Every day I spend more than two hours of my life traveling beneath Barcelona, a journey taken within the confines of a compact fluorescent-lit netherworld, a place where jungle law reigns.
Where crowds of people come together to circumnavigate the city; guided by a robotic, salty Catalan voice that indicates your current location at any given time along the sprawling metro map of ever-increasing stations. Construction officially began in 1863, the first line was opened in 1924, and the work continues to this day.
The Barcelona metro is by any reasonable standard a feat of engineering and efficient urban planning; trains are on time; delays are minimal. On a typical day, it constitutes a painless experience for any respectable traveler. Evenly comparable if not superior to any modern day European rail system.
However, to adequately explain the nuances and intricacies of the Barcelona metro system, we need to peel away the layers and look into its true essence, right at its steaming guts.
Every day the population of Barcelona is thrown to together inside the wagons of the Metro to endure each other´s company. Tiny glimmers of life manifest themselves in their crudest of forms, in amongst the muffled existence of people who live with their heads down, bent over, held captive by their smartphones.
The metro world works like a sustaining social ecosystem, and what happens beneath the streets does not always respect the nature of what happens above.
Once you have spent time on the Barcelona metro and studied its flora and fauna, it suddenly becomes clear as a microcosm of society. If you are paying attention, it’s like the watering hole at a wildlife reserve; there is oh-so much to see.
The metro safari begins at the platform. It’s a scrum, populated by Catalan office commuters, Peruvian builders, and shadow-world’s pickpockets. The platform clocks are ticking, you’re jostling for space. It is never more than 2 minutes between trains and everybody stares wistfully at the tunnel as if awaiting deliverance.
The metro train rattles into the station. Naturally, it’s the social norm to line up either side of the doors, to allow a quick and easy disembarkation. At every door, however, there will be one passenger who does not adhere to this rule. They will mistakenly believe that they will have an empty wagon, with a smiling conductor who will unburden them of their luggage and welcome them into a plush private compartment. The reality of most mainline stations is a commuter stampede that charges off the train. Standing in front of doors is either brave or spectacularly stupid. Some people will realise their mistake a little too late; they can only writhe in horror as they form a breakwater in the commuter crowd descending upon them. The average commuter storming off the train has zero tolerance for indecisive platform dwellers.
Some passengers don’t expect to be rushed; they lash out like cornered wild animals. All to suddenly, your trip to the inner-city dentists can transform into some type of bloodsport.
Some of the brave and more intrepid door dwellers will be bold enough to counter-attack and storm the wagon. Their weaving and winding is athletic, crafty and downright impressive.
Once the Metro doors slide open it becomes a game of positioning, a desperate gambit to find a seat or quiet corner. The area of desire is the pivot between wagons, the vestibule. There’s a sign saying do not stand here, but despite — or perhaps because of — that, it is often a tiny rotating oasis of peace. Riding the journey out from this position can afford you the time and space to watch the wildlife. From this vantage point, you will spot the several species of metro inhabitants that you can encounter at any time of the day.
The seat prowler is an aggressive creature, usually on the wrong side of fifty, and not limited to any one demographic. Once the metro train door opens, they will rush to the nearest empty seat. Most commuters will happily move aside to allow them access and avoid a confrontation, but occasionally the seat prowler will come across another of their species, and a territorial show of force is inevitable, as is the argument about who deserves the seat more. Sometimes it can get nasty, and other passengers will often have to intervene to avoid violence. Then, without a hint of irony, both the seat prowlers will get up and disembark the train at the next station.
The train walker is a creature that frequently walks the length of the train for no other reason but to get closer the street exit when they disembark. They tend to be young, impatient and unconcerned about muscling their way through the crowds. Their prowls tend to arouse suspicion, as it is a known tactic of the pickpockets to walk the wagon and signal easy prey to their accomplices.
The dopamine Smartphone fiend is probably the most despised beast of them all. They wander about train and platforms alike, their necks bent over, buried in their mobile devices and causing untold chaos. They create bottlenecks, collisions and even fights, all of which spark from their singular lack of any social awareness. They possess a minuscule attention span, flicking irrationally from one social media platform to another, face spasming with the intense rush of dopamine signals
At the root of this is Barcelona’s status as the 4th most popular European destination for ego-tourism, where social media zealots decent upon the boulevards and beaches to upload pictures of themselves to Instagram.
So what of these specimens? Can we expect a world increasingly populated by this subterranean train-folk? The answer, alas, is clear.
In a bid to increase the social diversity of the metro system, the Catalan parliament plans to half the price of public transport tickets during incidents of high pollution in the city, with the nefarious agenda of introducing more citizens to the fluorescent-lit netherworld.