Busses Are Social Spaces Too: Notes on Baltimore Transit

Busses Are Social Spaces Too: Notes on Baltimore Transit

In his book, “Race Rebels,” Robin Kelly demonstrated how the post-WWII Alabama bus system became contested terrain as anonymous working-class blacks struggled against segregation by waging a subtle war of position over seating on the buses. Rosa Parks, a middle-class teacher and NAACP member, got the credit, but the struggle had gone on for at least a decade before Park’s refusal, as Kelly showed through examination of the many newspaper accounts and arrest records documenting this hidden resistance to segregation. Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, saw buses as a symbol of how the inertia of everyday social relations separates people. The isolated passenger waiting for the bus shares a common bond with others at the stop. But unless the bus is late, people stand alone. Only if the bus doesn’t arrive do they interact. They complain. They speak to one another. In a small way, a group is formed: “solitary” becomes “solidarity.” So where do Baltimore buses stack up in these two extremes? Well, somewhere in between. I’ve ridden the buses for many years and I see Baltimore buses as rolling theaters in the double sense of the word: “theaters” as in stages for acting and “theaters” in the military sense, as in four-wheeled war zones where the city’s simmering race and class tensions jostle and shadow-box in the aisles. Cooperation, contradiction, and competition - it’s all there if you know how to look for it and travel with a sociological eye. Yet when urban social geography is discussed, it’s often only examined at the neighborhood and street level. We need to see public transit as contested public territory, too. After all, the transit system is one of those few slivers of urban space where people from different backgrounds, who otherwise would never meet, mix for an extended period of time. Unlike neighborhoods, social relations on the bus are fluid, made and broken down many times each day. Where else but on a bus can you imagine a businessman commuting from the suburbs sitting next to a homeless person? In this sense, the transit system is less segregated than other aspects of city life. On the other hand, redesigning public transit is also one way urban space gets engineered to reinforce segregation. A prime example of how such segregation is imposed is when Johns Hopkins and other local universities recently set up their own private bus system so students no longer risk interacting with “the natives.” The new “improvements” to the Mass Transit Administration set in motion by the Erlich administration also ingeniously affected the city’s social geography. The upper Liberty Heights corridor from Garrison Junction to the county line, for example, had major service cuts which added to ongoing commercial disinvestment, like the closing of the local supermarket in Howard Park. Buses which used to stop in front of Lexington Market now stop a block away to keep the “riffraff” from congregating in an area poised for redevelopment. The number 11 line which connected poorer neighborhoods in south Baltimore to downtown now bypasses them for a new extended route along the Gold Coast of gentrified Canton. The most glaring recent example of this sort of social engineering was the sudden shift of the Greyhound Bus Station from downtown to a deserted warehouse district no one can get to. There are many other examples. In fact, an alternative history of the city could be written on the ongoing attempts - some successful, some not - over the past several decades at restructuring Baltimore through its transportation hubs, from the location of highways to the placement of light rail stations to the re-routing of buses. Along with these external changes, I’ve noticed striking changes in the past several years on the atmosphere inside the buses. There’s more aggravation and hostility, partly because people don’t interact as much as they once did. I’ve seen how when new people get on the bus, for example, other passengers now shift their legs so no one can sit next to them. People are walled off more into their private world which, thanks to iPods and cell phones, can now be carried intact into the street. The bus becomes another arena for meaningless turf battles over some nebulous “respect.” Younger men, for example, will sometimes stake out the back door and make people have to walk an improvised gauntlet to get out. The recent attacks on buses ranging from fistfights to shootings do not surprise me. They only heighten tendencies which I have seen slowly building on the system for years. However, these tendencies shouldn’t be over exaggerated. Most of the time, people riding the bus manage unprompted to temporarily carve out some type of spontaneous social cooperation with total strangers. But you can’t expect the buses to be exempt, any more than any other aspect of city life, from the decline in overall social conditions. Public transit, then, becomes one of those institutional mirrors whose image reflects, for better or worse, the state of Baltimore and, by extension, the larger society itself.