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Transit Pet Peeves: One person’s contest, another person’s social inclusion setback

Image source: http://buzzer.translink.ca/index.php/2011/04/april-2011-bus-changes-and-the-service-optimization-project-an-interview-with-translink-planning-director-brian-mills/

Image borrowed from the Buzzer Blog. When was the last time you rode a Vancouver bus this empty in the daytime?

Last week, TransLink announced that they are running a contest/campaign on their Facebook page involving riders’ pet peeves in transit. They are encouraging people to people to vote, elimination-style, on the behaviors observed on transit that people find most irritating. The incentives to do so, aside from that wonderful feeling of having gotten your feelings off your chest, are a boat of prizes ranging from branded swag to a new iPhone 4S.

With all due respect to the staff at TransLink — many of whom I know to varying degrees, have interacted with a bunch, think highly of and sympathize with in the nature of their work — this contest leaves a very, very bad taste in my mouth as a person committed to nurturing community and a culture of support for public transportation. It reflects an unsophisticated and unenlightened approach to the question of how to encourage civility, and my hope is this post will shed some light on how it could have been done differently, as many others have also noted in comments on TransLink’s blog.

To be fair, TransLink’s contest does a couple of things.

  • It reminds us of “the rules,” pointing out what it means to be good neighbours, good citizens, good travel companions, in respecting the space and experience of others. Nothing wrong with that.
  • It encourages us to attempt to find some humour in these situations, through the use of cartons satirizing the behaviours they are trying to draw attention to, like listening to one’s music too loud, putting bags on seats, or — heaven forbid — offending someone’s olfactory sense. Ok, nothing terribly wrong with that either.

But as someone concerned with engagement for sustainable urban transportation, who makes a point of tracking the impressions and emotional narratives around transit, I want to draw attention to what else this contest is doing in the course of achieving these objectives.

This campaign encourages us to give voice to our sense of indignance around the experiences we have about transit that are specifically caused by other riders. This essentially encourages us to accept the belief that it is the presence of other people that makes public transit undignified.

I find this highly problematic on two levels. First, it deals a blow in the attempt to frame transit as an equally good, if not better, transportation option compared to the car, with its climate control, pricy isolation and image of rugged independence. Secondly, it is giving institutional support to the use of humour as a corrective for frustration in the social experience of transit. Instead of seeking to encourage compassion for those we share transit spaces with who may have genuine and legitimate reasons for acting the way that they do, dialogue, or civil discourse, this contest feeds our sense of self-righteousness.

Are the sentiments nurtured by this contest going to encourage people who find these behaviours problematic (which may range from everybody to nobody depending on the actual circumstances) to politely engage people in understanding the external impact of what they do? Maybe. A much more likely scenario, is that it will provoke altercations and conflicts between those feel they are in the ‘right’ (they have the rules on their side), and those who may be somewhere on the spectrum between being deliberate jerks, and experiencing what constitutes their life on transit. Mothers feed their children on transit. People who take transit may be time-poor, working multiple part-time jobs having to multi-task not out of choice but necessity. Binners bring their bags of cans and bottles on transit. And as unsavory as it is to think about (and one commenter’s story shows), public transit may at times even be a public health vector. (Just ask Hong Kong.) And yes, people with a wide range of challenges and differing abilities also take transit.

Some blogs have the concept of TransLink’s contest baked right into their DNA. Commuter Contempt (albeit it is based in the US) already illustrates that some of us might only half a beat away from full-on Transit Rage. While the contest’s humourous illustrations and prizes may keep things light-hearted, what’s to stop people who don’t like people on transit to re-direct their rage towards transit itself? Or other people whose use causes perceived “inconvenience” to other transit riders, like the elderly? This contest encourages riders to identify as “victims” of others’ non-conformity and appears to give “justice” to the victims, rather than encouraging people to use situations of conflict as a teaching opportunity for dialogue on the challenges of sharing space.

I think humour definitely, certainly has a place. Humor is fantastic and necessary and human and builds incredible bridges — when it is used correctly. Not to ostracize, scapegoat, or to make us feel good about ourselves at the expense of some categorically defined other. Chances are those others are actual, real people — and they may take some offense to being treated as the butts of an agency-sanctioned joke if someone they are sharing space with is self-righteously attempting to assert power over them.

From the Buzzer Blog. Does that mother look like she modelling respectful, assertive communication to you? Maybe that lizard just got off a double shift and has already missed their stop.

I can definitely see how this emerged from TransLink’s best intentions. “Maximize participation with incentives! Repackage it into a lighter hearted, humourous affair! Get some gallows humour out of joking about a race to the bottom of transit unpleasantness, and get it on people’s radar in an unconventional way. Asking people politely like every other government entity does is boring and going to get us ignored — so let’s doing something more offbeat!”

I’ll even allow that my particular disposition, occasional moments of policy wonkiness, and specific interest in transit puts me squarely outside the target audience for this campaign. As I’ve tried to illustrate above, I’m by no means disagreeing with the general thrust of TransLink’s intentions — after all, as a transit rider, I would personally benefit from having people taking better care of transit facilities and being more considerate of others in the space.

But is this contest the way to encourage riders to be communicative, assertive, compassionate and mindful in negotiating conflicts in space while using transit — or the larger project of building a base of citizens with whom to advocate for the resources necessary to have better services and world-class transit? In my view, absolutely not.

(And for the record, my biggest pet peeve is people who use nail clippers on the bus.)

See also:

One Comment

  1. Nice post Karen!
    As a non-car owning transit riding Canadian I have a vested interest in what you are saying and I agree completely.
    I believe that the issue is a culture where public shaming is the normal response to trying to get people to change. The fact that shame is never a motivator is over-looked.
    I totally agree that we need to become more aware of those who we must share our surroundings with, but I think awareness comes from both ends.
    I do find that Transit travel always provides an excellent opportunity to consider my own reactions to those I may find annoying. Are people really hurting me with their loud music, bad habits and smells? Not so much.
    It reminds me that this is my planet, but I do have to share it with 7 billion other people, all of whom have different ideas, levels of awareness and most of all, situations that determine their behavior. It really isn’t anyone’s job to live up to my standards.
    Awareness of how we impact each other is imperative if we are going to live together, but that awareness is something we all need to work on.
    Thanks for a great post!

    Posted November 24, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

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