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The Public Space that Ties it all Together

Sep 28, 2009

by Silas Archambault, MA Planning Candidate, School of Community and Regional Planning (UBC)

Public space: Urban areas where a variety of activities can take place. Panhandling, performances, social encounters, picnics, street vending, and the occasional zombie march. These dynamic, multi-use spaces define a city. They are crucial in building community cohesion, and are a major determinant of neighborhood livability. We are used to thinking of streets, parks, squares, and libraries as entirely public. However, a discussion of public space often excludes the one where we have the most frequent and close interactions: on transit.

Each day, hundreds of thousands of people take transit in the greater Vancouver region. Some are pushed up into the armpits of complete strangers. Others politely ignore the fellow passengers sitting opposite and read the newspaper. Every once in a while, a few people will erupt into conversation. Of course, Friday night on the bus will be a cacophony of conversation and probably a few not-too-discreet beers. The SkyTrain has even hosted a few dance parties.

When sitting on a silent bus, every body wired with an iPod, you cannot help but think of the possibility. This is one of the few spaces that gathers a diverse population. Better yet, it holds them as a captive audience – in close quarters – until their stop. There is so much potential for social learning, new ideas, civic engagement, perhaps even a pleasant ride! Ohh, the social possibilities.

Perhaps surprisingly enough, I am not the only one thinking about this. October 30th, the Cooperative Auto Network is hosting TransportCamp to discuss how transportation can be a catalyst for more vibrant communities. This will bring together 150 people to generate new ideas. Darrin Nordahl just published My Kind of Transit which provides a number of case studies of transit systems in the USA which are actually pleasant to ride. There is even a growing repository on social research in transportation.

There is no doubt that transit plays an important role in community. The very way it is designed, lighting, seating, visibility, location, to name a few aspects that contribute to a more socially positive experience. There is also a lot of ‘soft’ infrastructure that can be done to encourage a positive social space.

TransLink services are taking steps in the right direction: Morning commuters on the #22 enjoy trivia and the chance to win candy bars. I managed to bag a Mars bar almost by accident. You can occasionally catch a musician at a downtown SkyTrain station. Back in February, TransLink hosted an I Love Transit night which capped off I Love Transit week. This brought together a surprisingly large plethora of transit nerds who could tell you the schedules of obscure community shuttle routes without blinking. Props also to Jhen of the Buzzer Blog, which brings transparency and personality to TransLink. The greater Vancouver region is taking steps towards making its transit system a livable and dynamic part of the public realm.

Transit can bring people together. Just look at the massive political force of Rider Unions. The Los Angeles Bus Rider Union (LABRU) is an amazing example of collective action and they all came together on (and about) transit! TransLink has the potential to tap into a community of riders for support, a community that will flourish if recognized, nourished, and heard. There needs to be a sense that transit is a place, rather then just the space between. Transit can be a place where citizens learn, interact, and celebrate.

With a showcase trolley system running from Granville island to Main Street, which had to be imported from Europe to get the right equipment, it is clear we ‘get it’ about the experience of transit. If it’s not pleasant, people won’t ride. With this in mind, it is possible to take the steps to provide a complete mobility experience. For one of the most livable regions in the world, let’s challenge ourselves to set a positive example.