Transit begets acceptance

This Calgary-focused post originally appeared on Spur.

It breaks my heart that I am not saying anything new when I voice my concern about the increasing amount of brazen acts of intolerance and exclusion that have appeared in our city. From what we learned from Nenshi’s re-election campaign to the recent expression on the University of Calgary campus I call a second home, it is clear that the ugly simmer in our society that we all would love to ignore has become much more of a rolling boil. My colleague and Student’s Union president Branden Cave put it very succinctly: “It’s the conversation that goes on behind [the acts] that makes people uncomfortable.”

Believe it or not, transit plays a crucial role in how we perceive our fellow human beings. Transit by its very nature brings people together. It creates a space where people travel and live a portion of their life together. It’s part of what makes transit so wonderfully suited for urban transportation, but it’s also what makes transit an instrument of acceptance and inclusion.

Even if you’re not someone who uses transit often, you should ride the bus from time to time, if for no other reason than to people watch. There is no more raw and real place to get a cross-section of our city than on a bus. If you want to understand what it’s like to be a Calgarian, ride the bus or the C-Train to work in the morning.

Perhaps the best summation of how transit begets inclusion comes from an interview by former Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat of transit consultant Jarrett Walker. In the hour long conversation, they each address this issue in their own wonderful way. Here’s Keesmat:

It’s about having that opportunity… that opportunity to be standing beside a woman [on a bus] whose life experience might be nothing like mine, you know, who’s wearing a hijab, or whatever, and I might look over at her and see her put her hand on her back and stretch out her back ’cause her back hurts, ’cause she’s just had a really long day, and I catch her eye and I smile, because you know what? I know how she feels. And we have a shared humanity. Who knows where she was born, who knows what kind of home life she’s going into, but our humanity is shared. As she touches her back and kind of stretches and we catch each others’ eyes, our humanity is shared. And when our humanity is shared I think our understanding is shared. I think part of what we learned south of the border is that that shared humanity is something that’s in decline. I think that’s really a risk. And it seems to me that transit, actually, becomes this space of human interaction, of shared experience, with crossed paths in a way that they might not otherwise.

Walker, in response, sums up a romantic take with an analytical understanding of what’s happening:

Transit does create that potential for fellow feeling. I think this is why, you know, in racist societies like the old South in the United States, transit had to be segregated, because it was very important that a white person not have that experience you just described with a black person. Because then they would start understanding each other, so they had to sit in different parts of the bus to prevent that from happening… The experience you have on a transit bus should be very much like the experience you have on the sidewalk in terms of the way that urban life in general requires you to experience the diversity of your society…

I do think it’s true that transit is a great meeting space just like the urban street is a great meeting space, and that people who use transit quickly grow habituated to diversity, in a way that it is much harder to do if you drive everywhere.

These two people understand transit and urban life. They are people who think about transit and transportation daily, and have done so in places around the globe. They share that understanding of what transit can do for us on a social level.

This is a dimension of transit that is rarely discussed, but is of increasing importance in our society. It’s hard to measure and even harder to talk about, and so the easiest route to take is just to ignore it. And yet, it is vital to making our cities places for everyone to succeed. We must not continue to ignore the places in our city that bring us together. Instead, we should celebrate them.

So, when a leader or a politician steps forward with a plan to pause the progress of our transit system, it’s important to consider all the dimensions. Sure, we could build nothing and spend nothing.

But at what human cost?

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