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Travel time, where did you go?

The effect of Covid on commuting
Woman holding a Hable One at the Eindhoven Centraal Train Station. Next to here we have her guide dog that is looking towards her.

#blog by Kristina Misiunaite

"Do you remember what it sounds like on the train?" Unimaginable really, when you think about it. At this time last year, this would have sounded like a crazy question perhaps, but in the current period, it is suddenly much less strange. In mid-March, on my way home from the political heart of the Netherlands, I really couldn't have suspected that my reunion with the station would be so long in coming. Nor did I know then that the Palace of Justice, which was my destination that internship day, would have to close its doors almost completely less than a week later.

Everything online and working from home saves miles and hours of travel time. With this story, I want to show that travel time does not always have to be wasted time. Perhaps this will evoke memories and hopefully food for thought as well, about how things might (soon) be even better or just the way they were.

On the right track

Whether it's the sprinter or the intercity that stops, you can hear the difference. But where exactly is the door to get on? This is a particularly good question when no one else is getting off, late at night or at a small station. To get to the right platform, fortunately, there are the guide lines. If you follow them with your feet and/or a touch stick you can practically never fall off the platform, although you do have to make some particularly gymnastic turns sometimes to be able to follow the lines properly. However, it would be greatly appreciated if these ridge lines could remain free of people, suitcases, bicycles and other obstacles which - often unconsciously - can be found on them. To clear up a somewhat incomprehensible misunderstanding: these are NOT simply broken tiles in the floor. A sprint will not go well in that case, so: 'keep the line clear!

Just (not) in time!

Yet I was always relieved when, after the whistle had blown, the doors closed behind me. Then I could look for a seat and my journey was already halfway successful. Often enough, however, it could happen that the train doors closed too early for my liking, due to unforeseen circumstances or obstacles along the way, or a slightly too optimistic estimation of the remaining time compared to my walking pace. Every traveler gets fed up with that, so no big deal. The tone preceding the announcements made my ears prick up. Always a bit worried about an extra return trip from home to the university - which is a bit too much in one day for my liking - because the train will turn right or will not go beyond... Fortunately, such announcements were often not too bad, relatively speaking. If a delay caused your plate of hot food to get cold when you got home after an evening lecture, there was always a microwave ready to solve your problems.

Indispensable helpers

Those delays, frequent or occasional, like most readers with me, will not be missed. But that's definitely not the case for a lot of fellow travelers. People you don't know at all, but still have to go in the same direction and literally just want to lend a hand. Of course, there are also plenty of people who are in too much of a hurry for that in the morning and want to go home again quickly in the evening. The latter we all want, so let's do it together (as far as possible). I would also like to mention the many conductors who arranged a seat in first class for me. They allowed it once in a while "it's nice and quiet !" Or that one time, right at the beginning of my propaedeutic year, when the train driver told me to sit there, as long as I didn't touch the handles or the buttons: that train was so incredibly full and crowded during the morning rush hour. I’m now realizing, I have no right to complain about trains being late. When I think back to the times that the train did wait for me for a moment, because the driver or conductor saw me standing outside. Or the bus driver who stopped briefly where I needed to be, while on the way back it turned out that there was no stop there at all. Is that simply luck or priority?

Never alone

"You can just ask people, can't you?" Good advice, or an easy excuse? It's both somewhat true, I think. Without a doubt, it can save a lot of energy to walk with someone, so that you don't have to follow the guide line yourself all the time, pay attention to whether there are stairs and where exactly the right platform is. Personally, I find it a nice option to keep in reserve and often gratefully use when offered to me spontaneously. Yet it feels much nicer to have this as a 'back-up', just to check or for speed, while you yourself know more or less where you need to go. In any case, it is a very good plan to always keep paying attention yourself - you never know! - And who knows, you may be able to show your helper the way, especially if you have been to the location more than once. This is often labelled as a 'small effort' by the person in question, but all in all it can make a huge difference.

And now?

Even though you can just speak to each other online, everyone still misses physically, 'in real life' to a greater or lesser extent. Slowly but surely, these are becoming more and more moments in the "remember?" category. For example, I know all too well that riding a bike in a crowded college town is only fun at certain times. That is the case when the driver of such a vehicle races you to the station without any problems, so that you are just in time for that handy train without a change. After a pleasant evening you can still get home at a somewhat normal time. I haven't forgotten how nice it is to travel together. Before or during a delay, getting a nice warm cup of coffee with a cake that is far too expensive. Or quickly devouring a potato French fry without spilling it on your coat and scarf, because inside - in the compartment - you are not officially allowed to eat. Why not just wait until you get home? Because in some cases it is very hard to get used to working groups from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., or even later. Perhaps in this respect, distance education now works to our (students') advantage. However, this does not take away from the pleasant surprise of unexpectedly running into someone you know along the way. The only thing you have to be careful of is not to drive past your destination while chatting. I hope to meet them again one day: the strangers who keep returning for weeks on end and always manage to find me on the same train, while the other way around would not be possible. That's how you got to know each other a little by little. Or the tourist who handed out grapes and cordially inquired whether all the stories he had heard about Holland were actually true. It wasn't until much later that I realized we were in a silent compartment: I didn't know, and what about him? Had he not understood, or did he think that a nice conversation deserved an exemption? I'll never know, I'm afraid.

When we are allowed again

It will probably be a while before we are all traveling together again in jam-packed trains, busses, subways and streetcars, where we have to stand in the rush hour because there is not enough room to sit. Until then, I cherish the hope that they will be there again in unchanged and undiminished numbers: all those kind people who make life as a (fellow) passenger a lot more pleasant. Technology, too, should not be forgotten. Now only briefly touched upon, but hopefully more about that another time. The technological developments follow each other in rapid succession, GPS will certainly be more accurate in a while and internet connection even faster. This will make navigation even more efficient, as well as easier to know where you are. Just a good thing and convenient for the road, I would say. How nice it would be if such innovations didn't make us curious, enthusiastic, potential users in the future, wait longer than planned. Hopefully, the current situation will not cause these things to be delayed, because if this should unexpectedly be the case, it could unfortunately extend to much longer than about 'fifteen minutes...', or something along those lines. I would love to brave the crowds again on my way to my internship, because the gown that I was allowed to wear on court as a clerk secretly looked quite good on me.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021