Happy Commuting

“Almost all of us will choose a seat in a restaurant with a view of others…We like to look at each other. We enjoy hovering in the zone somewhere between strangers and intimates. We want the opportunity to watch and be watched, even if we have no intention of ever actually making contact with one another.”

 Charles Montgomery, Happy City

Screen shot 2015-02-10 at 3.25.12 PM

There is a balance between sociability and privacy. I love people watching and I love conversations with individuals. This is partly what I’m enjoying about telling you these stories; I get to share with you pieces of my day that involve talking with real human beings, crossing that boundary, chatting in the space between “strangers and intimates.” Simultaneously, I get to be more social with you.

This is also partly why it is interesting to work with middle school students because they are constantly watching and being watched. But that’s a different conversation.

I’ve been exploring my neighborhood since I moved in but I wish I knew my neighbors better and I have a lot to learn about my neighborhood and the neighborhood of my school. Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City gave me some food for thought about the commute between my neighborhood and the school’s.

My neighborhood is well served by the T and by bus routes. Montgomery points to research which found that we “won’t walk more than five minutes to a bus stop, but we will walk ten to a light-rail or subway station” (1). This description fits my area well and means that though I live without a car (as my students discovered) getting around is pretty easy.

Side note: This description does not fit the neighborhood that my school is in quite so well, for reasons that I hope to get back to later. Gimme some time to do some research, but rumor has it that there used to be a subway line very close to the school. Anecdotally, housing prices and the perception of a neighborhood are reflected in, or at least correlated with, proximity to “sexier” and seemingly more reliable subway lines. Research demonstrating this differentiation in housing prices exists for other cities and is cited throughout the book.

{There’s a section in the book about sexy, red TransMilenio buses in Bogotá but most people think of light rail and subways as waaaay sexier than buses (2)}


My trip to school is a far cry from the “heroic quest” label that transportation engineer Patricia Mokhtarian uses to describe the commutes of most people (3). Interestingly, most people prefer traveling to work; Mokhtarian argues, “the trip time most people wish they had is about sixteen minutes, one way” (4). My commute is typically a bit longer than that when I’m riding the bus. I walk (usually run because I’m almost missing it) to the bus just up the street. I ride it to its terminus and then walk less than ten minutes to school. Riding my bike hovers just above that magic time too.

But if my conversation with C wasn’t enough, this book certainly convinced me that I have much to be thankful for in that commute. I smiled at the stats on safety, economy, and justice of riding a bus and improving bus systems. But bus riders lack happiness. In most places, according to Montgomery, transit riders are the most miserable.


{This chart indicates the percentage of surveyed Dutch commuters who reported joy, fear, rage, or sadness, in that order.}

I do not count myself among the miserable. I look forward to boarding the bus because I see it as a time to get a little reading done (it was super meta reading this book on the bus) and just letting the scenery, both physical and human, roll by while I try to wake up or go over my day.

I think this is partly because it is my nature (and human nature) to enjoy watching other people. It is partly that, using my awesome transit app, I know how long I’ll be waiting for the bus. Studies show that this helps people feel like they have more control and therefore feel less frustration, which my own experience certainly confirms (5). It is also partly that, as Montgomery points out, small connections help us feel calmer and happier. For me, riding the bus is an opportunity for those moments to occur.

Ultimately, “every commute is a ritual that can alter our very sense of who we are and what is our place in the world,” which resonates with my experience riding the bus (6).

Even with my students.

Or maybe especially with my students.

  1. Montgomery, 188.
  2. Ibid, 228.
  3. Ibid, 178.
  4. Ibid.
  5. I would cite this but the book doesn’t have an index and I can’t find the page…
  6. Montgomery, 178.

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s