When it comes to moving about Barcelona, some prefer the bus so as “to see the city”. Others prefer the metro, presumably to avoid having to look at it. This, of course, is not what they say—they’ll cite more consistent schedules and overall efficiency—but it makes perfect sense. Barcelona’s virtues rarely shine when driving through it, quite the contrary: major streets (Paral·lel or Meridiana, Maragall or Mitre) are rather unpleasant through the windows of a bus or car. Very few Barcelona streets will give you a “nice drive”. Now that more charming neighbourhoods have been vetoed to traffic, this is even more the case. I remember my father, visiting in the 90s, driving his rent-a-car through the Gothic Quarter, peering down Carabassa from Escudellers and asking me innocently if he could turn down it. It seemed unimaginable to him that such a thing could be allowed, as he manoeuvred the vehicle at walking speed beneath that lovely arch on the way down to Plaça de la Mercè.
I take the metro because the lines have clear colours and the trains are impeccably white—but also because it is more reliable. I also prefer the scenario when its late. In a bus, when you are delayed you see why, whether its accidents, double-parked delivery vans or snail-paced rush-hour traffic. All this reminds you of what you hate about driving in the city, exacerbating the frustration; being late on a bus is stressful because you associate it with comparable stresses you have on the road.
In the metro you never think about such things. Delays are abstract and more esoteric, so you put up with them more passively: they announce an “incident” at Fontana, and everyone imagines something different, from a jammed door to a student protest to a suicidal jumper, without ever learning the truth. In the metro passengers are slow to complain (like what happens when an airplane is delayed on the tarmac and passengers sit there dumbly), while decelerated city buses rarely get the benefit of the doubt.
The metro is better because it takes you right to your destination: when you get out, you’re there. A metro is a purified transporter, popping you out wherever you’ve chosen to go (like getting beamed up in Star Trek); a bus is a relativized transitioner, gradually shifting you in overlapping phases through urban space. There is nothing wrong with adjusting through facets of a cityscape, it’s what is sensual about metropolitan life, but it works much better on foot, or on a bike, where you control the pace of the transitions.
When I return to Barcelona jet-lagged from overseas, I often battle sleeplessness by taking the early-morning metro, picking a distant destination at random. Once I went to Can Cuyàs, then wandered through Vallbona, taking the footbridge across the Rondes before heading back. Another time I went to La Torrassa, in Hospitalet, a dense knoll with narrow pedestrian passageways cutting through forgotten housing blocks. Both times I was told on return I’d gone to “dangerous” places. Whenever I do this, I come back refreshed, made anew, my jet-lag preternaturally reversed.
The metro’s anonymity, and its tendency to get overpacked, does condition its safety; not having a driver ogling passengers through a rear-view mirror gives some people the green light to behave badly. They say vandalism and unwanted touching are more frequent, and pickpocketing is more at home on the trains. In contrast, I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for bus drivers to get love letters from passengers, including contact information; on the metro positive human contact is not as refined. I am not sure why this is, but buses are more conducive to sociability.
When you get out, you’re there. A metro is a purified transporter, popping you out wherever you’ve chosen to go (like getting beamed up in Star Trek).
The metro gets high ratings from users regardless, which must have a lot to do with reliability. Still, the system has a long way to go, since it’s impersonal relationship with users and indifference to feedback means obvious defects are missed, sometimes for decades. There are stations, like Verneda, that are leaking and rusting, in semi-abandon. At Espanya, a hub with airport links, there is no elevator nor escalator down to Line 3, just interminable staircases. Many stations are improperly signed, so that people get lost or end up walking in absurd circles as they get trapped in information loops (this happens, hilariously at times, at Catalunya, on the Green Line near the stairs).
The metro also happens to be incredibly noisy, at times deafening, which is one of those things users accept unquestioningly. This may be because we all recognize what the metro ultimately is: an immense tracery of trains clattering along dark narrow tunnels, a clamorous proposition indeed..