The sociologist Richard Sennet describes cities as “places where strangers meet.”
This defines the city both as larger than a village or neighborhood (where you might know or recognize everyone), but it excludes many of the areas that Americans label “cities.” Even if these “cities” have the mass of people necessary for there to be strangers, there are precious few places where one can encounter someone you don’t already know.
In a car-centric city, a worker can go straight to her car from her home’s connected garage and have no contact with any other city dweller until she arrives at the office. Of course, the streets are teeming with people, but everyone is insulated and separated from one another within their own vehicle.
This is often touted as a virtue of the personal car. You can play your own music, control your own temperature, and decide your own destination and the speed with which you get there. Public transportation, on the other hand, is often described as “packed like sardines” and is rife with complaints of unsavory, annoying, or downright dangerous people. This was one of Elon Musk’s primary problems with public transportation.
But the proximity to others is one of public transportation’s greatest strengths, not a weakness. It is precisely the ability to encounter strangers that is one of the greatest benefits of living in a city.
Jan Gehl, the architect of Copenhagen’s transformation from a car-centric city to a bike and pedestrian paradise, cites an ancient Icelandic poem in his book Cities for People: “man is man’s greatest joy.” Gehl makes the argument that the greatest attraction of any city is its people. He points out that people would rather walk down a lively and busy street than a deserted one and that benches with good views of city life are more frequently occupied than those that do not.
Gehl’s argument – that cities should be designed at human-scale, not sized for cars – easily applies to public transportation. Transit, unlike the street, is inherently human scale. Gehl cites the architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson who said, “make sure there’s never quite enough room” when designing a meeting space.
However, this must also be balanced with enough space. Overcrowding is a problem on many American systems during rush hour, but this simply means that capacity needs to be expanded to accommodate growing demand. It’s not an inherent flaw in public transportation.
Besides environments that genuinely overcrowd, commuting while surrounded by others can have major benefits for individuals and society. The political scientist Robert Putnam suggests in his book Bowling Alone, that commuting by car hinders the creation of “social capital”: a term that describes the benefits for individuals and societies resulting from social interactions and mutual trust.
Researchers studying commuters in Sweden found that commuting by car was associated with lower trust and social participation when compared to other modes of commuting. The authors suggest that this could be because commuting by public transportation facilitates social interaction in a way that driving does not.
Perhaps more valuable than these interactions are the possibility of “bridging” connections, that is, social interactions with people outside of your social group. This again complements Gehl’s claims about the value of even passing social interaction for both the individual and the community.
Instead of a trying experience, traveling by public transportation should be thought of as an opportunity to appreciate one of the greatest joys of living in a city, being in the company of other people. Rather than a prospect to be dreaded, it is a valuable opportunity that many in the United States do not have.
Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.