In our research project “Public transport as public space in European cities”, we investigate daily public transport encounters as an intense site of cultural diversity and social integration, but also of marginalisation and systemic discrimination in five different European countries. Having started our work in Summer 2019, the idea has been to conceptualise public transport as an important urban public space full of variety and conviviality in European cities – utilised not only for transport but for public art and city branding – deeply intertwined with the complex urban rhythmicity of social, economic and political spheres in the citizens’ everyday lives. This somehow positive spirit of public transport as the ‘most lively way to experience a city’s soul’ stands in sharp contrast to the unequal distribution of public transport provision, which directly relates to processes of urban segregation and patterns of gentrification.
Restrictions in accessibility and social inequality are being established and reproduced through daily public transport practices and institutions. These easily detectable antagonisms seemed more than enough for a starting point to ask for the potential of public transport as a space for democratic negotiation, a potential entry point for collective contestation despite all powerful regimes of governmentality involved. But then, suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in.
Reasonably, the long-term consequences of currently applied policies to contain the spreading Corona virus will spire extensive debates in the humanities and certainly in the closest disciplines of our research project as inter alia urban studies, mobility studies and human geography in its broadest terms. This text serves as a first reflection on how the fundamental changes following the governmental decision-making in relation to the pandemic has influenced our understanding of public transport as public space.
COVID-19 as a mobility crisis
At first sight, it seems as if the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has quite dramatically shifted the way people perceive and use public transport in European cities. One of the most significant way in which the vast majority of citizens experience the current state of exception is fundamentally described as a breakdown of mobility networks and routines. This becomes crucial if we are to agree with John Urry’s conclusion that “movement became significant in the contemporary world – indeed the freedom of movement, as represented in popular media, politics and the public sphere, is the ideology and utopia of the twenty-first century”1. Therefore, interrupted global supply chains, closed down international transportation hubs as well as locked national borders are not only challenging economic sectors or long-since ‘naturalised’ travel rights within the EU, but question on a broader level a mobility paradigm that equates movement with individual and collective progress in capitalist societies. In this sense, the encompassing state of exception that billions of citizens all over the world are facing, can be interpreted as a crisis of mobility, questioning so far unchallenged conditions of our everyday life routines.
What used to be labelled as the most sustainable way to address challenges of global cities in the 21st century, as an important tool to reduce cities’ exhaust emissions and as a smart solution for individual mobility needs, is all of a sudden the opposite. Innocent surfaces become contagious transmitters, despite manifold hygiene campaigns of public transport providers and the increased frequency of cleaning up their cars – public transport appears overnight as a hazard, better to be avoided. As a consequence, passenger numbers decreased drastically. Some have already declared that ‘the corona virus has killed off public transportation across the world’ and that the entire idea of public transport is dead due to the expected long-lasting effects of feeling insecure in public transport environments (https://qz.com/1824243/coronavirus-has-killed-off-public-transportation-across-the-world/).
The fact that public transport was in many countries one of the first sectors where face masks where introduced on an obligatory basis, only fuelled this anxious perception of public transport usage. Indeed, it is hard to feel a sense of conviviality when the passenger next to you is large and by reduced to a potential source of contagion. How do we help elderly enter the bus, when bodily contact, particularly so to high-risk groups, is a normatively sanctioned practice in corona times? How do we build bonds of community and responsibility through sharing a mobility mode, if we are governed by fear and social distancing?
“A crucial social division between those being dependent on public transport and those having the luxury to avoid it”
At second glance, however, these considerations appear strangely detached from daily encounters during the pandemic. Entering a bus in rush hours these days, there is, to some extent, a surprising continuity, which gives a relieved feeling of a bit more space than usual (this effect would be much more significant, if public transport providers would not have reduced their services (https://www.fnp.de/frankfurt/corona-krise-frankfurt-duennt-fahrplan-bahn-massiv-13630370.html). Delivery staff, sales assistants, health workers, most seem to have adapted to the changed regulations for better or worse. Covered up by obligatory masks or not, a majority is spending leisure time on their smartphones – a liberating feeling of boredom, normalcy, and everyday routine in an accelerating juxtaposition of states of emergency.
What becomes apparent from this observation is a fundamental social divide, which has been constitutive of contemporary European societies, but plays out in the pandemic state of exception: The crucial division between those being dependent on public transport and those having the luxury to avoid it is very telling about the social consequences of the current crisis policy. From a middle-class perspective, public transport appears temporary dispensable, when having access to other modes of individual transport or when having simply no reason to move due to home office options and near-by facilities. Similar to playgrounds and schools, public transport seems to be interpreted as a social service generously provided by the government, one which can be substituted by private means of getting-by.
This, however, unmasks the one-dimensional arrogance of current corona prevention policies, which systematically privileges some (population groups independent from public transport supply) over others (those dependent on public transport). Social policy measures are not a generous donation of the state to the disadvantaged but a vehicle to intervene into socio-spatial segregation tendencies, an attempt to balance out increasing inequalities within the society as well as allowing people to establish cooperative communities. Thus, as home schooling leaves behind students in exceptional need of help, as closed playgrounds mainly affect families who do not own garden plots, so, it is an underprivileged working class which suffers most from reduced public transport schedules. In NYC, the drastic reduction of public transport led to immensely overcrowded wagons and a quick spread of the virus in the city – especially among marginalised population groups (http://web.mit.edu/jeffrey/harris/HarrisJE_WP2_COVID19_NYC_13-Apr-2020.pdf). In Germany, the harsh encroachments on personality rights, which superficially target the entire population, similarly affected lower income groups disproportionally.
The end of conviviality – public transport as a segregated public space
So, as a conclusion one could assume, that maybe COVID-19 is not going to kill public transport, but rather the public space of public transport which is buried coated by gloves and masks. The short intermezzo of better-off citizens squeezing voluntarily onto overcrowded buses for the sake of a sustainable future, seems at least temporarily over. It will be thrilling to observe how urban mobility networks will shift, even if current estimations already suggest that individual mobility means, especially private cars, will presumably profit most from a possibly enduring anxiety towards public space. The showcase glorification of public transport employees, as the laudable attempts of using the pandemic momentum in order to redistribute space in favour of pedestrians and cyclists such as in Milan, Paris, or Berlin seem, against this backdrop, unlikely to change the overall picture.
Nonetheless, the fall of public space in public transport should not easily be transferred to a general decrease of public spaces in urban environments. Quite the opposite, neighbourhood backyards and public lawns have been experiencing an unexpected revival (https://gehlpeople.com/blog/public-space-and-public-life-are-more-important-than-ever/). Numerous initiatives give rise to a long-promoted utopia of communitarian habitat and self-organisation. One should however keep in mind that these practices of solidarity and cooperation are built on an already highly segregated and gentrified urban environment, which, as fluid encounters in more diverse mobility settings fall apart, might reproduce and strengthen urban social inequality patterns.
In summary, it is actually the already blurry and eventually misleading definition of a cosmopolitan conviviality, which is on the demise, and revealing a largely different notion of public space as a trajectory of class recognition and contestation. Public transport, as lately seen in Santiago de Chile, functions as a sensitive infrastructure in states of exception and can serve as a powerful metaphor for climaxing urban inequalities at stake (https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/10/chile-protest-santiago-metro-public-transit-fare-inequality/600874/).
In Europe as well, the current situation could open up new forms of protests and enter a social renegotiation of citizen’s right to public transport. For instance, many public transport providers stopped selling and controlling tickets by the bus drivers. In fact, many European cities experience a test phase of free-fare public transport without even noticing it. However, in a discursive environment where all kind of service workers are celebrated as the contemporary heroes of our time, an argument could be made to provide at least convenient and arguably free transport options to reach their underpaid system-relevant working places. Thus, the homogenisation of public transport user groups may at least imply the potential recognition of common interests and political claims, which have been pressing far beyond the current crisis. This, however, remains so far, similar to the ideal typical conceptualisations of public space in modern societies, rather an aim to strive for than a descriptive observation of the status quo.
Tonio Weicker is a postdoc-researcher at the Department for Regional Geography of Europe at IfL.
For further information about the research project “Public transport as public space”, you can have a look on the project website. Would you like to share your own thoughts about public transport as a public space in times of the COVID 19 pandemic? Then, please follow the link to our online survey: https://ls.tlu.ee/index.php/416678?lang=en
We look forward to your participation!