Thursday, January 7, 2016

Kirk MacKinnon Morrow - Finding Community in Public Transit

Kirk MacKinnon Morrow works as a Program Associate with the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Education Strategy in Minnesota and Veterans’ Voices. He can be found daydreaming and reading voraciously on the Metro Transit route 61 bus on most weekdays during his commute.

I ride the bus. Perhaps you’ve seen me–the one wading breathlessly across streams of traffic on Hennepin Avenue, seeming to never learn the incompatibility of public transit and personal tardiness. There’s something strange about pairing habitual lateness with a mode of transportation that is by design completely unforgiving. When biking, driving, or walking you can go a little faster or take a different route; with transit, the only thing you can do is show up. As a rider in a rush, you forego that last glance in the mirror or that final sip of coffee, but in so doing you arrive at the bus stop on time and enable every rider to count on a trip that gets them to their schools or offices or events in a comfortable and timely manner. It’s the kind of human-level exchange that makes ‘public transit’ about so much more than just transporting the public.

Indeed, some of the issues we’ve discussed here at the Humanities Center through our #UncoveringPublic events on Twitter challenge me to think about the bus not only as a public space, but in many respects as a community as well. Just as I give up my reflexive urge for ‘just another minute’ (and/or sprint to the bus stop to compensate for it), every other rider makes a similar compromise that they might not have to if using another mode of transportation–walking a few blocks out of the way, leaving a few minutes earlier, waiting for a rider in a wheelchair, etc. This is both a necessity for the system’s functioning and a profound gesture of reciprocity and respect; in short, the foundation of a community, however fleeting and ephemeral.

At the level of the system, to be sure, public transit can hardly be thought of as a community. These systems are designed by and for the American public only insofar as that notion of ‘public’ is shaped and guided by the rules of a dominant culture–an idea we returned to frequently in #UncoveringPublic. Influenced by the ideals and ideas of a dominant culture that disproportionately does not use public transit, these systems lack the human-level give-and-take that serves to build the kind of community that exists among riders on a single bus. The difference, I think, is that I can see each person on my bus has a story of how they got there—perhaps one so insignificant and quotidian as “I walked two blocks to the bus stop and waited three minutes”—and that allows me to feel a sense of connection and community. Stories let us see each other with empathy, but they often happen to be interesting as well. Just ask a transit rider, they’ll always have a crazy bus story to tell…

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