Bus sociology: UBC professor researches how people act on public transit

For most people, taking a bus comes with its own specific etiquette. Commuters make decisions that are part of the unwritten code of riding the bus, whether it be where they sit, how they respond to others or whether they talk or not.

As a long-time bus rider, Amy Hanser, associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, has watched these so-called unwritten bus rules. 

She has just launched a research project where she’ll observe and codify the bus-riding experience. Her goal is to understand how people interact with strangers on public buses. 

“The bus has always fascinated me as a kind of social space in which we’re thrust together with strangers in very close proximity,” Hanser told Gloria Macarenko, host of On the Coast

On transit, the city’s mix of humanity is all in one tight space.

“You can walk down the street and see someone that maybe makes you uncomfortable, and you could cross the street or you could walk past them quickly. But on the bus, you often have no control over who sits next to you,” said Hanser.

“It forces us to negotiate space with one another, and when the bus gets crowded you’re really forced to both keep to yourself and also be really attentive to other people. It’s this really interesting tension.”

Hanser’s research will also look at how the bus is situated in the city it services. 

“It changes as it moves through the city. People get on. People get off. It takes on the character of neighbourhoods it changes across the day,” Hanser said. 

Commuters rides a bus in Vancouver on Nov. 8, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Unwritten rules

Many of the rules that apply to riding the bus also apply to interactions with strangers in other public spaces, but they’re intensified on the bus. 

“When you encounter a stranger it’s not polite to stare. On the bus we’re confronted with that problem of being very close to people and we shouldn’t be staring at them. So people have to come up with all sorts of ways to convey that they recognize there’s people around them, but they’re not being intrusive.”

Hanser says this is called “civil inattention.” 

Part of Hanser’s research will be determining whether the time of day changes the unwritten rules. She says she’s seen the rules change when the ‘Rudolph’ bus — a TransLink bus in Vancouver decorated to look like a reindeer with a big red nose — appears.

“The humour that it generates creates a completely different atmosphere on the bus. It releases people from the ordinary rules about keeping to yourself. I find people are always laughing and talking with each other.”

Hanser says she is also interested in seeing how those who do not know the unwritten rules, like those with cognitive disabilities, are interacted with. 

Listen to the full interview here:

November 29, 2019 UBC Sociology professor Amy Hanser studies the unwritten rules of riding the bus. 8:22

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