February 20, 2023

Public Transportation: Space and Social Control

Corneilia mayrBy Cornelia Mayr

Every city has a heart, a rhythm, and a beat. The pace of a modern city’s life is characterized by industrial civilization, new information technologies, a settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals, and faster methods of transport.

Buses, trams, metros, ferries, and passenger trains, are, for example, all fascinating urban spaces to study what is, can be, or should be public in the city. Every day, those large vehicles steer their way through a network of streets, trying to carry its passengers safely from one part of the city to another. Rushing all day in places filled with people who often seem to avoid interacting with one another, public transport may function as a rational example of modern city design; a form of social control that connects us to our sense of time and place as well as to others.

When waiting for a bus, for instance, we usually gather around a bus stop; a sign or covered shelter that signals us where to get on and off the bus. At first glance, this apparently mundane waiting area might not catch our attention. Professor of English and Cultural History Joe Moran sees this piece of street furniture as a “kind of prism through which we can read the uneven modernization of everyday life and the changing priorities of society” (2005, p. 7). In other words, a bus shelter is not just a place to wait for a bus, but also a symbol of social control. Thumbnail_FullSizeRender(4)First, bus shelters represent a colonization of towns and cities by advert-laden objects. As miniature billboards, bus shelters are, according to Moran, an “adjunct of the advertising industry” (p. 5). With illuminated posters plastered on almost every side and large enough to be seen from the street, a bus shelter is a brilliant place used to strategically direct advertisement campaigns at bus users as well as at passing pedestrians and car drivers.

Another interesting example of the conventionality of public transport lies in the idea of timetables, schedules, waiting, and queuing. While the systems of public transport force their passengers into fixed timetables, schedules, and unchanging routes, those divisions of time and place are important to co-ordinating and maintaining social order.  Together,  they orchestrate the temporal rhythm of duration, sequence, and movement.

With that in mind, do you feel stressed and ruled by the clock while waiting for a bus, metro, tram, train, or ferry? Modern innovative technologies may help turn waiting into a meaningful experience. News screens, newsstands, area maps, apps, videos, and music entertain and distract passengers while waiting. Roofed shelters, benches, plantings and near street vendors provide comfort, safety and goods related to the passengers’ needs.

In fact, many cities and transit agencies strategically plan the location and design of bus shelters, metro stations and other waiting areas for passengers, passers-by, and commuters. In following specific guidelines, well-designed urban spaces for public transport offer visibility, comfort and convenience, accessibility and information. The intention is to decrease the boredom and frustration of wasting time by creating the feeling of efficient time use. So, how do you pass time while in transit?

The desire to structure, regulate and maximize time can be seen as a reflection of modernity. Social theorist Georg Simmel, for instance, would see the organization of time as a defining feature of the accelerated pace of modern city life. Time has become a precious resource that needs to be saved, well spent, managed, and used carefully. In particular, Simmel observed how clock time rules and schedules every minute in people’s life; resulting, however, in more and more fleeting, impersonal encounters.

Have you ever witnessed examples of fleeting sociability in modes of public transport? After hopping on the bus, for instance, we can immediately see and feel the social etiquette surrounding this public space. Unspoken rules dictate how strangers manage their bodies, how close they sit next to each other and where to look. Sociologist Erving Goffman would see those public situations of distancing and ignorance of fellow travellers as a form of face-saving “civil inattention.” Simmel, however, would point to “the mental attitude of the people of the metropolis to one another” (1950, p. 15). Users of public transport might physically connect to unknown others while at the same time silently withdraw themselves from each other.

Perhaps Simmel’s description of the modern city life allows us to understand the sometimes tense and reserved “metropolitan attitude.” Such situations of polite aloofness experienced when using whatever mode of public transport does not merely reflect the motion of the city, but something a bit more multifarious. As semi-public “non-places,” systems of mass transit represent sites where urban dwellers found themselves intermixed in worlds of strangers to which nobody feels connected. At the same time, those places create new elements of interaction and bound its transient population together by a common if temporary interest: to get things done in time.

It is almost impossible to imagine systems of public transport without a temporal dimension.  Taking the bus might seem to be a simple and taken-for-granted part of metropolitan life. But have you ever become aware of how our daily activities and mutual relations are put into a stable, (im)personal and (dis)connecting time schedule?

Photo courtesy of Eileen Connell


Great article and good information on this site. I look forward to your next post.

This website has a great post and a lot of useful information. I eagerly await your next post.

We all have a heart for the cities we live in. It's like my love for geometry dash lite. It's a fun fast paced game

Besides the positives that public transport brings, there are still hidden corners that few people mention.

Even with all the good things about public transportation, there are still some secret spots that few people talk about.

The best blog ever is your post. Your post is interesting and interesting

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