The most recent episode was about public transport as public space. Here's the script we worked from - which draws a fair bit from the
book I worked on with Ruth Fincher, Helga Leitner and Valerie Preston that came out in 2019.
Public transport as public space: fostering everyday equality among strangers
|Crowd standing next to the first electric train in Wynyard Station, Sydney, 1932. Source: National Library of Australia|
Discussions about public transport tend to focus on its ability (or inability!) to get us efficiently from A to B. But what about the journey itself? Train carriages, station platforms and other transport like buses and ferries are also some of the most-used public spaces in our cities – many thousands of us share these intimate spaces with strangers every day. What everyday rules and habits have we developed to make that work? What happens when they break down? And how can we create the kinds of positive atmospheres that will make public transport truly accessible for all?
Sydney’s railway network: spreading us out and packing us in
Sydney’s urban geography has been shaped by its railways, in more ways than one.
The story we usually tell about our train network is that it allowed the people to find more personal space in suburban homes away from the more densely packed inner city. Advocating for the electrification and extension of the suburban railway network, Bradfield told a conference of town planners in 1917 that it would allow workers “to reside further afield and enjoy fresh air and sunlight”.
But as well as letting us spread out, those trains also packed people together in their carriages. In Sydney and other cities where train networks were growing, this was a new – and somewhat confronting – social experience. One of the great early sociologists of the industrial city, Georg Simmel, wrote in 1908:
Before the development of buses, trains and streetcars in the nineteenth century, people were quite unable to look at each other for minutes or hours at a time … without talking to each other.
Equality or incivility?
Reacting to this new experience, observers at the time veered between optimism and pessimism about what it would mean for urban populations.
In France in the 1850s, economist and politician Constantin Pecqueur waxed lyrical about the new solidarity and equality that might emerge through train travel:
By causing all classes of society to travel together and thus juxtaposing them into a kind of living mosaic of all the fortunes, positions, characters, manners, customs, and modes of dress that each and every nation has to offer, the railroads quite prodigiously advance the reign of truly fraternal social relations and do more for the sentiments of equality that the most exalted sermons of the tribunes of democracy.
But others were much more pessimistic.
It wasn’t just that train services in many countries tended to stratify passengers by class into different compartments and carriages. The monotony of the daily commute, the press of the crowd in the morning and afternoon peak, made some worry that people were being treated as mere goods to be efficiently moved through space by this new mechanical form of mass transportation.
Here in Sydney, writing in 1923 around the time of the first train electrification, an editorial writer for The Sun worried that overcrowded trains had:
boxed us up into a straggling mass and killed our natural Instinct to be polite. We have to scramble and fight for the means of getting home and the man who steps aside and says: 'After you,' is the man who walks and finds his late arrival hard to explain.
By the 1930s, things were getting so crowded during peak hours that train carriages were refitted to remove seats and make more room for ‘strap-hangers’ to squeeze into the standing areas of vestibules and aisles.
Both perspectives, I think speak to the different possibilities of train travel.
Learning to share the space of the train: the unwritten rules of ‘civil inattention’ and physical accommodation
Certainly, the strategies we’ve developed to cope with the intimacy of sharing a carriage with strangers might not initially look too promising as practices of ‘fraternity’ and ‘equality’.
Trains, along with other public transport spaces, are places where we’ve learnt to practice the art of ‘civil inattention’. In the early days of train travel, reading a newspaper or book was the classic ‘involvement shield’. Now, we have our smart phones to keep us amused during our commute and to keep us socially, if not physically, distanced from our fellow passengers.
Share the confined public space of the train carriage with strangers also involves learning a bunch of physical skills. There’s all the little things we do with our bodies to carve out our own personal space, to make space for others. We also learn to read the non-verbal cues of our fellow passengers seeking to get past us to alight the train, and to avoid lurching or falling when the train starts and stops.
When all this works, the train carriage becomes a microcosm of the city’s multiculture: Pecqueur’s lovely idea of the train carriage as a “living mosaic” of urban diversity is apt. We rub shoulders with all manner of strangers in a kind of everyday equality. That experience of equality is sustained by the notion that the train is for anyone, and that we all have a part to play in making it work – even if our relationships with fellow passengers are fleeting, and our actions and solidarities are unspoken.
When public space becomes hostile space
Of course, solidarity among strangers on the train can also break down. I’m sure listeners can name their pet peeves! There are minor infractions like people taking up too much space. And much more seriously, some passengers can become targets of aversive behaviour, harassment, intimidation and violence – sometimes on the basis of their gender, their sexuality, their visible faith, the language they are speaking, or the colour of their skin.
Interestingly, the very devices that we use as ‘involvement shields’ are now frequently being used by bystanders to witness, disrupt and shame such behaviours. There’s been a growing trend of passengers capturing ‘racist rants’ on their smart phones and re-asserting the equality of the public space.
From hostility to festivity and solidarity?
Not all disruptions of our habitual ways of being together on the train are bad.
French anthropologist Marc Auge described the train as a space of “collectivity without festival and solitude without isolation”. I love that description! But the collectivity on the train can occasionally be a little festive, and sometimes solitude makes way for connection.
Think of the festive atmosphere that can take hold of a train carriage during special events, like footy fans taking the train to a big game at Olympic park. Or think of people coming to one another’s aid, through small acts of kindness like assisting someone with a stroller or vacating a seat, or through spontaneous expressions of care and solidarity like the anti-racist #I’llRideWithYou social media hashtag that was reposted hundreds of thousands of times following the Martin Place hostage-taking in 2014.
Tipping the balance towards equality and solidarity: too many sticks, not enough carrots?
What can the transport authorities themselves do, to tip the scales from hostility towards solidarity and equality – especially when they can’t be in every carriage, all the time?
Of course, operating and maintaining the public spaces of trains and buses plays a big role. A special shout out here to all the operators, guards and cleaners who have kept our system going during the difficult last two years of the pandemic.
So too does designing the space to be accessible for all – there are still dozens of stations across Sydney that are only accessible by stairs, without lifts.
Beyond that, there’s been considerable focus on naming and policing the ‘unwritten rules’ of being together. On Sydney trains, there’s plenty of signs and posters telling us what not to do. Don’t put your feet on the seats. Don’t be a ‘hogger’ or a ‘loud talker’ or a “tosser”. And there are surveillance cameras watching over us, and transit officers patrolling trains and stations.
But if those are the sticks, what about some carrots?
Urban designer Jan Gehl says that a good public space is like a good party – once you get there, you don’t want to leave. I’m not sure that little analogy quite works for a train!
But it does point to the role that care, hospitality and activation might play in making these public spaces work.
A few things come to mind. I like the sign that the Human Rights Commission developed with one of the major bus companies for use in Melbourne a few years ago – it’s simple and positive message was “This bus is for everyone”. It’s welcoming, not censorious.
In other cities I’ve visited, train carriages have been adorned with commissioned poetry and artworks. In Chicago a few years ago, I did find myself hanging around on a train platform much longer than planned – a local blues band were set up at one end, and as well as the music being great, they were keeping an eye on the comings and goings at the station. In Sydney a couple of years ago, on Make Music Day, bands were set up on inter-city train carriages – the opposite of a quiet carriage!
Public Space, Public Transport, and the Public Good
In the scheme of things, when our infrastructure challenges are so great, perhaps investing in these kinds of initiatives seems trivial.
But taking trains and other public transport seriously as public spaces can actually have the effect of making them more accessible to people who need them to get around.
You can have as many train lines as you like, but if they’re not spaces where everyone feels welcome, where strangers can establish and nurture positive strategies for being together in their difference as equals, then people won’t use them.
For public transport to serve the public good, it needs to work as public space. And this is something that both operators and we passengers always need to work at.