An Ode to Public Transport

By Merilin Raidmets

In this blog post, Merilin Raidmets (Tallinn University) reflects on her experiences as a research assistant in PUTSPACE. During 2021, Raidmets assisted Louise Sträuli with fieldwork on care mobilities in Tallinn, Estonia.

What is public transport without the public? Even though it can have a bad reputation, one should keep in mind all the positive aspects of public transport and consider giving the hard-working buses and trams another chance. As one of the participants in our study said, “I am very glad someone has taken up the topic of public transport, as I feel it’s undervalued. People might think it’s mainly a place for the homeless to live, but this has not been the case for years, it’s a very decent and green way to travel.” You can definitely experience uncomfortable situations, but that is not and should not be the only defining characteristic of public transportation!

A Sunset in Tallinn. Photo: Merilin Raidmets

I worked as a research assistant for Louise Sträuli on her study of care mobilities in Tallinn for four months. During this time, I interviewed several different people and got their perspectives on using public transport as caretakers. By hearing them talk about their experiences, and later through reading their mobility diaries, I gained a new perspective on the things I once found annoying about public transport. It is a public space, and it should be available and accessible for everybody.

Since we looked into caretakers’ use of public transport, I read a few articles on gender and mobility. Globally, these everyday care- and home-related tasks tend to be performed by women. These studies show that women are more susceptible to safety concerns because of perceptions of risk and, in fact, security devices are often designed according to a standard male reference model (Sánchez de Madariaga, 2013). Before this internship, I hadn’t put much thought into all the different accessibility issues that our transportation system might have, especially from a gender point of view. Listening to our participants’ experiences made me look at transportation safety and accessibility differently, though. For example, I talked to parents travelling with strollers who have had to wait twenty minutes in the cold until a low-entrance tram came around and elderly people who are afraid that the bus might stop too far from the sidewalk for them to be able to step in.

Sanchez de Madariaga (2013: 49) highlights that “statistics show that women are overrepresented in the following social groups: older people living alone, single parents, and working parents who have responsibility for most caretaking tasks”. So why is it that these groups which, statistically, carry the most responsibility, continue to feel unwelcomed in public transport and suffer the greatest disadvantage? It really made me reconsider all the minor things I had been fussed about. This is also what I loved about this research project. I was able to see public transport through someone else’s eyes. I’d like to think that I’m a good, respectful traveller, but I’d be lying if I said I have never felt annoyed at a child crying or an elderly person pushing me a little to get on the bus before me. Through this project, I have gained a better understanding of what their experiences on public transport are like, and I will try to do better from now on!

There are so many benefits to travelling by public transportation. In fact, I really like taking buses and trams as it involves one of my favourite activities (that’s a hyperbole, but it’s up there): people-watching. I find it fascinating to observe people, and I mean that in the least creepy, most harmless way possible. It’s always interesting to look at different behavioural patterns, outfits and habits, maybe even create an imaginary story for each individual. Moreover, when you’re a consistent bus user, you might even encounter some other regulars. I have quite a few of these ‘familiar strangers’, as people you see repeatedly for a certain period of time but never interact with are sometimes called (Zhou et al. 2020). I often work morning shifts at a cafe and every time I take the same bus at 6.18 am. There are at least three people that I could describe from the top of my head that run on the same schedule as me! Sometimes I wonder if I should ever go up to these familiar strangers and give them that little nod of acknowledgement, just to say “I feel you, sucks to be up this early”. Besides the people, another benefit is, of course, that public transport is a very green way to travel, and here in Tallinn, it is also free! What’s not to love?

Waiting for the Subway in Rome. Photo: Merilin Raidmets

Now, when it comes to my internship, it was a fantastic experience. My job in the project was to help out with the Estonian-speaking participants, keeping in contact with them, conducting interviews and translating documents. I believe it was a great internship for my studies in English and also for my minor in digital humanities. Besides being able to use my English skills, I also learned a lot about myself. First of all, as an avid public transport user, it was sometimes hard to keep quiet when I recognised the participants’ joys and concerns about free public transport. But that is also something I learned throughout my internship—how to just listen. And while I was sadly no expert interviewer by the end, I did see progress in the way I asked questions, paced myself and listened. My supervisor, Louise Sträuli, was of great support and help in this respect. I could count on her for encouragement, helpful tips and tricks for conducting interviews but also for constructive feedback. She was the bridge between the theories that I read and their practical application. For example, I remember reading a segment on competent interviewer characteristics, where it said that an interviewer is not really supposed to visibly react to the answers they receive (Clifton and Handy, 2001). That immediately sounded very difficult to me, as I could not picture myself not showing any emotion. Louise reassured me that it does, in fact, depend on the context, and sometimes it’s necessary to reveal your reaction to keep the participant engaged and make them feel more comfortable.

I was very happy to be a part of PUTSPACE! Even though my contribution was small, I like to think it gave insights and helped map Estonian public transportation usage. I have been using public transport for years and, considering I don’t have a driver’s licence and probably won’t be in possession of one any time soon (I’ve been trying on and off to get one for about five years now), I will continue relying on it for the foreseeable future. It’s nice to have all these new perspectives and reflect on both my own and others’ behaviour. In case the title didn’t give it away yet, I think public transport is great, and despite some of its shortcomings, it’s still a wonderful, green way to travel!

Figuring Out the Bus Schedule in Rome. Photo: Merilin Raidmets