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Vote 1 bus 'bludger'

  • 09 August 2010

There are many reasons to take the bus. It's cheap, reliable and easier on the environment than individual cars. There is no need to hunt for a carpark. You can lose yourself in a book instead of battling traffic.

More obliquely, public transport offers brief, slightly awkward interaction between people who might otherwise never meet or talk to each other. There is a fragile sense of community in the routine elements of bus travel — the tight smile that accompanies an impatient glance at one's watch; the sideways shuffle to allow another person to sit on the bench and wait; the occasional remark about the weather.

For the most part, though, we are silent, hoping that either the seat next to us remains empty or that its eventual occupant doesn't want to chat.

Buses are microcosms of society. Passengers scraping together coins to pay the fare share limited elbow room with smartly dressed businesspeople. Recent migrants and fourth-generation Australians, young and old, parents and singles board, sigh at the graffiti, wish the buses were warmer, and eventually get off at their destinations.

Last week, quite unexpectedly, a group of us participated in an event that seemed to blend social experiment with participatory democracy.

It was a bright, cruelly cold Perth morning and the bus was slowly filling up with people on their way to work. The collective mood was not cheery. Around halfway to the city, the bus stopped to pick up a passenger. And stayed stopped. After an animated discussion with the young man who had boarded, the bus driver opened his compartment door and stood in the aisle, brandishing the man's wallet before him.

The bus driver was indignant. 'Look at this', he said. 'This guy here has tried to give me a ticket that's two days old and he hasn't got any money or cards in his wallet.'

This is not the way bus trips are supposed to go. We looked up hesitantly from books and magazines, cautiously removed earbuds. The subject of this unwanted attention was young and blond, wearing the universal uniform of young manhood: jeans and a hoodie. He could have been desperately poor or just short of cash. He was also — as convention dictates in awkward situations — looking at the ground.

One could sense a wave of empathy for our new companion, mingled with impatience at the delay in our journey.