Everyday Sociology Blog: Public Transport: Space and Social Control

Everyday Sociology Blog: Public Transport: Space and Social Control
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Written by Cornelia Mayr

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

For example, buses, trams, subways, ferries and passenger trains are attractive urban spaces to explore what is, can be or should be public in the city. Every day, those large vehicles travel the street network trying to safely transport passengers from one part of the city to another. Rushing all day in crowded places that often avoid interacting with each other, public transport can act as a rational example of modern urban design; a form of social control that binds us to a sense of time and place and to others.

For example, while waiting for the bus, we usually gather at the bus stop; a sign or covered shelter showing where to get on and off the bus. At first glance, this seemingly mundane waiting area may not catch our attention. Joe Moran, a professor of English and cultural history, sees this piece of street furniture as “a kind of prism through which we can read the uneven modernization of the everyday and the shifting priorities of society” (2005, p. 7). In other words, the bus shelter is not only a place to wait for the bus, but also a symbol of social control. Thumbnail_FullSizeRender(4)First, bus shelters are the colonization of cities and towns with advertising-laden objects. Like miniature billboards, bus shelters are, according to Moran, “an appendage of the advertising industry” (p. 5). With illuminated posters plastered on nearly every side, large enough to be seen from the street, the bus shelter is a great place to strategically target advertising campaigns to bus users as well as passing pedestrians and motorists.

Another interesting example of the commonality of public transport is the idea of ​​schedules, timetables, waiting and queues. Although public transportation systems force passengers into fixed schedules, timetables, and fixed routes, these divisions of time and space are important for coordinating and maintaining social order. Together they orchestrate a temporal rhythm of duration, sequence and movement.

With that in mind, do you feel tense and controlled by the clock while waiting for a bus, metro, tram, train or ferry? Today’s innovative technologies can help turn waiting into a meaningful experience. News screens, newsstands, location maps, apps, videos and music entertain and distract passengers while they wait. Rooftop shelters, benches, greenery and roadside vendors provide comfort, safety and merchandise to meet the needs of commuters.

In fact, many cities and transit agencies strategically plan the location and design of bus stops, subway stations, and other waiting areas for commuters, commuters, and commuters. Following specific guidelines, well-planned urban spaces provide visibility, comfort and convenience, accessibility and information for public transport. The goal is to reduce boredom and the frustration of wasting time by creating a sense of efficient use of time. So how do you spend your time on the go?

The desire to structure, regulate and maximize time can be seen as a reflection of modernity. For example, the social theorist Georg Simmel would consider the organization of time to be an essential feature of the accelerated pace of modern urban life. Time has become a precious resource that needs to be saved, spent well, managed and used carefully. In particular, Simmel observed how clock time governs and schedules every minute of people’s lives; however, more and more ephemeral, impersonal encounters are emerging.

Have you ever seen examples of ephemeral communication on public transport? For example, when we jump on a bus, we immediately see and feel the social etiquette surrounding this public space. Unspoken rules dictate how strangers handle their bodies, how close they sit next to each other, and where to look. Sociologist Erving Goffman would consider those public situations of alienation and ignorance of fellow travelers as a face-saving form of “civic inattention”. However, Simmel would draw attention to “the mental attitude of the people of the metropolis toward each other” (1950, p. 15). Public transport users can physically connect with unfamiliar others while quietly withdrawing from each other.

Perhaps Simmel’s description of modern urban life provides an insight into the sometimes strained and reticent ‘metropolitan attitude’. Such situations of polite aloofness experienced when using any form of public transport reflect not only the movement of the city, but something more diverse. As semi-public ‘non-places’, mass transport systems are places where urban dwellers find themselves in alien worlds to which no one feels connected. At the same time, those places create new elements of interaction and unite its transient residents with a common, albeit temporary, interest: getting things done on time.

It is almost impossible to imagine public transport systems without the time dimension. Taking the bus may seem like a simple and self-evident part of city life. But have you ever realized how our daily activities and interpersonal relationships are organized into a stable, (im)personal and (disconnecting) timeline?

Photo courtesy of Eileen Connell

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