How Public Transit Fosters Community
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How Public Transit Fosters Community

Believe it or not, riding the subway or streetcar serves a bigger purpose than just getting from point A to point B.

Public transit is an important conduit. It serves an essential need in an urban economy: mobility.

But public transit is also an important public space. It is a place where we encounter a lot of people we don’t know, who are from different parts of the city, different backgrounds, travelling for different purposes, and engaging the city in different ways.

These encounters play an important role in the city. Let me explain why.

Several years ago, I taught briefly at an American university. It was one of those Very Nice Universities, populated mostly by lovely, bright students from private schools. They were mostly white and mostly from suburban, upper-middle-class families. In one course I had a student who, in an assignment on his family’s geography, told me a story of what he felt was an extraordinary coincidence: although he was from the northeast, he ran into a classmate on a summer holiday in a parking lot at the Grand Canyon. “What are the odds?” he asked.

Actually, they’re pretty good. Stay with me for a moment—this is relevant.

When we move through and across cities, provinces, and countries, our sense of the freedom of our movement is that we can go anywhere. There are few overt restrictions on the movement of Canadians, both within Canada and around the world.

That sense of “I can go wherever I want” can mask how routine and even determined our movements are. We don’t go anywhere and everywhere. Our movements are not random. We all have our own geographies, personal maps of the places that are meaningful for us.

If I asked you to draw a map of “your Toronto,” it would probably have your home in the middle, surrounded by key place markers of your daily life: work or school, family and friends, your regular places of leisure or other activities.

These anchor points reflect who we are. They also continue to shape us. Our geographies bring us into regular contact with people who have things in common with us. We tend to be in places where we’re with people who think the same, look the same, believe the same, think similarly, or like to do the same things. Not uniformly, but similarly.

None of this is negative; it is important to find and build communities within big cities. One of the key ways we do this is through places where we can connect along these lines.

And importantly, a lot of these encounters and gatherings with familiar people are not planned. We run into each other in the same places, because we have things in common that drive our interest or inclination to wind up in these spaces. It could be because we have similar incomes or similar interests in sports.

This happens at the level of the city, but also on larger scales: people of similar backgrounds often vacation in similar places.

Sometimes, these are called “bubbles,” but that’s not often a fair label. It’s important to recognize and value that we all need to find safe and supportive community. A “bubble” only occurs when there’s an effort to keep others out and pretend that your world is the only world there is.

But the logical other side of this is that there are many other worlds, and hundreds of places in the city that you never go. Our communities are important, but they do not meet all our needs. For us to build something larger than our communities—like a city, or even “society”—means that at some point we need to encounter people who are different.

We need to see and to know about people who are not like us, and recognize there is still some commonality, some shared interest.

One of the places we do this is on public transit. Riding transit is such an ordinary activity. Many of us spend it not paying attention to our fellow travellers. Instead we read, listen to music, play games on our phones, maybe even sleep. It feels like “in-between” time.

And yet despite the feeling that time on transit is just a nothing space between where we were and where we want to go, a lot is going on.

We notice each other, whether we’re trying to or not. We encounter people who are not like us, who live in different parts of the city and have different lives. People whose worlds are not ones we know. People with different abilities, interests, practices. Public spaces like transit are where school kids see seniors, and vice versa.

We see what other people wear, and for those of us new to the city, those people teach us how to dress for the seasons. Or what passes for “seasons” in Toronto.

If we spend all our time with people like us, we will become “enbubbled.” (That is totally a word.) And we will never properly know our city.

When we travel in cars, our encounters with others and the city itself are much more limited. We are more isolated. Other travellers are too often our competitors, rather than our fellow travellers. That’s the nature of driving.

But on the subway, streetcar, or bus, we’re all going to arrive at the same time. Together.

When we think of the public spaces where we come together, we picture public squares, parks, stadiums, and big, open spaces like that. We shouldn’t let the ordinary, everyday-ness of transit obscure its social importance. Public transit is a space that helps remind us of the many worlds outside our own. By encountering this diversity on a regular basis, we will more easily remember our shared obligation to ensure the city has room for everyone to live and thrive.

Happy holidays, Toronto.