Friday, May 09, 2008

Get on the Bus: How Mass Transit Design Affects Participatory Potential

There's a tag applied to many Museum 2.0 posts called "Unusual Projects and Influences." Posts under that tag tend to examine non-museum things, from malls to games to ad campaigns, and draw some design lessons for museums from their foreignness. Today, we look at a familiar thing: urban mass transit. Specifically, we analyze the relative social behavior of people on buses versus those on trains, and look for clues as to what design elements contribute to different kinds of participatory behavior.

In my highly anecdotal research, the bus is a more social space than the train or subway. The express bus I take most days to get to work feels like a big, slightly uncomfortable family. People talk. The bus driver waves as I bike up. One guy sings. It's on the cusp of personal--any moment the people reading and chatting might spring into a
ction, to make change for someone getting on, offer first aid, or run after someone with his forgotten jacket.

Others have written about the propensity for social engagement (both desired and undesired) on the bus, and one woman I spoke to told me she STOPPED taking the bus because the communal feel of it was overwhelming at a time in the morning when she'd prefer to be left alone.
In contrast, the subway is often a sterile world of passing through, a place where people ignore each other studiously. The voices are recorded, the doors perpetually closing.

This post is not intended as a pro-bus manifesto. Instead, I'm interested in the why. What design elements make buses more social than trains? What aspects of that socialness are desirable in museums (and how might we mirror buses or trains to promote them)?

And most of all:

hy do people feel empowered to express themselves and engage strangers on the bus?

Small size, repeat visits. You may take the same train every day, but chances are that train is eight cars long. Even if half of the other people on your train are regulars, the distribution of people throughout the cars means you are unlikely to have a repeat familiarity with many of them (which might open the potential for a casual relationship). On the bus, in contrast, you can see almost everyone, even if it's packed. I take the same bus every day and recognize many of the people on it. Some folks even have "their" seats. The repeat experience is progressively familiar, so I feel like I am entering a space with known faces.

This has its positives and negatives. I'm cheered to see the woman who likes to talk hiking, less so the man who flips through mail-order bride catalogs. The better you know the other folks, the more they set the flavor of the experience. This sounds risky to institutions like museums, where we want to design the experience through exhibits and architecture, not interpersonal exchanges. But in cases where there is interest in promoting more dialog, it's worth thinking about the power and challenge of a cumulative community to create the feel of the place. How does the repeat experience in a museum become progressively (and positively) communal?

The driver provides live facilitation. Bus drivers are welcomers, info-desks, guides, gates, and protectors all rolled into one. I was not surprised that most of the images I found on Flickr related to buses showed an open door and a smiling driver. In a world of increasingly automated commercial exchanges, bus drivers provide a human interface. If I get on the bus without money, the bus driver has the discretion to wave me through. If I'm biking up behind the bus and he sees me, he waits. If someone is being too loud or aggressive, she steps in. And if someone is celebrating, he sings along. I've written before about the power of live facilitators. To me, the opportunity for the bus to feel personal rests largely on the role of the driver/facilitator, whose job is less to drive the bus than to convey passengers safely to their destinations. How can all of your staff become facilitators of people instead of devices?

The bus stops where you want. The train stops where it is scheduled to stop. The bus stops when people on the bus pull a cord or the driver sees someone who wants to get on. Stopping is a human-powered activity. This makes the bus feel friendly, less robotic. Again, this relies on the facilitated element of the driver, but it also gives the individuals getting on and off personal agency (and responsibility) to manage their own experience. I still get a weird thrill when I pull the cord. It feels powerful: I am stopping the bus. Also, the frequency of potential stops means the bus is more likely to get you close to where you want to go. It's reasonable to say "the bus picks me up." Trains, on the other hand, just pass through. How can museums take you where you want to go, from your own personal starting place?

We have childhood memories of social bus rides. Even I, who never rode a school bus, can identify with that cultural experience. We see it on TV. We have memories of idiosyncratic drivers, bullies, and being jammed together like sardines. We expect buses to be rowdy, social spaces. If people have childhood memories of trains, they more likely recall the scenery, the long trip, the feel of moving along the tracks. The things we remember about buses are about people. The things we remember about trains are about transit. What memories do you want people to have about your museum--the people, the architecture, the stuff?

Buses travel familiar landscape. Unlike trains, which depart from dedicated, specific structures and often travel underground through landmark-free tunnels, buses are on the streets where we live and work. They go where cars, bikes, and pedestrians go. They have windows so you can see what you are passing. The first-time bus experience requires much less decoding than the train experience--no special place to start from, no weird machine to dispense tickets, no turnstile. If you get confused, there's a driver to greet and assist you. And while bus schedules and maps are at least as complicated as train maps, you can use familiar locators--known intersections and buildings--to navigate. You don't have to learn a whole new lexicon of stops and related aboveground locations. You're on the sidewalk, then on the bus, then on the sidewalk again. This relates to the frequent discussion on this blog of museums as destinations versus places in the path of daily life. How can museums become part of rather than set away from the everyday?

The bus takes a long time. The frequency of stops and the local windiness of buses makes them downright provincial. As a driver said in this charming article about the glacial pace of NYC buses, "the bus is only as fast as its slowest rider." Social chitchat among strangers is something associated with small towns and areas where people move slowly. It's no surprise the bus can simulate that experience, even in Manhattan. What museum experiences slow you down while simultaneously bringing you in contact with others?

Looking at this list, none of these design elements intrinsically relates to a social or expressive experience. Buses don't employ drivers or operate on city streets to improve the comfort and participatory experience of riding. But a few simple elements--the live facilitation, the small size, the placement of service in a familiar area--have a cumulative effect that makes the whole bus experience more personal, more comfortable, and thus, more conducive to social engagement.

This can be extrapolated to other forms of transit. Elevators are unfacilitated, speedy automatons that are so non-conducive to social behavior that good friend will cease their conversation during the ride. On airplanes, my husband now flies business class and reports more friendliness and conversation with neighbors: more comfortable seats, more personal service, and long hauls may contribute.

What social experiences have you had on mass transit? What lessons do you see that can be extrapolated to experiential spaces like museums?

5 comments, add yours!:

Unknown said...

Hi Nina,

Provocative post, as always.

I'm not sure about the "bus" metaphor, as my urban bus experiences conjure for me: crime, racism (Express routes in Chicago, eg), the history of segregation, and even the annoying experience of waiting on a corner in the cold for what seems like hours and then having 4 buses show up back-to-back.

Same thing with air travel as metaphor for social space -- I, always in coach, have animated talks with fellow passengers only when the flight is so bumpy or delayed that we are sharing our misery. My favorite part of flying is gazing out the window (and getting off the plane after it lands).

That said, the interesting question that you raise for me is what kinds of unintentional social spaces encourage the kind of interaction and dialog that you are describing. For one person it may be their daily bus ride; for another it may the waiting room at Kaiser, etc. It is by considering these daily experiences in their fullness that we can learn much about social spaces.

Also, your readers might enjoy looking at the recent article in the New Yorker about elevators as non-social spaces (and more):

Thanks for your always provocative thoughts, Marjorie Schwarzer

Anonymous said...

There are some many great things to parse here. I'm a designer with roots in anthropology and architecture history -- urban placemaking -- but I'll keep it short.

I wonder, not just the lengths of trains versus buses, but how much sunlight has to do with this. (And of course social status, buses tend to serve those neighborhoods exclusively that are poorer. Poorer communities are often more social, because they are left out of the structured social networks and therefore create other community-based networks -- not just poor here of course, but immigrant, LGBT, women, any group that is not part of the power structure also has a reputation for being more social).

Anyway, back to sunlight: I've found that street cars are often more social than subways. Subways are enclosed. It is an extension then of the private space of the home. Buses and street cars are communal, they embrace the street and the spectacle of the promenade. Although, there is more to it than that. I grew up outside of Chicago, the 'El' is far more social than a subway. And even the 'El' that is above ground is more social than the one 'El' line (the Red Line) that runs under State Street.

I always recommend that people take the BART system in the Bay Area or Muni in SF or the 'El' in Chicago to its furtherest ends. It's a cheap and unique way to see the whole environment. When I moved to Oakland in the 1998, I didn't know about the Owl buses back to Oakland from SF. So thought if I were out past BART closing that I need to just wait it out and catch the first train in the morning. So I often would ride the night service in SF. It was always surreal, and always interesting. The bus drivers were usually real characters.

Speaking of characters -- take the F Market or the Cable Cars in SF. Again, with the community -- and again with small size and sunlight.

Thanks NIna.

rz said...

Interesting ideas, Nina. Some resonated with me, some didn't, but it's always great to see you looking somewhere unexpected for museum-y content.

I have one coworker who rides the express bus in to work from a distant suburb, and she has funny stories about strange bus encounters almost weekly (including the driver who sang Christmas carols over the intercom for the whole 45 minute ride last December - too much facilitation!).

My experience on both buses and trains, however, has been decidedly non-social. Even times when I've ridden enough to be a "regular," people still tend to be buried in their ipods or their books unless they're talking to someone they know. I wonder why some buses are more social than other?

One last anecdote to ponder: when the Trax above-ground rail system opened in Salt Lake City in 2002, most of the seats we arranged so that two benches faced each other, like booths in a restaurant. Recently, all the new cars added to the line have changed back to traditional, all-in-a-row seats more like at a movie theater. I've heard it's because people didn't really like having to face each other while riding the (sunny, city-street traveling) train.

So who knows? Interesting thoughts though!

Mikkel Thelle said...

Hi Nina and others

What interested me here was the realization that museums are moving from a somewhat physical and architectural form of expression to a ore and more social angle on the mission for museums - the lates ICOM newsletter also highlights this. And here it is a really inspiring idea to look for social design in weird places, maybe the weirder the better. In scandinavia, we have a biennal digital conference, Nodem (check it out at Facebook), that is held on Iceland this winter. Here we would like to higlight the social interaction in and around the museum environment, and it is discussions like these that would benefit our comunity. Thanks


Randy said...

At least in NYC the subway feel more like an extension of the street, and less like mass transit. In contrast I take a commuter train on a daily basis in coastal Connecticut, and there is a very social atmosphere present. In fact some of the long-time commuters regularly share food and drink with the conductors. Sure, most people stay in their own little bubbles through most commutes -- but I think you'd find this true even with regular car commuters. But when the train is delayed, or involved in an 'incident' as happened last week, you see the community aspect come out in a strong way.