The advantages of public transit for the individual, the city, and the environment are obvious and widely understood, and yet in many cities, public transit remains the last resort of transportation for most people. Some even argue that automated vehicles will make public transit as we know it today obsolete. The reason public transit in some cities doesn’t get its fair mode share is simple: it’s just not a pleasant place to be.
And that’s the thing: we ought to consider public transit not simply as a path between two places, but as itself a place, imbued with all the potential of placiness. Unlike other forms of transportation, public transit doesn’t require users to be occupied by the physical requirements of getting somewhere. Their activities and interactions more closely resemble those of coffee shop patrons and park goers than drivers, cyclists, or even pedestrians.
You may be familiar with the “third place,” social environments outside of home (the first place) and work (the second place) that play an important role in building an interactive community where people have a sense of belonging. Coffee shops, clubs, and community centres are common third places. Public transit, despite being an obvious gathering point that is literally between work and home, is not usually imagined as a third place.
And to be fair, not every brick-and-mortar venue fits the bill either. A true third place — one that contributes to a stronger social fabric — has a few characteristics: it’s cheap to occupy and people from all walks of life are equals in the space; it probably has food and drinks; it’s accessible and easy to get to; there are regulars who are there often and a steady stream of newcomers; and it’s welcoming and comfortable.
Transit terminals, shelters, trains, and buses form a system of places that offer opportunities for social interaction where people congregate.
If it’s not a third place, perhaps we can think of public transit as a kind of fourth place: its ideal implementation closely resembles that of a third place, but its use is governed by necessity. So how does public transit as a place differ from public transit as a piece of infrastructure?
It actually already hits a lot of the third place nails on the head, but what it lacks most notably is comfort and welcomeness. Terminals and major hubs should offer seating areas where riders can buy coffee and snacks, access wifi while sitting at tables, and even watch something together, even if it’s just a television. Roadside shelters should feel safe and warm. Riders should be met with friendly greetings as they board clean and comfortable vehicles.
When it’s considered and built as a real place — third, fourth, or any kind — public transit has big advantages over other transportation. It’s a place to see familiar faces while getting a bit of work done. It allows people to connect, start conversations, and become engaged during otherwise empty travel time. It’s an attractive option for a broader range of citizens than those who can’t afford cars or whose bikes were just stolen.
The best reason to embrace transit this way is that whether we do or not, for those that use it, public transit is in fact a place.
Making it a stronger place will produce a more effective piece of infrastructure, and a valuable community space.
Originally published December 17, 2015 in Our London.