Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are bike people friendlier than the average transit rider?

I don't have an especially outgoing personality, yet I generally have little problem approaching complete strangers when we're on bikes, talking with them and often enough shooting photos of them. I have little in common with many of the bike riders I see on Caltrain and the bus, but I know about their families, where they work, where they live, and what's going on in their lives. I even know some of the train conductors and bus drivers by name, where they grew up, and their retirement plans. This guy -- who I met at a Caltrain meeting -- even rode his bike all the way over the Santa Cruz Mountains for my wife's college graduation party. This guy has shown incredible kindness to me and my family.

'Dangerous' Bob Widin I've assumed this was part of the magic of public transportation: instead of the forced anonymity of the single occupant vehicle, we have the social interaction of a lively public space. The old timers help the newbies, we share food and drink on the train, and sometimes might see the impromptou onboard bike repair clinic. A few of us are even joking about a rolling Caltrain onboard bike film festival some day, which might be a good way to weed the non-cyclists off of the bike car.

Murph describes the Caltrain love as he writes about the 49ers victory over the Chicago Bears last week.
I am of the Caltrain ilk, where everyone helps each other out, we share a bond formed through numerous Caltrain disasters that have forced us to finish our commutes like the Israelites heading out of Egypt, where we rely on each other. The cyclists form a paceline and head to Millbrae BART. Those without bikes gather 'round the twitter and call cabs to split to various destinations, or offer rides in their own cars when a loved one comes to the rescue. This all seems very natural.
In his latest blog post, Tom Vanderbilt (author of Traffic), though, mentions old sociology studies that observe the "civil inattention" on subways -- the movie version of public transportation where your fellow riders are all strangers who don't talk with one another. We have nothing in common, so we avoid all social interaction.

Or is public transportation an opportunity to meet people and even, as Vanderbilt concludes in his Slate article, a way to fall in love?
One recent study conducted by officials at the Paris Metro—which looked at "missed connection" ads placed by urbanites looking for love in the city—found that the Metro "is without doubt the foremost producer of urban tales about falling in love." The seats closest to the door, it seemed, offered the best opportunities for falling in love with the proper stranger. "The Metro is not the emotional desert, the social vacuum, that we sometimes believe it to be," observed the chief of the Paris Metro.
If you ride transit, what do you think? Do you avoid eye contact with the same group of strangers your ride with everyday? Or have you made friends among your fellow bus, train and subway passengers? Does it make a difference if you ride a bike or not?


  1. I'd be careful about opinions like this. This is a generalization. I bike and take transit (depending on how lazy I am!). I think it's easy to reach this conclusion based on the relatively small population of bikers vs. transit commuters. The population of biker commuters is a fairly healthy, outgoing, group that stands out for cycling their way to work. Transit commuters, OTOH, are made up of a wider variety of people which may include the healthy and the unhealthy, grouchy, positive, everything you can think of. So ultimately, it's an unfair comparison.

    That said, the more bike commuters, the better.

  2. Caltrain is commuter rail not a subway. The difference is that commuter rail is longer distance and tends to be the same people every day.

    I took the LIRR for 7 years (Long Island RailRoad).
    * The conductor was my wedding photographer.
    * The people in my car picked out the place where I proposed to my wife.
    * The best man rode the train with me every day.
    * 3 other riders were in my wedding party.

    I took the NYC subway during that same period. I don't remember a single person from the subway. Though taking the subway isn't unpleasant at all. It is just busier and more active.

    Commuter rail is

  3. Duncan nails it.

    ACE out in the East Bay has only 3 trains a day and they are separated by an hour each, so most people take the exact same train every day. So they know each other, Friday is Hawaiian shirt day, they play Bridge together, etc... Capitol Corridor is similar - and also has a *bar car*. Caltrain is similar but not the same - some people do in fact always take the same train, but many don't since there are so many trains.

    The bike car has more of a community because of a few things. Caltrain has so many trains that you don't always take the same train, but if you have a bike you always sit in the same *car* on any given train. So on the whole you are 10 times more likely to see the same person. The bike car also has more "customs" than the other cars since we have the tribal etiquette of racking up the bikes. Then there is the shared suffering of getting bumped, and the shared triumph of getting more capacity.

    If you looked at BART, people who get on in at Macarthur probably don't know each other, but there is a good chance there is some community amongst those who come in from Dublin. The Dublin people get seats since they are first on, the train is less crowded when they get on, and they always get on at the same station. People on the Pittsburgh line get on at different stations depending on how late they got out of the house - parking availability is determined by time of day.

  4. I agree with Duncan. I ride the bus and train into Atlanta every day, and it's almost always dead silent. The bus is more friendly because it's often the same people every day, but even then, there's only maybe five people that I ever see talking to each other, and it's almost always small talk.

    The train though...oi. I hate when I forget my headphones cause it's so quiet on there it's irritating.

    And no, I can't strike up a conversation because I suck at small talk.

  5. let's see. theres Charles who walks better than two miles daily to get to the bus. And then home again. He also is in the process of building a black powder rifle he proudly showed me a bit of the silver "wire" he's using for the inlay.

    Theres Mike who has had diabetes most of his life. It has taken away the feeling in his legs below the knees. He rides fixed geared bikes because the constant rotation helps his leg over the top of the pedalstroke.

    Theres Russell that I gave a ride to when I saw that the bus he was waiting for pass his stop. We had been having a rash of new drivers.

    Theres Roger who hasn't driven in 20 years since his last run in with the law. Who also will wear only a sweater, even in sub zero cold. He also has a full white beard and only rides cruisers.

    I think murphstahoe had a great point "The bike car also has more "customs" than the other cars since we have the tribal etiquette of racking up the bikes." This I find works on the bus as well. If there is another cyclist I'll ask where they are getting off so we can sort out who's bike needs to go under first or if there are spaces on the front then it's normally first come first served. Except Roger, he always wants to put his in a bay.

  6. The Paris missed connections thing was interesting. OK OK I browse missed connections every so often and its true, even here, there are a LOT of them stemming from encounters on public transit

  7. =v= It's nearly impossible to socialize in car culture, so transit fulfills the need. It used to be even better, with "commuter clubs" who'd actually hold parties and events even when they weren't riding!

  8. @Jym: I started to editorialize on how talk radio fulfills our need to socialize in the car, but this post was already too wordy so I deleted it all.

    @Dan: I wonder if the missed connections are really any evidence of socialization, or just evidence of the chance ephemeral encounters with strangers on public transportation.

    @getinlost: Do you ride the bus to Boulder or something like that? Another long(er) distance pseudo-express service. And the Longmonster service is so infrequent and poorly used I think you do tend to see the same people all the time.

    @murph @duncan, @tony @miguel So it's more the nature of the transit service maybe in combination with the bikres? On Twitter somebody replied to me that smokers are the same way -- they get together at the same smoker's hangout every day and get to know each other.

  9. I have had a similar experience on BART. Reverse-commuters (not going into SF) can bring bikes on. I have met a bunch of nice folks, some of whom I ride with. I am kind of a bike geek, and will comment on a stranger's ride if I find it interesting. It's a pretty non-threatening way to start a conversation, and usually gets a friendly response.

  10. I've always found cyclists to be more than friendly. When passing in the street, you always exchange a greeting. And when chaining up at our cycle shelter, comeone will always strike up a conversation with me.