23 Mar 2020

Is there more to public transport than moving people around?

International research explores whether mass transit can become a valuable public space 

On Europe’s public transport systems, buskers and other artists often walk a fine line between going unnoticed and being disruptive. To help define that line, researchers from Tallinn University are taking a mirror, a folding chair, a tea table, a broom and other household objects onto trams in Estonia’s capital, in what they call "artist interventions."

Aiming "to transgress the normalcy of tram rides," the exercise is helping the researchers to better understand how mass transit functions as a public space, explains Tauri Tuvikene, a researcher at Tallinn University School of Humanities Centre for Landscape and Culture, who is leading the international research project.

The research, which is being carried out in nine cities across Europe, could feed into urban-planning decisions in the future, as and when the continent emerges from the Covid-19 crisis. Right now, with the use of public space discouraged, questions around the publicness of mass transit are particularly pertinent.

The goal of the project is to give local governments a better understanding of how people actually use – and think about – the physical areas in and around transit systems. One hope for the programme is that investigating these urban spaces from a humanities perspective will yield insights into how to better integrate elements of the mass-transit system with other public spaces and encourage more people to use public transport, in a bid to combat climate change and urban smog.

To put it scientifically: "We are investigating qualities of public transport, use of public transport, in ethnographic and anthropological ways," Tuvikene explains. The three-year research project, which started in May 2019, is backed by €1 million in funding from HERA, the Humanities in the European Research Area network of two dozen national funding agencies. The researchers on the "Public Transport as Public Space in European Cities" (PUTSPACE) project include historians and literature scholars, anthropologists, cultural geographers and social-science transport researchers from Estonia, Finland, Belgium and Germany.

Public transport as a cultural and artistic hub

Although commuters may regard public transport simply as a means to get from home to work and back again, a city’s mass-transit system has always been a part of the identity of that particular metropolis. Just look at London, with its iconic double-decker buses and Underground logo. Or the Art Nouveau Métro station entrances in Paris.

"Public transport is a place where in addition to everyday experience of the city’s multi-cultural nature, various meetings and conflicts take place, some of them even aggressive in nature," adds Tuvikene. "Like every public space, one encounters societal diversity on public transport. Unlike others, however, public transport is a dense and compact public space, which alters its meaning and function as public space." The COVID-19 crisis, which has seen usage of public transport fall dramatically in European cities, is highlighting these differences from other public spaces, such as parks and streets.

Important questions the researchers are seeking to answer include: Can the transit system be an active part of the culture of a city, in the way that squares and parks and streets often are? And can it be a tool for lessening social exclusion and fostering integration? The research team led by Tuvikene is fanning out across Europe to investigate the metros, trams and buses in London, Brussels, Tallinn, Turku, Finland; Dunkirk, France; Leipzig, Germany; Kharkiv, Ukraine; Minsk, Belarus; and Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

What is the impact of going fare-free?

The subject is very timely, as municipalities are discovering renewed interest in their mass-transit systems as a way to curb harmful emissions and foster sustainability. One way to promote public transport is to make parts of the system or the whole thing free – something that numerous cities in Europe have started to do to varying degrees. This month, Luxembourg became the first country in the world to eliminate all fares on mass transit nationally, while Estonia has expanded its fare-free scheme for registered residents beyond Tallinn.

While the details of these initiatives are driven by fiscal and economic considerations, along with concern for the climate, they obviously have an impact on people’s perception of the transit system as a public space.

"The fare for public transport is one of the important aspects of it as a public space," says Tuvikene. "It’s a question whether you can have a public space with a ticket." Unlike city parks and streets, mass transit usually appears as "a closed and regulated space, characterised by many restrictions and regulations," he adds.

In this vein, Luxembourg's introduction of free public transport was "an important social measure," Minister for Mobility François Bausch told Euronews. In Estonia, where the government eliminated fares on many connections nationwide in 2018, Rasmus Ruuda, head of public relations at the Economic Affairs and Communications Ministry, said the move "has had a positive effect on the health of our elderly people, making them more active….Overall, it has helped with changing the mindset of people" about public transit, Ruuda told Euronews.

Inspired by Tallinn’s experience, the northern French city of Dunkirk eliminated fares on its bus system in September 2018. Some of the newer buses in the fleet have Wi-Fi and the municipal programme even includes onboard music and games. In response to charges that the initiative is not economically sensible, Dunkirk Mayor Patrice Vergriete countered: "You can’t put a price on mobility and social justice…. We are changing perceptions and transforming the city with more vivre ensemble. We are reinventing the public space," he told the Guardian newspaper soon after the programme started.

But things may be different in Luxembourg, which has the highest rate of automobile ownership in the EU and where public-transit fares were low before they were eliminated this month. "The notion that free transport is a means of wealth redistribution and social inclusion doesn’t square," Constance Carr, a researcher at the University of Luxembourg, said in an online commentary last year as the nation prepared for the shift. She suggests that a lot more than just fare-free rides will be needed if the transit system is to truly work as a social integrator.

"The whole idea of free public transport is utterly simplistic because of the complex, interrelated composition of demographic, socioeconomic and geopolitical issues at stake," contends Carr. "If political leaders are serious about improving mobility, then they will need to undertake a more serious analysis of the problems, and provide a more convincing, context-sensitive set of proposals to solve them," she wrote.

Tuvikene hopes his team’s research will shed light on these and other issues related to social integration. "It’s about acceptance of difference, for instance, within these spaces. People are not coming to public transport to be part of these activities, to have social activities; they come to get from place to place," Tuvikene says. "It’s tricky territory in that sense: creating sociability via performances and theatrical interventions might come into contradiction with the simple need to provide mobility. Though, there might also be fruitful ways to combine these."

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