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I Can Drive For Miles and Miles: Cars, Buses, Subway Trains, and the Politics of Public Space

I rarely have the experience of traveling in public anymore. This loss of the experience of traveling in public is not only personal, but is also profoundly political.

John Brady

Issue #40, October 1998

[Isolation] means that one can isolate oneself, in a private automobile, for freedom of movement, and that one ceases to believe one's surroundings have any meaning save as a means toward the end of one's own motion."
—Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man
"Police arrested some 30 non-violent protesters July 14 when they tore down fences erected last November to keep homeless people from sleeping on grassy areas of United Nations Plaza. Members of Food Not Bombs, which organized the protest, say the city wants to take public space away from those members of the public who need it most."
San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 22, 1998.

I knew I had become attached to my car when I had the oil changed and I felt clean.

I bought my car eight months ago from a friend. It is the first car I've ever owned. For a long time I resisted buying a car, partly for financial reasons, but more importantly for political reasons. In refusing car ownership and instead relying on my bike and public transportation to get around, I felt I was taking a principled political stance. I wasn't wasting gas and thus was doing something for the environment. What's more, in dutifully paying my bus fare day in and day out I was supporting public transit. And finally, by opting out of car ownership, I felt I was resisting America's car-crazy culture. I rode the bus with pride.

I've lived in major urban centers for most of my young adulthood, a fact that has facilitated my anti-auto political project. The San Francisco Bay area is especially conducive to a politics of this sort. Unlike many other areas in America, it has a relatively well-developed mass transit system. Many of the cities and suburbs of the region are connected by rail through the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system. San Francisco proper boasts a system combining buses, streetcars, and cable cars that provides 24-hour service, a real rarity in the United States. Until recently, the various municipal transportation systems that make up the Bay Area's network provided me with a reasonably high degree of mobility and allowed me to meet most of my economic, cultural, and political needs, whether those needs were grocery shopping, going to gigs until all hours, or getting to the beach. I say "until recently" because recent budget cuts, especially in Oakland and Berkeley, have made the system less attractive as a transportation alternative. The cut that most affected me was the suspension of 24-hour weekend bus service between San Francisco, and Oakland and Berkeley. To people who rely on public transit to commute to work on the weekdays, this might seem a trivial cut. But for someone like me who enjoys haunting city streets well past midnight in the search of experiences to authenticate his bohemian hipster identity, this particular cut in service was a hard fiscal pill to swallow. In one fell swoop it drastically decreased my mobility and, by extension, my access to the cultural offerings of San Francisco.

This loss of mobility was exacerbated because it came shortly after I returned from a lengthy stay in Berlin, a city with a truly marvelous transportation system. Combining subway, bus, tram, and rail service, Berlin's system provides comprehensive 24-hour transportation throughout the city and its suburbs. Riding this system, I was able to experience Berlin as a city to a degree I had not been able to in other cities. Back in the Bay Area, I found myself missing Berlin's mass transit system. I was homesick for Berlin's buses.

I bought my car in large part to recapture the mobility I had experienced in Berlin. Given the politically charged nature of my relationship to cars it wasn't an easy decision. To assuage my political guilt and re-affirm my allegiance to public transit, I vowed I would only use the car a little and would still rely on my bike and buses and trains for most of my transit needs. Yeah, right. That promise almost lasted a day. Soon I was taking my car everywhere as I conformed to the auto-normative definition of mobility in America: have car, must travel.

Recently I looked at my odometer and realized I had already put over 4,000 miles on my car. Since I haven't taken any long trips, that mileage represents the distance I have traveled and the time I have spent shuttling back and forth between my various economic, political, and cultural activities. Those 4,000 miles also represent time I have spent alone, cooped up in my car moving through surroundings that are, to put in Richard Sennett's terms, only a means toward the end of my own motion. Or to put it another way, I rarely have the experience of traveling in public anymore. This loss of the experience of traveling in public is not only personal, but is also profoundly political.

Buses, subways, and trains are unique social spaces that fall outside of our usual spatial categories. They aren't, for example, properly political spaces. To be sure, city and state governments will use the available advertising space on buses and trains to inform the citizenry about matters of common concern, which usually involve issues of public health, drug use and graffiti prevention. But the presence of the public authorities on public transit is otherwise limited. Additionally, political activity as we usually construe it seldom takes place in these spaces. We have reserved other spaces for political speeches, canvassing, and pressing the political flesh.

These spaces also fall outside of other spatial categories like the economic and the civic. As part of society's transportation system, buses, subways and trains certainly play a role in economic production and distribution. Yet, except for the odd incense or chocolate bar salesmen hawking their wares, little that can be directly classified as consumption, production, or exchange goes on beyond the turnstiles and ticket counters of a mass transit system. We could note a similar relationship between public transit and the civic activity of individuals. The mobility provided by mass transit certainly facilitates the civic engagement of citizens, but the spaces of public transportation don't host the monthly meetings of the local veterans' auxiliaries, churches and animal protection societies.

Most of us who ride buses and trains pass through the spaces of public transportation as quickly as possible. We don't linger in a bus like we might in a museum or a park. Nor do we seek out buses and trains for leisure activity like we do a football stadium or a theater. Our relation to the spaces of public transit is instrumental and situational. We make use of these spaces in certain situations as a means to other ostensibly more meaningful and important political, social, and economic ends.

This isn't to say that this public transit space is without substance. Buses, trains, and subways are unique social spaces insofar as they are spaces of social diversity. In few other spaces of society do so many members of different groups — ethnicities, races, classes, genders — come to be in the same space at the same time. What's more, not only are there any number of different kinds of people, but there are also any number of different activities going on. People sleep, they read, they gossip, they screw, they harass other passengers, they sit passively, they beg for change, they ogle each other, they commit petty theft and they even talk to themselves. Unlike a mall, where people come to perform the same general activity of consumption, the mix of activities on a bus is quite varied and random. Riding public transit, you are never quite sure what you will see. Not only do people engage in different activities while riding public transit, they ride with any number of goals in mind. Some are going to work, while others pass through the space of public transit on the way to cultural and leisure activities. Some people are just traveling and have no particular place to go, and still others are off to this or that political rally.

Why is this diversity so noteworthy? It is noteworthy because it provides us with some very basic social experiences. First, the presence of so many different kinds of people on their way to doing so many different kinds of things represents a manifestation of the "we" that makes up society. To be sure, this representation of society is incomplete. We know that certain classes and groups of people take public transit much more often than other groups. Yet this doesn't invalidate the basic point that the spaces of public transit offer one of the few opportunities to observe such a large cross-section of the people that make up society. In addition, riding along in the subway or bus we are presented with the complex nature of society. Finally, using the social space of public transit provides us with the experience of not only observing others, but sharing a common space with them. These basic experiences — observing others, gaining insight into the complexity of activities engaged in by others, sharing common space — are some of the raw materials of politics.

I've learned a lot in buses and trains. Riding the #40 bus to and from work while I was living in Milwaukee provided an opportunity to observe the city's class and color lines. The low-wage service sector job I was holding down was located on the city's self-consciously hip east side. My apartment was in a low-rent section west of downtown. As I commuted on the #40 bus between the two neighborhoods, the demographic composition of the bus shifted accordingly, illustrating the residential segregation still suffered by the city. In Berlin, I once stepped into a train half full with racist, neo-nazi skinheads. At the time, I was in the city conducting research into Berlin's politics of immigration, research that included investigating the politics of racism and discrimination. Few experiences presented the realities of this politics more vividly than riding home with the skinheads that night.

Of course, in reading the space of public transportation in this way, there is a risk of romanticizing it. The public space I find so fascinating is for other people a space of harassment and physical harm. Berlin can again serve as an example. During the worst of the violence against refugees and immigrants in the early 1990s, the attacks often took place on the city's public transit system. So frequent were the attacks and so incompetent and unwilling were the authorities to provide adequate protection for those under the attack, that many refugees and immigrants refused to ride on public transit after dark. In this case, sharing space in common was a source of life-threatening danger. And let's face it, even without extremes of violence, riding public transit can be a decidedly unpleasant, negative experience. In fact, it frequently is. Being packed asshole to elbow in a bus as it lurches and weaves its way through the morning traffic is less likely to lead to an appreciation for the subtleties of the fragile social web in which we are all caught, than to resentment of one's fellow human beings, or even to downright hatred.

But these qualifications don't make it necessary to abandon our earlier assessment of the public space of transit. Rather, they merely help us to be more realistic in our appraisal of this type of social space. Even from this more realistic standpoint, it is important to keep in mind the social experiences offered by buses, subways, and trains. Important, because it helps us to more fully appreciate what we lose when spaces like these are privatized, lost to budget cuts or subordinated to one activity like shopping.

It should be apparent that when we lose these spaces, we suffer a double loss. On the one hand, we suffer the very tangible, material loss of social services, public resources and infrastructure. But we also suffer the more intangible loss of certain types of social experience. We lose the low-intensity social interaction of buses, trains, and subways. We lose the opportunity to see for ourselves how diverse and complex our society can be. We lose the experience of utilizing common space together. This double loss raises a fundamental question: If we lose not only the infrastructure that supports the political activity of the citizenry, but also the raw materials that make politics possible, what sort of political activity will we be left with?

Here at the end, I am not going to answer this question. Such an answer is the stuff of another essay. Instead I want to strike a cautiously optimistic note about spaces of social diversity. It is important to realize why such spaces are important, so that when we fight, for example, to stop cuts in public transportation we know exactly what the stakes are. At the same time, in fighting this good fight, we can take a certain bit of comfort in the resilience of spaces of social diversity. These spaces never completely disappear; they can be re-vitalized through political action. And as the short excerpt from the Bay Guardian at the beginning illustrates, there are groups fighting to keep these spaces accessible to all. In the future, it is a matter of expanding this struggle to re-invigorate the spaces we share in common.

I don't drive quite as much these days. I'm still attached to my car. The bloom of new car ownership, however, is off. Finding parking is an increasingly irritating hassle. And so I find myself riding the bus more often and once again taking pleasure in the experience of traveling in public.

John Brady is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at UC-Berkeley. He is currently finishing his dissertation on the development of a multicultural public sphere in Berlin. When not writing madly, or at least appearing to, he likes to spin records. You can reach him at

Copyright © 1998 by John Brady. All rights reserved.