‘It [the railway] transmutes a man from a traveler into a living parcel.’
- Ruskin, The Complete Works (qtd. on p. 54 in Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch)
|Delancey Street Station 8:30:00|
|Delancey Street Station 8:30:05 p.m.|
|Delancey Street Station 8:30:11 p.m.|
On any weekday, 5,465,034 people ride the New York City subway, boarding one of the 6,235 trains at one of the 468 stations in New York City. New York’s subway system first opened in 1904. This innovation encouraged people to live and work in increasingly separate locales.
Today, the average New Yorker commutes 48 minutes to work, 13 minutes more than the national average. In 2013, a report from the US Census Bureau found that 8.1 percent—or 10.8 million—of American workers commute more than an hour each way.
In this era of standardized time we are expected to coordinate our activities with others. To achieve this, we wear time-reckoning devices and carry phones equipped with GPS mapping devices to ensure we take the most efficient routes possible. For all of my awareness of time, I still feel “behind,” and as though I’m always rushing.
For example, even if I am early, if I see the C train approaching the station, I will run to catch it. I’m not alone—there are many others—panting and swinging their overstuffed tote bags as they run down the platform.
My question is, why? Will shaving three minutes from my commute have an impact on my day? Most often, the answer is no. But I can’t help but view time economically, as something that is to be spent wisely.
The act of commuting is a strain. It is monotonous and the worst part is that it is unavoidably time-consuming. 10.8 million Americans will spend 500 hours a year commuting—that is over 20 days per year.
Can a commute be fruitful or useful? Perhaps. Surely, it is not beautiful. Underground, there is no landscape to gaze upon. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can claim a spot on the front of the train and peer through the front window. But most often, there is nothing to look at all, except one’s reflection against the blackened window.
Under the ground, in the tunnels, the passage of time is unobservable through nature. There is no light. Enter at 125th Street in the late autumn afternoon sun, and you will emerge, disoriented, in total darkness downtown.
Despite this, I know that time is passing as we move forward along the map. I envision the landscape I am traveling underneath.
The people on board drive me crazy but they keep me sane: the performers, lovers, children, businessmen, baseball players. It is the movement of bodies on and off the train that reminds me that we are going places. I will say that there is something comforting in the movement of fellow-commuters, in being one of 5,465,034.
|Robert Fasanella - Subway Riders, 1950|