In over 30 years of riding public transit I have memories of 4 problems on transit involving staff—two buses pulling away as I came near; once having doors shut in my face; once being let off at the wrong stop. However I have had thousands of bad experiences involving other passengers—less common decades ago and now almost every time I take transit.
Transit drivers don’t block entrances to subway cars. Transit drivers don’t spill coffee on seats. Transit drivers don’t play music so loud that I can hear it the length of a bus. Transit drivers don’t block the aisles. Transit drivers don’t panhandle. Transit drivers don’t drop newspapers and food waste on the floor of stations. Transit drivers don’t run down stairs knocking people off balance. Transit drivers don’t stand in clusters preventing people from moving safely along subway platforms. Those that make it difficult to access transit, those that make riding unpleasant are consumers of public transit, not the providers.
There has been massive media attention focusing on public transit workers stopping briefly for coffee in the midst of a long shift, falling asleep in a fare booth and other minor workplace events. This is portrayed as a major problem. There is little attention being paid on a real crisis with transit—those that make riding transit unpleasant, difficult and unsafe.
Some of this problem is due to a lack of empathy for those near by. Running down stairs to catch a subway train and knocking into someone usually occurs without thought—self-centred actions done without considering possible harm to others. Having been, on more than one occasion, verbally abused for having been in the way of someone who knocked me down from behind, I now find being on stairs in a subway station a stressful situation.
Some of this problem is general hostility. Blocking a subway door, not moving when politely asked to do or glaring at someone who has dared to try to enter a subway train is a very hostile act but it is generalized hostility. The person or persons preventing me from accessing a train know nothing about me other than my desire to, like them, ride on public transit. I now don’t even bother to try and get on a train if there are people in the doorway—it’s not worth the uncertainty of wondering if I’ll be let on the train or if the next time I’m not let on something more than my experiencing intimidation may occur.
Most of the problem, though, seems to be a privatised consumerist approach to riding on public transit. Instead of it being seen as a collective response to meeting a common need, too often riding on transit is seen as a personalized experience that gives the rider the privilege to disturb others with their music, spill drinks on seats, litter, block aisles and make the ride unpleasant for others. Payment of a fare is a often seen as a statement of privilege. Someone else will clean up my mess. It doesn’t matter if my music is loud as long as I can enjoy it. Instead of the space being an ‘our space’, with the accompanying view that one can not dominate the use or disturb others, space becomes a ‘my space’, with no personal obligation to share it or take responsibility for it. I’m faced with this on an ongoing basis. Each time I step on a bus, streetcar or subway is to risk experiencing dirty seats, tossed aside newspapers, loud music leaking from headphones, loud one sided conversation from cell phone users, being bruised from repeatedly being hit with backpacks and other stressful encounters with others.
It is a distraction to claim that there are significant problems with transit based upon employers who are tired, in need of a break or attempting to cope with the same stressful people passengers too often encounter. The customer isn’t always right. Too often the customer is the problem.
The Toronto Transit Commission, in its wisdom, has bowed to anti-worker views. They have created a panel of experts to address the minor matters arising from the recent media attack on TTC employees, not to address a real problem of those TTC passengers who make riding transit unpleasant for many and threatening for some. I am not less likely to be knocked down by someone in a stairwell when a driver is reprimanded for using an ATM. My being prevented from entering a subway car is not solved by suspending a worker for falling asleep in a fare both. However, if I am dissatisfied by my experiences riding transit I might be looking for a scapegoat and, rather than addressing the problems created by my peers, blaming staff could be seen as an effective alternative. Blaming staff, and particularly unionised staff, is a publicaly supported way of giving the appearance of addressing a problem.
Creating the belief that transit riders are consumers rather than owner/users is, I feel, the true root of the problem. We have been encouraged to self-alienate in our use of shared resources. If we see our only connection to riding a bus being the fare, making the leap to having both a communal connection and a personal connection is difficult to accomplish. Without the communal connection, how can we see ourselves as having a shared responsibility in ensuring the common facilities is enjoyed by all? If we only have a personal connection, a consumer connection, our responsibility towards other users is easily seen as limited. Indeed, a consumerist approach makes the selfish personalised experience more important than the shared well-being of all riders. Blocking access to a subway car, knocking someone down on a stairwell, letting music loudly bleed from earphones are good consumerist approaches to riding transit. Unionised transit staff don’t indulge in such practices.