Making the Public (Transit) Beautiful

In Climate Change, Culture, Economic Planning, Environment, European Politics, Inequality, Mass Transit, Political Ideology, Public Sector, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Welfare State on September 13, 2009 at 11:15 pm


One of the rhetorical strategies of the economic right’s cultural politics is to associate the free market with individual pleasure, aesthetic beauty, and technological progress, while associating the public sector with the oppression of the crowd, the spartan ugliness of “civil service issue,” and general associations with low-quality, outmoded, cheap machinery. Nowhere is this better seen than in the rhetorical debate over public services.

In the media, the visual and sensory contrast is made very obvious: the car, a luxury commodity associated with wealth and prestige, is an extension of your (now much cooler) person, it’s fast and futuristic, and it’s well-designed and new (as a matter of fact, it’s Audi’s concept car for an electric sports car). There’s a reason why you never see traffic in car commercials; it would spoil the illusion. By contrast, the dominant media image of mass transit plays up its worst qualities as a social nightmare: it’s crowded, claustrophobic, there’s no privacy and people and bumping into you, it’s noisy and smells terrible, maybe it’s dangerous, you’re getting delayed again, this is what you take to get where you have to go, not where you want to go.

And part of the cultural work of the left in championing the cause of the public must be to counter-act this kind of imagery. Because the public can and should be beautiful.

Meditations on Berlin:

This last August, I had the good fortune to travel to Berlin for 10 days. And one of the many things that caught my eye was the fact that, in the land of the autobahn and BMW and Volkswagen, how amazingly abundant and diverse public transit is in Berlin. You can zip across the city in the U-Bahn subway, you can get a wonderful view from the elevated S-Bahn, if you’re taking a regular commute you might use one of the bright yellow trams or the plentiful buses, and there are bike paths and cheap rentabikes everywhere. Besides the obvious utility of this redundant network – U-Bahn for speed, trams for a point-to-point commute, S-Bahns from one central spot to another, and bikes and buses for points in between – there’s the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it all.

In Berlin, the public authorities clearly made huge investments, not merely in making a transit network that functions well, that’s fast and reliable and short waits between trains, but also in making a public institution that’s a pleasant sensation to use. The city’s stations, like the Hauptbahnhof to your left as designed to be visually stunning as well as a meeting point for three separate rail networks, and the trains are new and clean,the views from the S-Bahn are beautiful, the doors open easily with the press of a button, and especially to a lifelong New Yorker, the whole thing runs almost silently.

And there’s no reason why we can’t have this kind of public service in the U.S. Granted, you have to have functionality first. The New York City public transit system may be noisy and quite often visually unappealing, but it gets you from point A to point B quickly any time of the day or night. By contrast, the D.C Metro is aesthetically superior to the New York City subway (the cars are newer, the rolling stock runs much quieter, etc.), but its network isn’t really as robust as New York City’s is. Amtrak, for example, I would argue (again as a lifetime user) has huge deficiencies in both functionality and aesthetic quality.

Rebutting Mad. Ave:

As we fight to improve the funding for mass transit in America, therefore, we also have to work on the individual and collective aesthetic experience of using the systems we fund. In order to pull people out of their cars, it’s not just going to take $5 gasoline and five hour commutes; we’re going to have to appeal to the senses as well to cents.

And if the car has been made into an object of status and pleasure, there’s no reason why the same can be true of trains as well. After all, in the 19th century, the Pullman sleeping car company made train travel synonymous with luxury -indeed, the very name of the Pullman “palace” car was designed to turn a vehicle for travel into a luxury hotel. Pullman trains had, in addition to the usual first class, second class, and third class seating areas, sleeping areas with full size bathrooms in first class, luxury dining cars, smoking cars, billiard and library cars, even rolling bars. While none of that should deny the struggle of the African-American porters who fought for union recognition, or the car builders who Pullman ruthlessly abused in Pullman’s company town, the point is made that there is nothing about the technology of rail travel that means that it can’t also be made into an object of status and pleasure – but this time, something that belongs to the people, that the entire public can enjoy.

All of which means that in considering the aesthetic work needed, advocates for public mass transit need to both emphasize the advantages of mass transit – it’s fast, there’s no traffic jams, you can relax and read or watch movies or work or watch the scenery without having to watch the road, the fact that it’s a green way to travel – and deal with the disadvantages – the lack of privacy, the issue of noise and smells, the cleanliness. In Robert Caro’s the Power Broker, he writes movingly about the basic inhumanity of the commute. And in talking about the mass transit commute, what he emphasizes is the way in which under-financed public services can create a kind of stress pollution, where the noise and the heat and the smell and the cramming in of thousands of bodies causes people to build up the same kind of anger that we associate with “road rage,” but here it’s anger manifested at the public, at the crowd, at the masses. This kind of anger has a political use – it can drive people to vote against mass transit and in favor of highways, because they associate highways with media images of riding at top speed in a gleaming new convertible and mass transit with a subconscious misanthropy.


As I’ve expressed before, I’m a huge believer in mass transit. But beyond that, I’m also someone who is a partisan of the public over the private – I don’t like the idea that pleasure and beauty should be commodities, that speed and comfort should be the privilege of the wealthy. Because ultimately what this fight is about is the public square and the common green – whether they should be made beautiful as a source of enjoyment for all but also an expression of a collective aspiration for a better world, or whether they should be chopped up and the pieces sold to the highest bidder.

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  1. […] excellent piece on Making the Public (Transit) Beautiful. This originally appeared over weekend at The Realignment Project. If you haven’t yet visited this site created by PhD candidates Steven Attewell (Vikingkingq) […]

  2. Glad you enjoyed the time in Berlin. How about making a trip to Seoul too when you get the chance? I’m originally from Calgary where it takes about a decade to build a single C-Train station, but over here there are new stations opening up all the time. In 2003 when I first came here Line 1 went down to Suwon (45 km or so south of Seoul), then a few years ago it was extended all the way to Cheonan, which is all the way in the next province. Oh, and Line 9 just opened up too, adding another two dozen or so stations just in July. Now there are 291 subway stations. At the same time vehicle traffic is still pretty bad, but this is one of the reasons why public transportation is so worth it. Vehicles just aren’t worth the hassle most of the time.

    • Sounds interesting. I don’t exactly have much time to travel these days, but I’ll put Seoul on the list.

  3. Fantastic piece. However, I think it is worth noting that one of the main luxuries of car travel (in traffic or otherwise) is precisely the absence of other people in your cocoon. You leave on exactly your schedule, share your immediate space with only your invited guests, and have the privacy to listen to music or place phone calls.

    Mass transit could be done much more elegantly, and attempts to improve the “collective aesthetic experience” are long overdue in the US. But let’s not deny that part of the opposition to mass transit comes not from the “transit” but from the “mass”.

    • I agree that part of the opposition comes from the mass, but there’s ways to decrease the negative associations people have with mass, especially by ensuring that trains are frequent (hence, your schedule), that there’s ample space (hence, no personal space issues), and with combinations of quiet cars and phone cars (hence, can have privacy).

      • If the trains ran so frequently that there was one whenever I wanted it that went nonstop to wherever I was going, and so spacious that there was no one around me and so customized that whatever mood I was in – contemplative, gregarious, etc – there was a space just for me, sure, it would get over the mass issue…at the cost of expensively recreating my car experience on tracks.

        I like your point about collective aesthetic experience. Many people find crowded concerts or sporting events fun; they seek out the interaction as opposed to consuming a very similar product by themselves. We just have to be mindful that in addition to transport’s efficiency arguments, there is also the matter of social distance and interaction.

      • Fair enough, but it’s not all or nothing. You don’t have to completely re-create the car experience, just
        shift the experience enough so that the mass becomes less of a negative experience, and more of a sought
        collective experience like a concert or sporting event as you suggest.

  4. […] You find the original post here realignmentproject.w … | stevenattewell […]

  5. […] in High-Speed Rail need to go hand-in-hand with investments in local and regional mass transit, why understanding the public aesthetics of mass transit is critical to its success, and why the development of gas-free automobiles still means that we need to invest in mass […]

  6. […] I discussed how the aesthetic experience of mass transit can have a powerful influence on how voters and commuters make their choices: whether they think […]

  7. […] Mass transit is something of a given when it comes to municipal socialism – spatially, a city is essentially a network that allow people to move between different buildings and open spaces. Beyond just saying “mass transit is good,” there is a larger point that needs to be made: contrary to the conventional wisdom that “there’s no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pot hole,” there are different ways to make mass transportation work. Choosing between highways and subways, or between more car lanes or more bike lanes, or between systems that privilege ex-urban commuters over intra-urban commuters have both practical and ideological consequences. […]

  8. Part of my thesis is on this very same issue. I agree with you completely. Moreover, I have been finding research that demonstrate that aesthetics plays a more dominant role in our decision making than we readily think. For mass transit to ignore aesthetics and instead focus on only providing service such as route extensions and service times, they are missing a huge ridership attractor. Not to say that service extensions and route creations are not necessary, quite the opposite, that’s the main service offered. However, these services are but the basics. There needs to be more to mass transit in order to compete with the giants of “experience creators”. I think the problem also stems with what you mentioned in one of the comments and that is the “all or nothing” mentality. I doubt that Americans will ever fully give up their cars. However, if Americans learn to drive their cars less and instead substitute mass transit not only because its necessary but because they want to, then this would be the make up of a balanced transportation system. But like you so elegantly state, mass transportation needs to be beautiful in order for Americans to “want” to ride it as opposed to “have” to ride it.

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