Public Transportation Passengers Avoid Getting Social

Fostering a socially accommodating environment could attract more passengers to public transit.

THE GIST:

-The public transit social environment is comparable to the feeling inside a crowded elevator.

-Sixty percent of public transit passengers intentionally avoid social interaction.

-Passengers are 30 percent more likely to converse when sitting across from each other than side-by-side.

Forced to sit uncomfortably close to strangers, a majority of public transit passengers go out of their way to avoid social interaction, according to recent survey data.

Jared Thomas, a former doctoral student in psychology at the University of Victoria who works for Opus International Consultants, observed and surveyed 1,703 train and bus riders in New Zealand to identify their social needs and behaviors.

Fifty percent of respondents said they intentionally engage in isolating activities, such as listening to music or reading, to discourage conversation.

The study concluded that side-by-side seating arrangements and standoffish behaviors create a socially uncomfortable environment akin to a crowded elevator.

Thomas thinks that fostering a friendlier atmosphere would improve the ride experience and attract more public transit customers.

"I think the key thing is that it's important to get a balance, looking at improvements for the social and privacy needs of the users, neither of which are being met under current design," Thomas said.

For instance, Thomas recommends altering seats to face each other since riders are 30 percent more likely to converse at that distance. Passengers also respond well to L-shaped seating, arm rests and small tables that establish more interpersonal distance.

While some transit systems have replaced awkward three-person benches with two-person or single seating, social dynamics are often overlooked in favor of maximizing rider capacity.

"Public transit is public transit," said Joel Volenski, director of the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida. "It's not a taxi; it's not intended to be that kind of conveyance."

Volenski noted that some transit agencies have addressed passenger comfort in other ways, such as designating quiet train cars and installing televisions in buses and trains.

In addition to modifying seating design, Thomas also suggests promoting sociable -- but not intrusive -- behaviors to passengers and transit operators. Based on his research, even something as simple as making eye contact and smiling can relieve tension in a crowded commuter vehicle.

"Overall, there's evidence that a positive social environment does improve the pleasantness of the trip, and improves attitudes toward the other passengers," Thomas said. "Also, as a long-term strategy, interaction is more successful than defense at mitigating social discomfort."

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