Communities on the move

Photo: Carol Mitchell

Laments about being stuck on cars, trains, buses and airplanes are commonplace. It’s easy to complain about being stuck in transit. This post, I want to turn this around and instead look at how commuter experiences can be transformative opportunities for community building.

My childhood experience with this has perhaps been shared by others. As a child, I would sometimes go away to girl guide camp. I would be dropped off in a parking lot on the outskirts of Toronto and, along with a sea of girls dressed in blue, board a bus to ride for about two hours – a lifetime in kid world. I knew no one when I got on the bus. By the time we arrived at our destination, I was best friends with the girl beside me and had laid the groundwork for my broader social network at camp.

School buses and school bus stops are also a place where children and parents come together, interact and learn. Psychologists have been studying ways to make the school bus experience a positive one. After all, much has now been written about the importance of unstructured, social learning time for kids. One option might be to focus on shorter ride times with consolidated age groups. The Head Start program in the United Sates has begun a somewhat formal program to connect in-school learning experiences with learning on school buses.

As children grow into their young adult years, the opportunity for transformation in transit grows. In October, I blogged about the work of Mujahid Sarsur and the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative. A participant of this program reflects on his experience travelling on a bus after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with the program:
“The discussion was so evocative that it did not end when we exited the museum.  Each participant, Palestinian or foreign, was bursting with something to say.  On the bus ride to the Mediterranean, we told the driver to cut the music so that we could better manage our meanings across the linguistic divide.  I personally have never spoken clearer Arabic than I did in the half hour separating Jerusalem from the sea.  For some reason, passion pulls the levers of comprehension and communication in a way that nothing else can. In retrospect, that bus ride back-and-forth may have been the most significant segment of our entire trip.”

A recent blog post about commuters to Chicago’s financial district makes the connection between commuting and community-building among adults. The post discusses the connections that are made ‘10 seconds at a time’: how the bus driver – that the blogger has affectionately named ‘Spiffy’ – has ten-second conversations each day with each commuter. Other commuters listen into these conversations. As this is a regular ride for most of the customers, Spiffy’s short conversations form the basis of a social network – one that allows people to gain insight into one another’s lives outside of their workplace. The blogger even recounts a story of a ‘get well soon’ card that was passed around the bus for a regular rider who had been hospitalized.

Another way that adults are building community while commuting is through the creation of book clubs. Commuter book clubs have been in existence for quite some time, and seem to be increasing in popularity. The Kitsapun Library has launched a book club on the ferry between Bainbridge Island and Seattle.  First Capital Connect in the UK also operates a book club that encourages commuters to read and discuss the same books – this also acts as a means for publishers to promote new materials. Also in the UK, Book Swaps for London have set up areas in train and tube stations that allow passengers to drop off and pick up books for free. On a smaller scale, the Rolling Readers are four women from Georgia who use their commute to read aloud and discuss the content of books.

Anyone out there have stories about connecting with others while in transit?

2 responses to “Communities on the move

  1. I love this post. I am challenged with my current options and lifestyle but I did meet my husband (of 19 years) because I sat next to him on a plane. There is someone on twitter here called raillife who I follow because he does a good job of reporting on things like you’ve described here. It’s a really fun idea.

  2. In balancing the many demands of life, I also make comprises. One of these is often how I travel. Part of the key seems to be letting go of perceived perfection, and instead embracing the opportunities that exist in my day to day life. Transit gives me an opportunity to connect with a seemingly infinite number of people.

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