This is a follow-up to Tuesday’s post, during which I shared some personal benefits of my choice to start using public buses again and then began a conversation about broader communication implications of riding buses.
Below I add some quick notes about Flowing Through the City, a study about communication on buses, a few of my own experiences, and connect the concept to the public sphere.
Communication professor Renee Human rode the bus in Lexington, KY and spent one year analyzing her experience from a critical lens. She found a few patterns in how people who rode the bus communicated.
1. Communication based on logistics. Many people on the bus communicated because it was a necessity; for example, they needed to know about specific stops on the bus route and where the particular line went to. Human (2008) notes these interactions were usually shallow and did not prompt any further dialogue. I do this as well, especially when getting on an unfamiliar bus. I’ll usually double-check with the driver to make sure it’s going to where I think it’s going.
2. Communication between familiars. No surprise here; Human (2008) found that those passengers who knew each other were more likely to have conversations while riding the bus. They might know each other from previous relationships or they may have formed relationships on the bus by being ‘regulars’ on a specific route. A few months ago I ran into a friend I had not seen in years and we proceeded to have a conversation for the duration of the bus ride. This was unusual because the norm for me (and most others) is to not talk with people on the bus and just enjoy the ride in solitude.
3. Other interaction patterns. Human (2008) goes in depth and discusses a variety of interaction patterns she observed; all can be seen here. Among other things, she looks at nonverbal communication (bus riders usually sit in a way that will guarantee maximum personal space for every individual), appropriate/inappropriate interactions, and the type and variety of conversational topics discussed on buses. One interesting find is that the more universal the topic of conversation, the more likely it was to be a sustained topic (i.e. big current event stories, the weather, etc.).
Human (2008) asks two research questions during her experiment, the second question partly has to do with personal maps. Citing Benjamin and Demetz (1986), she elaborates:
Moving through a city, physical structures and landscapes trigger memories of past events and people, but more than that, that visual observation of those particular places trigger the imagination and emotion created through the intrapersonal interpretation of those memories.
The idea here is that observing specific buildings and different parts of the city as the bus rolls along its route will trigger a ‘personal map’ inside many riders; the intriguing and cool thing here is that everybody’s personal map is different. Today I took a bus I usually do not take because the timing worked out and it passed a coffee shop I don’t frequent but have been to before. I instantly remembered the last time I was at this particular coffee shop, the friend I was with, and started to think about that friend and what they might be up to. There were about fifteen other people on this bus and chances are at least one other person noticed that same coffee shop and attached their own meaning and interpretation to it.
In her discussion section, Human (2008) shares examples of personal maps of the bus riders she interviewed and observed. She also discusses the idea that the bus serves as a melting pot filled with different co-cultures along the bus route. The dynamic inside the bus changes from stop to stop, or as Human puts it:
As the bus flows through the city, so also the people flow through the bus.
The evidence in this study and my own experiences have led me to perceive the bus as yet another site that has the potential to be a public sphere.
The public sphere is one of my favorite communication concepts because, if viewed through an optimistic and idealistic lens, it has the potential to improve the whole world. The idea is that a public sphere will allow people from many different perspectives to come together to share opinions, ideas, and constructive dialogue that might eventually lead to changes in society. Oftentimes revolutions against authoritarian governments begin as a result of ‘the masses’ realizing they have the upper hand because there are way more of them than there are government officials. This realization comes during meetings and these meetings happen in public spheres. Public spheres can be formed almost anywhere, including coffee shops, bars, people’s homes, internet chat rooms, barber shops, and public squares in big cities.
In December 1955 a woman named Rosa Parks bravely refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. This act of civil disobedience became a significant part of the Civil Rights Movement because the community in Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the buses for more than a year until the segregation laws for buses were deemed unconstitutional. Who knew a simple action on a city bus could have such grand consequences?
While most who ride the bus stick to themselves and rarely engage in dialogue with other passengers (including myself), the opportunity for the creation of a public sphere on a city bus is always there. All it takes is one person to start a conversation and at least one other person to respond. The bus is usually filled with different perspectives already; a key ingredient for a successful public sphere. Here, Human (2008) shares an example of a conversation she witnessed between a few people.
I enjoy my solitude on the bus as much as the next person and am not advocating for all bus riders to start conversations all the time.
As long as you realize that those sitting next to you on the bus have their own personal maps and might be able to teach you something based on their unique perspectives, and that this sharing of perspectives might turn into a dialogue that might just change society in some small way, this blog post has done its job.