is some mysterious delay.
Perhaps my love fo the Chicago Transit Authority started as freedom from driving. But it evolved from love for trains and buses, to a deeper love for Chicago itself. For the people that inhabit that Midwestern city of contradictions. I will hold that love from afar as I ponder this other city I call home these days, from the window of a taxi in Amman.