Jason Lui: Have we forgotten about the “public” in public transit?

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      By Jason Lui 

      I’m an avid transit user and a Simon Fraser University student, taking the bus and SkyTrain as my primary mode of transportation. How we orient ourselves and occupy the space within transit remains perplexing to me as a geography major who studies spatial patterns within urban landscapes.  

      “Please move to the rear of the bus” is the relentless message that reverberates repeatedly every time I take the 145 to Production Way Station. I fight a losing battle against the sea of students trying to leave Burnaby Mountain in the late afternoon, an ongoing frustration during my years at SFU. 

      As buses start to fill up and seats are taken, passengers cram into the remaining standing room. But the stream of commuters doesn’t distribute towards the rear of the bus; instead it bunches up only partway back. The driver plays the “please move to the rear of the bus” pre-recorded message repeatedly, until he or she runs out of patience and aggressively announces that, “I will not be leaving if nobody moves all the way to the back of the bus.” 

      Finally, a conscientious student decides to start the shuffle a few more steps to the rear so the bus can depart ride down Burnaby Mountain.

      These moments on the 145 prompted me to notice riders’ personal space throughout the transit system. Commuters cluster near the exits instead of spreading out evenly throughout the bus or train, especially during rush hour. Backpacks and other large bags also take up considerable bus space, as most commuters don’t take them off on crowded trains and buses. 

      Seated transit users often take up two seats on a busy train, parking their belongings on an adjoining seat or subtly spreading themselves out to take up more than their share of seating. 

      My transit pet peeves should be a topic of public concern and discussion as we all suffer from poor transit manners. It takes some courage to ask if an inconsiderate rider could move remove their backpack from their seat or ask others to move further back to create more room.

      Have we forgotten about the “public” in transit? Sharing transit space should be about respect and common courtesy, rather than reflecting an individualistic “me” culture where we personalize the space around ourselves without repercussion.

      We need to shift ridership culture and behavioural patterns. Signage about civil transit behaviours are displayed on SkyTrain and busses as part of a campaign designed by Translink, but it hasn’t been successful as transit is often too crowded to even read the signs. Some of these transit pet peeve ads include anthropomorphized cartoonish portrayals of these behaviours in the form of witty titles such as "Crowding Kitty" and "Hogging Bunny". Although these ads seem like a good idea, they have fallen short in their effectiveness on transit users. 

      We need motivational pushes from authority figures to normalize improved public ridership culture and behaviour. Here is the perfect opportunity to showcase what transit police could be good for. Officers could monitor trains and buses during peak hours to politely instruct those exhibiting illicit behaviours to step away from the exit, move to the back of the bus, and remove their backpacks. 

      Monitoring of these behaviours by an authority figure would send an example to transit users about activities that are frowned upon on trains or buses. By creating a culture of publicly shaming these behaviours, we can begin to stigmatize these irksome acts on transit. The more we’re instructed, the easier these rules of engagement on public transit can be embedded onto individual riders. 

      Policing may be necessary, but individual behaviour also can be altered if transit users take responsibility to trek to the back of the bus. Once we begin to normalize preferred transit behaviours, policing disruptive acts could be reduced.

      Now I automatically and nonchalantly march pass students hesitant to move to the rear of the bus, remove my backpack, and hope my transit colleagues will follow suit. And sometimes, like the wave at a hockey game, it catches on as I try to avoid yet another passive aggressive “please move to the back of the bus” message from the bus driver. 

      Jason Lui is a student in Simon Fraser University's Semester in Dialogue CityStudio program and an avid transit user.