Homelessness, Public Transport, and Urban Empathy

Dr. Margot Kushel is a Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies homelessness. I had the good fortune of hearing her speak at the New Horizons in Science 2015 talks at MIT some weeks ago, and interviewed her afterwards about her research on the cruel intersection of ageing and homelessness. You can read my piece about her work here (and a complementary piece by Carla Bezold about the same research is here. Carla and I interviewed Dr. Kushel together).*

An encampment on the streets
Homeless encampment, Oakland, Calif. Credit: Kelly Ray Knight, PhD

Simultaneously, I’ve been sitting, for months, on a blog post tentatively titled Why I’m Grateful for Public Transport. I wanted this unwritten piece to describe how the shared experience of commuting by bus helped me feel like I belonged to a city. For the five months I spent in Gainesville, Florida, I took multiple buses almost every day, and am certain that this experience contributes to why I like Gainesville so much.

I realise that my particular circumstances played a big role in being able to enjoy travelling by bus. First, because we were doing (urban) fieldwork, we almost never needed to be anywhere at any exact time, so the inevitable delays that come along with relying on public transport didn’t bother me too much. Second, we were travelling relatively short distances in the best-connected part of the city, with relatively infrequent excursions to further, worse-connected parts (and had the means to pay for a taxi if required). These two facts certainly curbed the annoyances of travelling by bus, and let me see the upsides.

Of course, there are the positives of saving money and reducing carbon footprints that come along with travelling by bus, but there’s a third advantage that feels equally tangible–the chance to build empathy. This means the process of letting go of my own priorities and aligning my schedule with scores of others, all of us in turn accommodating the vagaries of urban life. This means the chance to encounter and engage with people I would never otherwise have met.

I could write about all the fun conversations, the unexpected connections. Like, for example, the bus driver who turned out to be a member of the Hare Krishna movement–we bonded over the high quality pizza in the ISKCON temple in Brindavan (in India), which we’d both eaten. Or the gent returning from playing the bongos at church, who chatted about happiness and inner beauty. But it’s the tougher stuff, the conversations that didn’t go well, that seemed most valuable. Like the conversation with the homeless man who had been mugged that day. He’d been hit on the head, and was on the bus after having his wound sewn up. I was returning from buying groceries. Looking back, I cringe at the fact that most of our conversation was about me. That I had little idea of what to do or say when he showed me the stitches on his scalp.

But that post didn’t get written, mostly because I was worried that my views on the potential of public transport as a means of building empathy were naive at best, voyeuristic and exploitative at worst. I still don’t know if that’s the case. But something that Dr. Kushel said while talking with Bezold and me suggested that I wasn’t wrong in considering public transport a stronghold of empathy in our urban lives.

I asked Dr. Kushel about the role of public transport in tackling healthcare problems among homeless people, and she mentioned how beneficial public transportation could be to many of the participants in her study on ageing and homelessness. Living in Oakland, CA, they have access to “a pretty good bus system, that would actually get our participants often to the places they need to go.” However, “they are not going places for lack of a bus pass,” Dr. Kushel explained. This makes little sense to Dr. Kushel, from a public policy standpoint: “one person calling an ambulance to go to the Emergency Room because they couldn’t take a bus [to the hospital] would pay for a whole lot of bus passes.”

After hearing this, I remember thinking, “Oh well, perhaps I won’t find that story about public transport and human connection here, but this logical argument certainly bolsters the case for investing in good bus systems.” But then Dr. Kushel continued to describe another way in which public transport intersected with the lives of the ageing homeless. Here’s her description (edited lightly):

The other public transportation story that is really fascinating is that some people use public transportation as a survival strategy.

We have a few women who ride the buses all night long. They have made relationships with certain bus drivers, who I think are quite brave, because I bet the bus drivers are probably not supposed to be doing that. But I think a lot of the bus drivers are also really struggling to make it and have an incredible amount of empathy.

And so we have several, particularly older, women who as a survival strategy get on to the bus and the driver looks out for them and they drive, and [the women] just stay on the bus and sleep all night long.

There is an NYT Op-Doc about this same interaction.

It’s worth repeating: public transport can be a stronghold of empathy in our urban lives.

*Huge thanks to ComSciCon for sponsoring our attendance at the SciWri15 conference, and for the chance to write for the CASW NewsRoom.

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