Public Transport as Public Space at the T2M Conference, Paris, 18 October 2019

Public space and public transport: participants arrive at Aubervilliers, Seine-Saint-Denis for the T2M conference, 17 October 2019.

Blogpost by Tauri Tuvikene

“Public transport as public space” was a triple session held on Friday 18 October 2019 at the International Association of the History of Traffic, Transport and Mobility (T2M) conference in Paris (which ran from 16 to 19 October), put together by Tauri Tuvikene, Wojciech Kębłowski and Wladimir Sgibnev. The total of eleven presentations with three discussants from eight countries covered questions related to the publicness of public transport from diverse angles. The papers discussed the cultural history of public transport experience through fictional writings, ethnographies of public transport spaces, the role of heritage in planning, as well as utilising photographic and video-based research methods and critical transport studies. The presentations embarked from one question: in what ways and how much can public transport be conceptualised as public space.  

The first of the three sessions dealt with encounters on public transport. Sandrine Wenglenski discussed the practices of making room for fellow passengers, of silent goodbyes and of showing uncivil or deficient attention to other travellers on metro vehicles. Her video-(auto)ethnographic method got close contact with the time (not always useful) spent by riders on Paris trains. Yet, we should also think about the potential enchantments of public transport trips. Considering the use of heritage buses for rail replacement service in London, Ka-Hin Tsang showed how they transformed a “negative extraordinary” into a positive one. But there is much uncertainty accompanying the experience, expectations and use of public transport. From the point of view of a migrant, it is a challenge to tame a city, especially if that city is a global metropolis. The understanding of public transport systems plays a key aspect in such feelings, as Anna-Leena Toivanen highlighted through her work on Paris novels written from the 1990s onwards.

The second session addressed aspects of governing and contestation in relation to various urban diversities. Public transport is a contested space with different understandings existing of what can make public transport vehicles into an antisocial environment. Some actors see minibuses – named marshrutkas in the post-Soviet space – as particularly anti-social whereas others would instead stress the engagement of drivers in generating a welcoming space for the ride, as the paper by Tonio Weicker discussed. To call practices on public transport “anti-social” is a way of arguing for a certain kind of public space, often with the effect of further marginalising those already marginalised. Yet, riding buses involves bodily training on co-existence, as Martina Bovo, Paola Briata, Massimo Bricocoli showed via the only 24-hours bus in Milano, the 90/91 trolleybus ring line, famous for its diverse and multi-cultural user groups and practices. But it is not just embodied interaction and training that matter for relations. There are also written norms with the intent of governing bus rides, even if we rarely notice them in vehicles, as Bradley Rink elaborated in regard to the Conditions of Carriage set for a bus journey in South Africa. Such norms order activities not always in fair ways. They raise questions about the kinds of racial, class and identity differences they reproduce. Nevertheless, the rules of carriage can also empower. Namely, those who pay the ticket are capable of claiming their right to belong, even if counter-claims are made. Thus, the ticket becomes the way to argue for one’s inclusion in the community of bus riders and eventually in the society. Last but not least, Theresa Franco’s video-presentation dealt with the contentious experience of public transport rides where encounters are intense, as her original attention to Mexico City bus rides through photojournalist accounts revealed.

The third session continued with questions of governance, raising concerns related to spatial politics. How could we assess where to draw the border between matters of public transport use and management and those of other concerns, such as rationales and effects of urban planning? Taking an interdisciplinary focus on diverse matters associated with public transport is important for the HERA funded PUTSPACE project on the same title as the session, as project leader Tauri Tuvikene showed with additional insights on historical modernisation of city transport through tram infrastructure elaborated through literary examples by Jason Finch. The following presentation by Thomas Vanoutrive, however, complicated the meaning of public transport by showing the case of ferry service across a river in Belgium. Essentially, the ferry service was argued to be more public in opinion writings than some other forms of supposedly public transport, such as rail or bus services, as one cannot simply walk instead of riding a bus. Hence, the ferry service is not simply “a ferry” or “public transport” but is part of a road system whereas roads are often seen the epitome of public space. Jenny McArthur and Charlotte Halpern discussed contestations of public transport and power geometries of planning, use and activism, drawing attention to the intersection of public transport and concerns with access and use of public transport. They highlighted the functioning of property-led growth regimes which seek to benefit from new public transport services. With Tube lines and stations comes gentrification. Hence, public transport is inextricably part of urban politics.

 The three discussants of the sessions – Jason Finch, Mimi Sheller and Carlos Lopez-Galviz – critically elaborated the difference between public space and the public sphere, and the possibility of public transport to connect and enhance the latter. While bounded and constrained public space in physical sense, taking into account the everyday multiculturalism as well as contestations and public debates, there certainly are moments of the emergence of the public sphere in relation to public transport. Additionally, we discussed the differences between transport and mobility when talking about “public transport”: would using mobility instead of transport as a central concept give a more nuanced, precise and revealing understanding of mobile commons? And what about imaginations of future and in particular utopian futures in shaping both conceptual and practical approaches to transport systems?   

The sessions offered thorough and engaged discussions of the publicness of public transport from diverse angles. It was a pleasure to learn that this topic has such a great appeal for a wide range of scholars working on transport and mobility and we are happy to keep the debate going also to future events and further outlets.