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The Social Stagnation Present in Modern Public Transportation July 25, 2006

Posted by earthlingconcerned in Western Culture.

With about 2.3 million daily customers, and the remarkable distinction of being the third most heavily used transit system in North America, it appears that the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) has done a great job providing a public service that continues to grows. It is hard to complain about those newly minted transferable metro passes, or the noticeable performance upgrades to the Day Passes. However, the stagnation that I propose deviates from this specific aspect of growth and will concentrate instead on the social character of the TTC. I think the current trend in social behavior on public transportation is counter intuitive and ultimately damaging to society as a whole.

By using the term social character, I hope to describe the customary behaviors that are all too common in modern day public transportation. Throughout this essay, I will refer primarily to the Subway system over any other type of public transportation. This is done for reasons of clarity and not as a limiting factor. I would now like to convey a few relating observations of TTC ridership to clarify what is meant with “customary behaviors”. I speak in reference to any given weekday morning rush hour subway train; I see a microcosm of modern urban society. There are people from all pockets of the world doing their best to get from point A to point B in a quick and orderly fashion. I see you scanning cautiously throughout the train trying to learn more of the other passengers only to quickly glance away when another just like you discovers your curiosity with their own. I count the number of iPod ear buds hanging down and see only an excuse to further promote the unnecessary isolation. I see closed eyed, the reason remains the same. A TTC passenger is indeed a predictable animal. In what I would hardly call an exaggeration, the social character of the aforementioned subway car promotes isolation in an area that would in most other instances promote social activity.

Public transportation differs in structure from other common modes of transportation in that they are generally built around the idea of privacy. It is almost unthinkable to walk down a busy downtown street and spark up a conversation with one of the several million faces that have their own routes and urgencies. A car is limited as well in that, just like walking; it is part of a private organism. Private automobile rider ship depends on previously achieved relationships to the car owner, be it of a personal or business nature. The following is a short list of reasons why I see public transportation in another light. Firstly, regardless of what has become a visible practice of isolation, a subway car forces close contact with strangers within a temporary, controlled and manageable space. These people, who by the nature of transportation itself, have a lot in common with you the moment you enter the train. A Subway train is quiet enough for discussion to occur, many people spend more time with their head down on a transit vehicle than they ever would in similar social seating arrangement (I.e. coffee shop). A subway car is also within the range of what British anthropologist Robin Dunbar considers to be the limit of direct and significant personal relations. The Dunbar Number (recently made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”) is based on a theory that proposes that you can have a stable one on one relationship between a maximum of 150 individuals. Beyond this range of interactions, it is said to be harder and harder to establish true and meaningful connections. I must admit, that the inclusion of the Dunbar Number as an argument for a subway community is flawed in that it’s tough to imagine having so many things in common with the people of an entire subway car, and that the number of relationships that could be discovered will ultimately conflict with others already prominent on your personal 150. I would only like to suggest that the limited enclosure of a subway car allows for important connections to be made. Whether these connections will ever be seen on a large scale is yet to be seen. The characters on the television show Train 48 seemed to have gotten the idea (prior to its cancellation of course). Why is it then that this phenomenon of silent ridership exists?

I can think of several reasons, all of which I believe depend on vague, unwritten social rules of TTC ridership. One can argue that there simply isn’t enough time to become acquainted with another person in such a short period of time. Firstly, this argument depends entirely on of the duration of the specific trip taken, but I do think there is a grave misunderstanding of what is required to be converted from faceless stranger to a temporary friend. Here are a few situational examples of what I mean with temporary friend. If you’ve ever charged towards a train to make it on before the doors closed with someone just like you, you’ve made a temporary friend. If you’ve ever snickered in unison with another rider when noticing an aberration in the train’s social character, you’ve made a temporary friend. Even asking someone for the time brings out an understanding between two people, a shared experience, a connection that had only moments before, not existed. It is more likely that you’ll realize when that person goes through his pockets or leaves the train now that this temporary friendship has been established. I suggest, from personal experience, that these brief and unexpected occurrences are capable of heightening ones mood and sharpening ones mind in a similar way that any interaction based on similar experience might. However, these instances of impromptu connectedness are extinguished as quickly as they are established because the event conflicts directly with the current social character of a Subway car. These instances fail to progress beyond this initial level because once the moment of connectedness is acknowledged, the link is torn apart by the nature of the lonely crowd. With this in mind, I will repeat in saying that the “lack of time to establish common thoughts” argument is an excuse more than it is a reason. The next argument that I will attempt to argue against is one that I can relate to, yet hardly defend.

It is possible and at times, completely probably, that the lack of interaction has to do with a preoccupation of unrelated matters. One might think, I can’t be bothered to talk to strangers when an important deadline is approaching, an important test is mere minutes away or simply because the music being played is genuinely for practical enjoyment (instead of as a way to be excused from any social interaction). All of these, and many more reasons for silence exist, and have to be accepted only if they are genuine in nature. If these people continue on with their isolated behavior, not out of fear of making a peep or being heard, but because it is current a expression of self, then all the power to them. There are days when the last thing you want to do is draw any attention to yourself, but this should always be caused by an active choice, rather than one placed upon you. Forced isolation such as this, condones the development of stereotypes, segregation and ultimately a certain illusionary level of antisocial comfort.

In a recent Toronto Star article, Is Toronto growing more divided (Andrew Chung), it is hinted toward, that the working example of a cultural mosaic that represents Canada (as opposed to the “Melting Pot” of cultural amalgamation found in the United States) is in decline. Differences in presumed socioeconomic and racial backgrounds are more and more frequently keeping people apart due to an obsolete set of stereotypes. A temporary friendship is blind to these old rules. However, it seems that those obsolete set of instructions always outlive the moment and the shared experience fades into obscurity. Allowing for the benefit of the doubt to suppose that people are generally well-intentioned creatures, it is easiest to break stereotypes and promote common interests when one isn’t subjected to isolated opinions. A subway train is often one of the most unique examples of contained diversity throughout the city. It is therefore hard to find a better place to promote social interaction, conditions permitting. If one thinks about accepted behavior on an airplane today, you’d realize that a level of communication between the passengers by your side is commonplace. A large part behind this variation lies in what is considered as acceptably normal behavior in the respective environments. These accepted norms lure you in because there is supposedly a certain level of comfort present within them. Within a subway train, where an attempt to extend the rule of privacy into this potentially social arena has been made, you ultimately find yourself restricted to silence by social pressures rather than personal wants. Anxiety forms an alliance with a social character that already finds itself in err. With this in mind, I will return to the subway car, a potentially valuable way to change the slow progression to further isolation.

If one is to understand my opinion that traditions and stereotypes promote an unnecessary isolation within public transportation, and that it is possible to reverse this large-scale antisocial behavior, I will soon propose a few suggestions on a way to change this behavior. Before I do this however, I wish to make it perfectly clear that I do not think large-scale reform of any social institution is possible without serious repercussions, and am therefore an advocate the piecemeal approach to any form of social engineering. As an approach that depends entirely on small shifts towards any goal, a sort of minimal impact trial and error method of social progress, the piecemeal approach approves of the notion that anything I promote within this article may and possibly should be refuted. Regardless, I think a discussion in any topic is more valuable than no discussion at all. Now, my few suggestions on how to promote social activity as a catalyst within the public transit system.

As with anything else, a popular awareness of the goals one is attempting to achieve is possibly more important than the message itself. If people are expecting something, they are much less likely to react cautiously to it. An article in a daily paper (free or otherwise) for example would distribute the idea to its target audience with little or no distraction from what is currently considered as the social character of the transit vehicle. With this idea in place, if only for a brief period, it is plausible that the riders will already be more accepting to a social presence aboard the train. Suggesting something like “whistle, if you hear someone whistle” will barely breach the current level of anxious anonymousness within the train, yet would promote a low level, high impact form of communication. Bring in traditional bits of culture such as the first half of the “Hockey Night in Canada” theme, hoping for a response in the form of the latter half to follow from elsewhere on the train. It is also important to maintain a level of modesty in regards to this idea. Suggest that all those who wish to escape the realm of unnecessarily isolation should move to the front of the subway train and continue from there. If you’re already with someone you know, use this added comfort to initiate communication. In time, the whistling becomes a reminder, which in turn becomes a symbol. This symbol, a representation of a shared experience, is an essential opening for the temporary friend to exist beyond the initial moment, beyond the individual participant. If the only discussion that ensues out of these thoughts is how unrealistic and unnecessary they are, then the message has succeeded. To know for certain whether any of these suggestions is beneficial in long term societal progress is not possible to know for certain. For example, the idea interaction with strangers conflicts directly with the “Don’t Talk to Strangers” lesson every child is, and for their protection, rightfully so subjected to. Other perfectly healthy social institutions (such as parental rules) can exist and do apply within the newly suggested social character of public transit ridership. There’s also the idea that people already do socialize on public transit. I can’t deny this at all, but suggest that these interactions are primarily established prior to entering the train and tend to be self-contained.

I am hoping to be able to sit down on a transit vehicle in the near future and ask a set of wandering eyes how their day has been or what they think of the winter weather without being subjected to the feeling that I was in someway wrong in speaking up. A better future is altogether absent of any absoluteness. Nonetheless, an effort should be given to ensure that the TTC is truly the better way.



1. endubsFub - March 7, 2009

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