When we say “public transit,” we mean public in the sense that the government—actually usually a quasi-governmental special authority—runs the transit. I think it’s time to reclaim the other meaning of public transit. This is transit as a space where a public is created, where a mass of individuals is constituted into a collective and sometimes even a community.
I’ve been thinking about this more since the Red Line crash. The decline in service on the Red Line means that my commute has gone from one of total comfort to something hot and crowded. There are definitely lots of people who have reacted to this horribly; there is shoving and griping that you don’t have in places where cars this crowded are normal.
But there are also lots of people who have really responded to the annoyances of worse service admirably. Returning home yesterday, a tourist was dragging her daughter off a crowded car at my exit and the kid got sort of tangled up in an older woman’s arms. Although the tourists didn’t seem to speak any English, this woman and the two tourists struck up a sort of friendship on the escalator up. The day before, I had Metro drivers in both directions who went out of their way to be friendly over the intercom, wishing us a Happy Tuesday and kindly explaining why our train was stopped for a few minutes at the station. It might be all in my head, but I feel like I’ve seen many more people giving the elderly their seats rather than jealously rushing down so they can do the Sudoku in the Express. It’s really a nice thing to see.
I also think that there might be room for embracing the public in public transit. WMATA isn’t going to outcompete your car (or your bike) in terms of giving you a quiet, peaceful place to be alone after a long day’s work. Can’t be done. Acknowledging that and then working towards making trains and buses more communal might be the smart response, then. I’m not sure quite what this looks like—maybe changing the way the seats face from all facing forward to facing each other, like in New York, or allowing more individual personality in the conductor’s announcements (see number 24 here), or allowing performers in subway stations—but public transit is what it is and should make the most of that.