waiting for the bus haiku

In an earlier post (“The Trolley’s Smile”), we talked about the car card, a vehicle of advertising that has remained very much alive and well while the “cars” to whose sides it is affixed have evolved from their horse-drawn forebears:

bus exterior ad


And as public transportation has expanded its reach under ground with the development of subway systems in the world’s larger cities, the car card has followed, accompanied by two additional family members, one exterior to the car, and the other, interior.

Bus stops and subway stations typically offer the would-be commuter something to read while waiting for the arrival of the bus or subway train:

subway station interior

Unlike the car card with which the viewer typically has only fleeting (if repeated) contact, the time that the person waiting for the bus or train may spend in front of a billboard display can be long (and, for regular commuters, repeated as well). And to some extent, the waiter is held hostage in a way that the pedestrian who glimpses the mobile ad is not: the pedestrian can walk away, having no bus or train to have to catch, say, to work.

Even more constrained is the passenger once ensconced on the bus or train, a captive audience if ever there was one. Here, the sponsored messages must be brief, given the limitations of physical space available:

bus interior ads

though prime space can be rented for somewhat larger displays:


interior car ad

Whatever their size, taken as a group, such hard to ignore messages fall along a continuum of the baldly commercial (“Buy my product or service”) to the educational and purely pleasurable. Notable in the educational category were the series of math problems presented in bright colors in the cars of the Barcelona subway in the year 2000. These included such classics as the Seven Bridges of Königsberg, a problem that is simple enough to state but not so easy to solve without some thought: The city of Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad) consisted of three land masses divided by a river that at the time was spanned by seven bridges connecting the three. Would it be possible to plan a route that crossed each bridge once and only once?  Travelers unfamiliar with spoilsport Leonhard Euler’s 1736 solution were free to cudgel their brains over this at the risk, lost in thought, of missing their stop. Readers not fluent in Catalan, of course, had the additional challenge of figuring out what the problem was before attempting its solution.

As for the purely pleasurable (if math in Catalan doesn’t take you to the fair), the “Poems on the Underground” project in the London subway system (a.k.a. the Underground or Tube) has got to be a serious contender for first place. Begun in 1986, the project’s origins and purpose are perhaps best described by its founders (Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik, Cicely Herbert) in the introduction to their anthology (Poems on the Underground, now in its tenth edition):

“Anyone who suffers from an addiction to reading cereal box tops or bus tickets will understand the special appeal of ‘Poems on the Underground’. The programme began as an idea shared among a few friends: how pleasant it would be, we thought, to read a few lines by one’s favorite poet on the Tube, instead of advertisements for mints or temps. We were Londoners by birth or adoption, habitual users of pubic transport, lovers of poetry. We shared the conviction that poetry is a popular, loving are, and that the pleasures of rhythm and rhyme are part of common life. The Underground, also an inescapable part of our common life, had large numbers of empty advertising spaces. It seemed an entirely reasonable idea to propose filling the blank grey slots with poems, for the entertainment of the travelling public.”

With the support of the London Underground, those blank grey slots have been filled with a wide variety of poems, some old and some new, some very familiar and some less so. For example, commuters have had the opportunity to read the following:

Western wind when wilt thou blow
the small rain down can rain
Christ if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again.

(An anonymous lyric from the early 16th century that might well tempt you to get off at the next stop, hurry home, and hop back in bed after calling in sick to work.)

And the rather cheerier

                        Celia Celia

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.

 (Adrian Mitchell [1932 – 2008])

And for those who are fond of both poetry and math, Lars Gustafsson’s wonderful poem, “The Bridges of Königsberg” in his The Stillness of the World before Bach, is not to be missed.

missed the bus haiku