I stood at the bus stop, waiting for the number 17 into Birmingham city centre. I had been waiting for over 20 minutes, and the queue at the stop had now built up to well over 20 people. I can drive, but car ownership had lost its appeal. I was tired of having to cart the car around everywhere I went. In a busy city, finding car parking space was the equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack. Logistics aside, the pollution and congestion caused by car ownership in our metropolises appears to have been essentially normalised.
Cars are expensive to buy and run. For a single person like me able to work from home, I would gain little to no real usage out of a car. While car ownership is normalised in many societies, I had hoped that the professional middle-class trend of cycling to work would catch on in the UK, and that car ownership be side-lined. But high-end cars remained firmly parked in driveways – a symbolic representation of social status – while their owners cycled to work. Another facet of keeping up with the Joneses.
It reminds me of a conversation I had had with a white middle-class male rheumatologist while I was working as a researcher in a medical school. He caught the bus from one of the city’s hospitals into the town centre after his shifts. The route passed through some of the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods. He commented on the passengers, referring to them as peculiar, unsavoury characters. Perhaps their working-class behaviours were incomprehensible to his highbrow, upper middle-class existence. It’s highly unlikely that he would have interacted with any of these folk in his neck of the woods. But then again, he may have had a black or white working-class gardener or window cleaner. Mind you, he was a medical practitioner at a hospital whose patients and even low-paid staff would have heralded from the very same backgrounds as the passengers who he found so strange.
At least for me and many I know, getting on the bus was liberating, despite the problems with public transport in the UK.
I got on the bus and found a seat. By the time the final few passengers embarked, there were no seats available. I caught the 17 when I was at school, then college, and finally university. At some point during that time the route had two buses – the number 17 and the number 15. But about 25 years ago, the bus company in their infinite wisdom decided to discontinue the number 15, and turned the number 17 into a single decker. Since then, the number of passengers on the 17 during peak times has almost always far exceeded the number of seats. I avoided catching the bus during these times, which was inconvenient because I had to start work early or leave later than the core working hours.
It was a journey that took us through an array of predominately deprived neighbourhoods, and became gridlocked due to congestion in a few of them. On one occasion, the bus was pulled over by the police, and I witnessed a couple of young men legging it out of the fire exit. Frequently, the stench of cannabis would overpower the stink of pollution and the whiff of cheap perfume. On average, ticket conductors escorted at least two people off the bus for non-payment of fares on every journey that I saw. Conflicts between passengers often escalated to racist verbal abuse. Before you ask, yes, sexual harassment was a repeat offender.
I discussed my experiences of travelling on the bus with friends and colleagues. A friend referred to me as the urban ethnographer – at the time it was rather endearing because I was training towards a career in academia, as a social scientist.
I stood at the bus stop after a long day at work. A black woman behind me pointed out how route 50 had a better service than route 17. I nodded. She went on to explain why this was the case, suggesting that people in affluent areas have better access to public transport than the rest of us. Route 50 did journey through some of the city’s leafy suburbs and was an exemplary service – I knew this from my own experience. This wasn’t always the case, though. Route 50 had historically experienced all the problems of route 17, but at some point – the exact time escapes me – the route was turned around. The woman ended the conversation by making the point that rich people don’t catch buses because they have cars. It’s poor people who rely on buses. Five minutes later, the 17 pulled up to a queue of 50-odd people.
I unexpectedly met the same woman at the bus stop a few weeks later. This time our conversation centred on a rumour that circulated about route 73, which shared some of the same stops as the 17. I had noticed for the past few months that the 73 wasn’t following the same route as the 17. In fact, the route had changed, at least at the point where it had previously shared the same stops as the 17. Route 73 passed through some of the most affluent parts of the city and eventually travelled into a borough where celebrities and sports personalities were rumoured to be residing. Most passengers on the 17 had heard the rumour – it had spread like a bushfire, unstoppable. The black woman shouted, “The rich people didn’t want to share their bus stop with the likes of us”.
I sat next to an elderly white woman whom I recognised as a regular on the 17. We started a conversation about the weather – it was summer, and unusually, Britain was experiencing a heatwave. We talked about the extreme changes in weather across the world, and the climate crisis. The pollution from the heavy traffic was affecting my breathing, and she pulled out a bottle of water. I thanked her before quickly taking a sip. I had met many kind strangers on the buses usually during some of my difficult times. Their generosity of spirit pierced through the urban loneliness that many of us encounter in our built environments, which fail to provide humans with what they crave: interaction, belonging, and security. Social isolation is increasingly a problem in developed nations. Yet the irony is that never in human history have we been more connected through our advanced technology. I pondered about inclusive places and what they would look like. Just as my imagination began to fire up the bus pulled up at my stop, and I got off. I walked the rest of the way, arriving at home within 10 minutes.
I found myself regularly bumping into another woman at the bus stop. She worked as a legal secretary at a law firm in town, and we talked about the office politics at work. At the time, I was looking for another job; she even asked what type of job I was looking for, as if to suggest that she may have an opening with her employer. I explained what I was looking for, she pondered, and after a few moments of awkward silence, she changed the subject. I continued to meet this woman at the bus stop, and we spoke about her upcoming knee replacement operation, retirement, her daughter and grandchildren, what she did at the weekend – the list went on. But we never spoke about work again.
9pm on a Friday, I was travelling home on the 17. I felt a hand touch me from behind, making its way up and down my right arm. I turned around, and lo and behold, it was the bus pervert. An elderly South Asian man with glasses, dressed like a young lad, looked at me with a grin on his face. He was singing a song from a Bollywood movie. Most passengers knew about him. I shouted at him and moved seats. A black man came up to me to ask me what happened. Before I could explain, the bus pervert found another victim. This time, the black man jumped out of his seat, went up to the bus pervert, and punched him in the face. I never saw the bus pervert after this incident.
Years later, I told my mum about the bus pervert, and it turned out that my parents knew him. He lived in a predominately South Asian area and had arrived in the UK on a visitors’ visa. Apparently he was a Pakistani national, and it was plausible that he went back to Pakistan because his visa expired. But now I had my mum worried about me travelling late at night on the buses.
Some years ago, I attended a weekend transformational breathing workshop, which finished late on a Sunday evening. I was going through my New Age phase and was introduced to breath work by a close friend. Indeed, it was a powerful healing modality. Perhaps it released some powerfully suppressed emotions within me, because later that night I had the fright of my life. The event was held in a cosmopolitan middle class residential location – J.R.R. Tolkien spent his early years in the area. We finished around 6pm, at dusk. I jumped onto the number 50 into the town centre and then waited at the number 17 stop for the bus home. After about 30 minutes, an empty 17 pulled up and a handful of passengers boarded. 40 minutes later the bus halted abruptly at my stop, and I got off. By this time, it was pitch dark. As I walked onto my road, the street lighting became dim – I could barely see my hand.
I heard some footsteps across the pavement on the other side of the road. I looked across and saw a dark figure. A few minutes later the figure crossed over and followed behind me, calling out, “Excuse me, excuse me”. I walked faster. I was only a few houses away from home. Eventually he caught up with me and I continued to walk while he talked. “Do you know if there are any shops around here?” he demanded. I said, “No, I don’t”. He then started getting abusive, shouting that he killed women who didn’t respond to him. He followed me all the way to my front door, shouting abuse. I knocked on the door and my brother answered. I was terrified. The man told my brother, “Tell your sister I kill women who don’t respond to me”. My brother told him to fuck off and threw him off the property. To this day, I do not know how the man knew we were siblings – we certainly don’t look alike.
I reported the incident to the police, via email. A few days later the police turned up at the door, but I wasn’t home. They left no note when they called. I found out from a neighbour, who had seen them knocking the front door. I had no idea which station they were from and no way of contacting them. So, I followed up on the email I sent to alert them of the incident. They never responded.
It was 9.30pm and the number 17 broke down about a mile away from my home. Stranded and anxious passengers were shouting at the bus driver, who looked quite distressed. For the past 20 minutes or so he had been frantically trying to get the vehicle to move. One of the passengers, a white middle-aged man, shouted out, “Driver, where are we?” The driver didn’t respond. After a few attempts, a young white man yelled, “We’re stuck on Green Lane in Small Heath”, to which the white middle-aged man reacted with, “Driver, this is bandit country, step on it!” Small Heath is one of the ten most deprived areas in the city, with most residents either originating from or having ancestral links with Pakistan.
On the Monday morning, I ran into John, a librarian who worked at the city’s main library, on the 17. For many years, John caught the 17 into the town centre. It was during a period when I was looking for a new job that I found myself spending much of my time at the library. I developed friendships with a few of the librarians. Ever since, whenever I met John on the bus, we’d have a good natter about work. I remember another librarian mentioned that John was always on the hunt for a bargain. He even bought readymade meals for one at the point that the supermarket was getting rid of them because they were close to their sell by dates. I imagined the salary of a librarian would barely cover his living costs. Like myself, he was caring for elderly relatives and had to limit his working hours at the library.
My dad was convinced that as his carer I was entitled to pay a reduced fare when I travelled with him on the bus. I tried to explain to dad that there was no reduction in fares for carers. But he was not having any of it. Dad had a stroke in 2005 and was left with physical disabilities and mental health problems. We caught the bus for his dental appointment. He’d been in excruciating pain – an infected tooth wasn’t responding to antibiotics. Dad got on and told the bus driver that I was his carer, dropped £1.50 into the fare box, collected the ticket, and passed it to me. The driver issued a child ticket. I smiled, a forty-something woman with a child bus ticket. I went back to the bus driver and explained that dad was a bit confused and thought as his carer I would be entitled to a reduced fare. The driver understood and issued me with an adult ticket. A few weeks later, dad wanted me to use the ‘reduced payment for carers’ scheme again. I spoke to dad about how I could claim the full ticket fare through another initiative, but I would be expected to pay-up front and claim later and left it at that. He appeared to be happy.
It’s been about 20 years since I last owned a car and I’ve been true to my commitment to using public transport. However, I now find myself thinking that as a carer and single woman, the car is the most convenient and safe mode of transport in cities built for able-bodied people and facing increasing geographic inequality. As British society continues its trend towards inequality, perhaps public transport in some of the most deprived areas will deteriorate to the point that I will have little choice but to buy a car. Nevertheless, for now I am determined to carry on catching the number 17, but just maybe avoid travelling late at night.
Zahira P. Latif is a former academic and a British Pakistani Muslim woman from a working-class background. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book – a polemical critique of the implications of capitalism on our well-being. She lives with her family in Birmingham, England. She can be followed on Twitter: @zplatif.