The Daily Commute

No, the title is not the name of the latest tabloid spewing baseless rumours to the public. It’s a collection of personal observations I made during my commute to work.

As someone who does not drive nor own a car, I am at the mercy of public transport, riding the waves with fellow passengers who hop from point A to point B to accomplish tasks as they go about their day. Though buses typically operate on time in my morning commute, their operations can certainly go haywire, pushing my schedule dangerously close to a time when colleagues scramble for the remaining unbooked desks in a post-pandemic hotdesking carousel.

At the bus stop

From electric posts marked with a “bus stop” sign in remote pockets of the neighbourhood to yellow poles with bus timetables to shelters complete with seats and sleek glass filled with dynamic infomercial displays, bus stops in Sydney neighbourhoods vary in capacity and appearance. They dot inner-city streets and quieter suburbs, often lacking shelters but offering quick access for on-the-go commuters.

Sydney buses are tech-savvy chariots, with real-time tracking via smartphone apps like TripView. You can keep an eye on them as they approach, plan your route with ease, and never miss a beat (hopefully). That’s why, when you are still yards away from the stop, you can restrain yourself upon realising that the bus is arriving a few minutes later, much to the chagrin of most of those who are impatiently waiting at the bus stop.

If you are a regular commuter, you’ll likely stumble across the same set of people at a specific timeframe every day. Clad in school uniforms or business attire, they share the same habit of thumb-scrolling through the latest social media stories, reading the morning news, or having faces etched in the concentrated glow of their illuminated rectangles. Some tap to the beat of unseen music, while others furrow their brows in fierce battles against online foes.

Many of them don their armour of sleek headphones, a shield against the impending cacophony of the city. They are unaware of the actual world around them, their heads nodding and their eyes closed as they reside in a world of their chosen soundtracks.

Two minutes late, but the bus is here. I recall Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about buses as the single stupidest, fattest, slowest, and most despised vehicle on the road. Drivers of cars behind them experience solar eclipses, and it sounds like a fat uncle trying to get out of a sofa when it pulls out of the stop. As ugly as it’s described, at least Sydney buses are up for an upgrade to zero-emission vehicles.

I board with an Opal card in hand. It’s a hobby I’ve adopted since arriving in the city; Hong Kong’s Octopus cards used in public transportation need only be tapped once and slid back into its place in the card holder. Sydney riders need to tap again when alighting; you’ll be charged the maximum fare of the route if you fail to do so.

Except for a handful of bus routes that ply Castle Hill, Blacktown, or Mona Vale, most buses are single-decker and thus can get filled out quite easily on busy hours. I feel thankful to live close to the initial bus stops; this gives me ample seats to choose from at my stop. As the bus approaches the Lane Cove Tunnel, I feel sorry for some passengers denied entry as the bus reaches its mandated capacity.

So the bus pulls towards the next stop.

What’s going on inside

I make a quick survey on seat availability. The vacant ones in front are tempting, but you could regret taking that courtesy seat. Once a mobility-impaired passenger enters—a pregnant woman, elderly person, or parent of a young child—you’re bound to give up your seat and realise the vacant ones at the back are now taken. Other cunning passengers feign sleeping or are deeply engaged in their mobile devices and pretend to see someone who deserves the seat better. They’ll also avoid making eye contact with other passengers whose facial expressions demand they abandon their seats.

I got a seat at the back, which used to be a given during COVID years. Back then, passengers didn’t seem comfortable sitting next to someone, especially those who don’t wear masks. Now, every square inch of that seat matters, so don’t you dare place your bag next to yourself as though saying to others to look elsewhere. Be ready to accommodate anyone who wants to sit next to you. There’s an unspoken agreement about the empty aisle seat next to you; it’s basically an invitation to sit there, but not too close. And if you do sit next to someone, you both pretend to be interested in your phones, creating a personal space bubble that is ideally the size of the bus itself.

Speaking of seats, each of them takes a beating from 50 to 150 bottoms every day, unless the bus has mechanical issues and is confined to the bus depot. So they need to be durable to withstand the pressure of spills, wear and tear, or any unspeakable incident like dropped food or unfortunate bodily fluids.

Thanks to moquette fabric, which derives the term “moquette” from the French word “mocquette,” which means carpet, you continue to sit on the seat provided. The sturdy material offers durability, stain resistance, and fire retardancy, making it an ideal choice for transportation upholstery; its dense pile construction provides comfort, while intricate patterns enhance aesthetics and camouflage wear in high-traffic settings.

The deep pile composition and frequently detailed patterns of moquette fabric efficiently cover dust and filth, offering visual camouflage that minimises the appearance of stains and wear in high-traffic locations such as transportation settings. The fabric’s texture and design make it effective at concealing little detritus, adding to its usefulness in maintaining a clean and well-maintained appearance over time. So when you are in the bus, these seats remain appealing, despite the disgusting reality of the dirt and filth they contain.

As the bus speeds along its dedicated bus lane, I can’t help but feel proud to be taking the ride while private cars experience bumper-to-bumper congestion on the remaining lanes.

A bus passing through Town Hall in Sydney

The cast of characters

Peak hours of the morning or evening rush unveil the different cast of characters who join you in your bus journey. Although it’s none of my business to pry into the affairs of other passengers, I can’t help but categorise them according to their peculiar habits.

The sleep ninja

They, including me, are masters of micro-naps who can easily fall asleep anywhere, anytime. Watch us doze off shortly after taking a comfortable seat, heads bobbing like overripe cherries, or snore softly into their open palm – a testament to the power of sleep to overcome even the most unsuitable slumber situations. Ironically, if I doze off on my way to work, I’ll observe myself making more frequent yawns throughout the day. But that lull is a precious time that can substitute for waking up the moment my alarm sounds off.

The stealthy snacker

Ever noticed that one person who somehow manages to bring a meal onto the bus? This culinary genius turns a crowded carriage into a mobile five-star restaurant. Oblivious to the “no eating” sign, they sneak their takeaway food in and start uncovering and consuming it. Bonus points if they’re eating something fragrant, ensuring everyone gets a whiff of their aromatic delights. But no thanks if they chose to eat stinky ones that might eventually stick into our clothing fabric. Some overzealous drivers call them out, leading to an embarrassing look. This stealthy snacker is bound to bow his or her head down for the entire duration of the trip.

The fare dodger

This passenger takes advantage of crowded buses or distracted drivers, slipping through open doors like a silent ninja. They seamlessly blend in with the crowd in an effort to disappear into the anonymity of the crowd. Often young and casual, they might flash a cheeky grin or a well-practiced shrug if caught. But the moment they exit, the fare dodgers often show gestures of thanks to the driver, who stares blankly at them from the rear-view mirror.

Doing so is actually a risky act. Occasionally, ticketing inspectors patrol trains and board buses, randomly checking Opal cards and issuing $200 fines to those without valid tickets. Look for the familiar teal uniforms and be prepared to present your Opal card upon request.

The exit strategist

This is a passenger who epitomises the term “on the go.” Impatient and unable to wait for his turn in the line at the last bus stop, he chooses to position himself strategically near the doors, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. Watch in amusement as he navigates the human maze, zigzagging through the crowd bus like a seasoned ambulance driver. You can’t help but marvel at such exit-game prowess.

The laptop warrior

Some passengers find themselves opening their laptops and starting their work day on the bus. They compose emails, fine-tune their PowerPoint decks, debug code, or put orders on Excel spreadsheets. They juggle digital tasks with focused intensity, carving out a mobile office in the midst of the city’s flow. These nomadic professionals, fueled by caffeine and deadlines, are the talented multitaskers who squeeze work productivity even before reaching the workplace.

The wandring explorer

They are tourists or newcomers, with eager faces staring into the bus and eyes searching for their stop amongst the luggage jungle. These are the city adventurers, fresh off the plane and ready to conquer Sydney’s streets, with backpacks the size of mountains and tote bags packed with goodies. They clutch their phones like lifelines, and the maps on the screen look like a lighthouse in their strange surroundings. Every stop sign is a hieroglyph, and every bus route is written in a foreign language.

The good thing about Sydney commuters is that they are a proactive, helpful bunch of people. When they perceive an apparent pain point in the eyes of the wandering explorer, they jump into action and offer help.

The homestretch

As I woke from a brief slumber, the bus just crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and made headway at the terminal stop in Wynyard. I check for the shortest train route to Redfern on my way to my ultimate stop. It’s taken 35 minutes so far and another 20 minutes to make the train transfer.

Taking the bus in Sydney is an adventure in and of itself, whether you’re a seasoned commuter navigating the rush hour maze or a wide-eyed rookie clutching your first Opal card. The rumbling of the engine and the beat of the wheels weave together a kaleidoscope of faces, tales, and destinations.

It might be annoying, busy, and chaotic at times, but it also serves as a reminder of the shared journey we all take through this dynamic metropolis. So, the next time you board, enjoy the trip—the kind stares, the unexpected discussions, and the views into other people’s lives as they unfold behind windows.

Beyond the practicalities of travelling from point A to point B, taking the bus in Sydney reminds us that we’re all passengers on a huge urban trip, sharing the same route, the same stories, and the same ever-changing perspective of this city. So take a seat, crank up your music, and let the rhythm of the ride transport you through Sydney’s interiors, one bumpy, gorgeous bus ride at a time.

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