Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Regular Crowd

How many times does one encounter the same person on the bus before asking him or her about more than the weather? Secondary relationships are less involved, cognitively efficient and integral to daily life. Stereotypes form naturally and weaken our desire to learn more about our fellow passerby, janitor, or cashier. So it happens that the crowd is rarely a place of meaningful social interaction. But how does the regular crowd become just that and transcend those secondary relationships? How do we over come our comfortably anonymity?

The bustling crowds on the street are effectively unbustled once the people become commuters. Sitting still for a prolonged duration, we present ourselves to strangers. However silent and uneventful that space, we never feel awkward or obligated for keeping to ourselves. We comfortably accept an oath of public anonymity and sink into our thoughts forgetting ourselves. "The guard is down and the mask is off even more than when in lone bedrooms where there is a mirror. People's faces are in naked repose down in the subway" writes Walker Evans.

Darren is an RIT photo student from Istanbul who made the move to Rochester keeping in mind the public transportation routes. Like many international students he settled at Rustic Villiage apartments and commutes with a regular crowd of fellow students via express bus, school shuttle or the city bus that arrives at RIT. The buses run roughly every 90 to 60 minutes. Every semester there forms a unique regular crowd around a certain time. Darren remarks that the bus is a unique "social entity" because it relies on the balance of many factors.

Since the crowd is comprised of a similar demographic and is connected on a level beyond transit, there is a greater familiarity among the crowd. The student commuters feel a sense of belonging and exclusiveness apart from the other commuters, which encourages interaction within the group. The mere consistency of exposure that the students have to each other may also spur on some conversation. And if students don't sleep or read, the duration of the ride gives them enough time to hold a conversation.

This is one isolated example where the conditions encourage a sense of community and interaction. Darren and I compared our experiences of Istanbul and Moscow transit systems. When buses arrive every few minutes in a heavily populated city, the regular crowd dissipates into coincidental groupings of more varied commuters. There are moments when the bus tram or train is spilling over and a out of common civility a line forms. The short falls of the public transit systems bind people together much more strongly. The complaints become conversation topics and the waiting line may evolve into a small group of regulars. However, when the cogs of the public transit system are spinning efficiently, there is no lag. In the hurried pace of transit, there is less of a sense of community, belonging and the interactions are superficial, and sparse.

The perception of the European cosmopolitan citizenry bound together by an urban experience may be much less romantic than it seems. Studies indicate that an increased accessibility to public transportation does not indicate a greater social cohesion as much as it provides accessibility and universal mobility around the city (Wickham, 2006). When choosing public transportation as an option, commuters are more considerate of the future environmental impact of cars than the social value of their commuting experience (Joireman, Van Lange & Van Gugt, 2004). The dichotomy is clear to Darren and many others: increased transit service, however inclusive and beneficial, dissolves the regular crowd. On the other hand, collective experience never fails to tie a society together. Recent social research has revealed that Americans are losing social ties due to their isolated lifestyles. One may wonder if our common gripes about gas prices will find a seat on the bus -as social entity- and a friendly ear too.

More to come: Student commuters submit their accounts of the bus as a social entity...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very true People love cars in U.S. And Indian People are used to being crammed into public commutes. You need More people to respond to this or you are going to slip up and quit all together. You need them for your motivation, son!

Peace, The Dalai Lama