Transit Space is the Public Space We Need

This week on the bus, I met a lady named Lorraine. Lorraine was about 4’ 11”, had long, painted pink fingernails, and was wearing a sequined sweatshirt authoritatively proclaiming her to be ‘World’s Best Grandma’. As I sat down in the seat next to her, she looked up from her phone and cheerfully asked me to let her know when ‘the stop for the mall comes up.’ She also wanted to know about where I had ridden from (she had seen me put my bike on the bus) and where was I going, and was it easy to get around that way? As we chatted, I learned Lorraine was from Boston (the accent already gave it away), how she came to be in Dallas (a man, a plan, and a job) and what her hot take was on the next election cycle (worried Trump will win again). In her grating brogue, her eyes flashing with excitement and energy, Lorraine reminded me to ‘call my mother’; she handed me a stick of gum as she jumped up for her stop, dismounting the bus like a Grandma gymnast.

Once a week, maybe twice if I’m lucky, I have a little conversation (like the one I had with Lorraine) with someone on the train or the bus. Since I commute about an hour and a half each way from home to work, I have plenty of time; I’m also bored and curious about other people. As Stephanie and I discussed on our last podcast, one of the great appeals of public transit is the degree to which it both puts you in contact with many different people—from different walks of life, from different neighborhoods, in different jobs—and the degree to which the public transit space makes it possible for you to interact with folks as equals, in a non-hierarchical format. The bus is a great leveler, and a great neutralizer. Even if transit use may be on the decline in some cities, its fundamental principle remains: We all have somewhere to be, and we are all motivated to make the experience as comfortable, friendly, and incident-free as possible.

Or at least, most of us are. Everyone who takes public transit has a story or two about their people interactions (desired or not). The most memorable stories are often the worst: I once shared a long bus ride with a man who was smoking crack in the seat next to me and was very intent on picking a fight with the bus driver (he was, ultimately, kicked off the bus, as those that disturb the Zen of the Bus often are). Even little annoyances stick with me, too: last week, a guy I’ll call Cyclist Clyde wanted to talk to me about bikes, and specifically my bike, and pictures of his bike, at 6 am in the morning on the train, when I really wasn’t in the mood for a chat.  When he failed to elicit an enthusiastic response from me (outside of ‘Yes’, ’Yup’ and ‘Looks like a bike’) he glowered at me from across the train.

I’ve been followed off the bus, I’ve been harassed on the bus, I’ve encountered smelly people, rude people, angry people, and people with bad personal boundaries.  I’ve had people rant at me about Jesus and aliens.  And I’ve had to politely decline to engage in all manner of conversations that get uncomfortable, rude, weird, or tiresome.  At the same time, I recognize that the majority of my interactions with people on transit are at least more neutral than negative, more like my interaction with Lorraine than Cyclist Clyde. That is to say—the uniqueness of people, their oddness, their humor, their presence, their simple being in the world, has become immensely pleasurable to me.  People watching alone is a small joy (and I do it obsessively) but I am regularly surprised and charmed by the type of engagement I have with complete strangers on my daily commute.   

And there are levels to the amount and consistency of the engagement. Some of these people, like Lorraine, I meet once and never see again. Some, like Didi the Pit Bull Enthusiast and Murder Novella Guy, I see occasionally, enough to acknowledge with a wave and perhaps a short chat on what I know to be their favorite topic. But some of my regulars, like the Commuter Mom from Fort Worth with the mole and the long fur trench coat, become regular staples of my life, even when I don’t know their names. With these regulars there is a symbiotic and even caregiving element to our interactions.  On the daily, Commuter Mom will wave a silent hello, park in the seat across from me, and gently tap my knee when my stop is coming up (because my ass is fast asleep). Our other train companions, Glasses Tech Giant and History Professor, banter about politics at the far end of the car as they keep an eye on my bike.  (Why we all favor the last train car, I haven’t yet figured out; I assume it has something to do with inertia).   

Over time, these small memories accumulate, like receipts in my wallet, snowflakes on the pavement, or my personal internet data in an NSA folder on a server somewhere. My point is that they are both a record of my experiences of transit, and at the same time actively shape my attitudes about it. My get-about-town mobility algorithm has been trained on casual conversations in plastic chairs with strangers in a public environment.. As a result, I am ok with relinquishing a certain amount of control over my space and time to the bus driver (they will get me where I need to go, I believe this) and to my fellow passengers along for the ride.  I like public transit environments because I ride transit. I ride transit because I like the environment. And so on, iteratively.

So I look forward to my conversations with Lorraine, and people like Lorraine, because they remind me that I don’t have to be alone, that transit time is still real time (and good conversations can be had in it) and that, at least on public transit, people still know how to live together and be with each other in ways both banal and lovely, ordinary and unusual. My transit experience is more than just coping with strangers and passing time, and I know I’m not the only blogger that thinks so. And in a time of increasingly inequality, ever more exclusive urban spaces, and deepening racial segregation, transit space is the public space we still desperately need.

Special thanks to contributing scholar Jamie DeAngelo for the production of this work.

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