Reader Blog
Reader Blog

Commuter classism

By Brendon Bosworth

I prefer riding the train to driving my car. It’s cheaper, and it forces me into a very public atmosphere, removing the sense of separation I get when sitting alone in the traffic, partitioned from other motorists. A busy train ride is a lesson in sharing space: people knock against each other, sweat together and show their different levels of patience for the hawkers who weave through the crowds, selling ID book covers, super glue and other non-essential items.

Public transport is a great leveler that bring strangers into close contact, temporarily removing social barriers that ordinarily separate them.

But the way that Metrorail continues to divide passengers by how much they pay for their tickets serves to entrench the classism that keeps South Africans from really reaching beyond their social comfort zones. Officially, the tickets that allow one to sit in the “better” carriages sell under the “Metro Plus” tag (and cost a few rand more) than the cheap tickets, which are just “Metro”. But listen to most people at the counters, sellers included: they more commonly use the terms “first” and “third class” when tickets exchange hands.

The difference between “first” and “third” class is marginal. For the trains that run the Simon’s Town to Cape Town line, a third-class ticket gets you a seat with no cushioning. In some carriages the first-class seats are more comfortable and arranged differently. In others the seats are arranged the same but just have a skimpy layer of cushioning. The real issue is that in a country working to overcome its sensitivity to past divisions and faced with massive economic inequality, this not so subtle segregation perpetuates a “them and us” mentality based on how much citizens can shell out for a ride. It does nothing to promote equality and reminds commuters that those who are less affluent get to travel in their own “third-class” section away from the better-offs. It’s a form of commuter elitism that seems to go largely unchallenged at the ticket booth.

Ride the subway in San Francisco, New York and other major cities. Passengers have no option for segregating themselves because they have a few more dollars to spare. A ticket gets you a ride, just the same as everyone else. Of course, that’s not to say those cities are pinnacles of equality.

But when it comes to public transport, at least, commuters are not split at the ticket counter and sent off to different ends of the train when it arrives at the station.

On a recent train trip, in a packed “third-class” carriage that grew increasingly swollen as we got closer to Cape Town, a man I was squashed against suggested that Metrorail start building double-decker trains to make more space for passengers. Before that happens, I’d want to see standardised, affordable tickets so that all fare-paying commuters ride together instead of being unnecessarily compartmentalised. If the double-deckers come first, I’ve got one guess for which class of commuter will be riding on the top level, enjoying the superior view.

Brendon Bosworth is a Cape Town based writer who drives when it’s not viable to catch the train or ride his skateboard. He is continually interested in South African society.

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