If forced to choose, I would probably elect buses as my favorite mode of public transportation. Sure, they transform 15 minute rides into near hour long journeys, but I cannot get over how much I prefer them. I didn’t really “hop on the bus” until I got back from my semester in Madrid, where I routinely took the bus right across the street from my flat downtown to the park or back home once the subways stopped running late at night. So not only did I return from Spain with a proper Castilian accent, I came back with a renewed love for riding buses. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of living in a city, even though I did ride the B-Bus as a kid when I couldn’t get a ride to a friend’s house (that’s right, the Berkshires have public transportation).
Buenos Aires is no different. It’s actually quite comparable to the DC publican transportation system in a way: while the subways are frustratingly limited in their service, buses go EVERYWHERE! There are literally hundreds of bus lines that run throughout the city, all day every day (as evidenced by our late night last weekend), which can seem intimidating at first. But besides knowing where you are and where you’re going, a sense of adventure, and one peso (equal to 33 cents, which is harder to come by than it sounds given the shortage of coins in Buenos Aires), all you need is a Guía T to take advantage of buses in Buenos Aires.
Oddly enough, using this book is exactly like buying a cell phone, hair dryer, or any other electronic device at a store in Buenos Aires. With the latter, you find a store clerk who directs you to one register where you pay and are subsequently directed to another desk where you get a slip of paper, which allows you to pick up your item at another desk (usually off to the side, in the back, or downstairs) where you finally pick up your merchandise. The sequence of events may not always be in that order, but you get the idea – it’s not the most straightforward process. The same goes for the Guía T: you look up your current address and that of your destination, go to the appropriate map pages and grid coordinates as indicated, look for buses in your area or surrounding squares that go to your destination, and then finally look at the bus list to see what streets it runs along so you know where to get on and off. Luckily, using the Guía T takes but minutes, as opposed to the relative marathon of buying electronics and it has yet to fail us.
However, unlike in DC, the buses themselves do not possess the modernizations that make bus travel both user and more environmentally friendly: first, a recording/sign telling which stop is next, which makes you pay more attention to your surroundings lest you go beyond your desired stop; second, the buses do not run on natural gas. It’s not as much of a problem on the major avenues as it is on narrow side streets where pedestrians have nowhere to run from the black, noxious fumes coming out of their exhaust pipes. My only other problem with the buses is that some of them are exceedingly loud. I’m ok with putting a conversation on hold while a bus roars by, but it presents a difficulty when one jars me from light sleep. Some buses are especially obnoxious. You know the sound cushions on rented chairs make when you sit down? Multiple that by one hundred, and you approach the noise some of these buses make when they pass beneath our window. Its as if they are have an extreme asthma attack (shout out to all our asthmatic readers out there, I love each and everyone of you) every fifteen minutes throughout the night.
So why do I still pledge my allegiance to these smoke spouting loud mouths? On principle, public transportation is still a very ease way that we can lessen our carbon footprint – check out Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed in yesterday’s NYT about how in the midst of economic crisis, the government and its citizens should not forget about “going green” and even use it as a vehicle for economic stimulation. In practicality, riding the bus it gives me a panoramic tour of the city and allows me to get to know it even better. It keeps me on my toes and forces me to figure out the geography of the city quicker than if I were to travel by subway or take a taxi. Lastly, and I didn’t discover this motive until I rode the bus a lot in Madrid, it makes me feel more like a local than a tourist - of course I’ve yet to reach that point. Someone who is just passing through a city has less reason to decipher an extensive and complicated system, whereas a local is more likely to be familiar with all forms of public transportation at their disposal. For the cities I’ve lived in, familiarity with the bus system is almost part and parcel of truly living there. I don’t present this last reason as fact, just something that makes me feel more intimate with a city, even if its just at a somewhat superficial level. Nor do I pretend that this tendency make me akin to a long time resident. More than anything, it makes me feel more like more than just someone visiting.
You may disagree, or think I'm overstating my point. That’s cool, I just don’t have time to argue right now – I’ve got a bus to catch.