Buses as Public Spheres

A few years ago 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.

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. 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 a site that has the potential to be a public sphere.

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 cities.

Consider an example from U.S. history: Inspired by Rosa Parks, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the public buses for more than a year until racist 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 (or big) way, this blog post has done its job.

Disclaimer: The above post is an old one, which I am reposting on this new website. It has been edited. 

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