Moving through the city with strangers? Public transport as a significant kind of urban public space

Giulio Mattioli

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Walking in the city rarely means just walking. Often urban dwellers walk to and from stops, as well as through spaces of public transport (subway network, tramway cars, etc.). These are fully-fledged public spaces, even though urban scholars have rarely recognized them as such. This neglect is perhaps due to their mobile nature, which contrasts with the long-standing argument that mobility is somehow detrimental to urban public space. In this chapter, I argue by contrast that public transport is one of the main contexts where people experience two of the defining features of public space and urbanity: sharing space with strangers and dealing with diversity. Many city dwellers value these experiences, and are thus positively inclined towards public transport. Others loathe them, and tend therefore to look for shelter in the semiprivate space of the car, which allows them to avoid unwanted co-presence with strangers (perhaps of other ethnic groups, ages or classes). This process of social avoidance can be seen as a mobile counterpart to the phenomenon of (residential) segregation, which is much more discussed in the urban literature. To tackle these issues, in this chapter I present the results of a study on the propensity to share space with strangers during travel, carried out in Milan (Italy) in 2009-2010. Relying on both qualitative (respondent debriefing) and quantitative methods (attitude scales), the chapter shows how respondents can be thought of as located on a theoretical continuum: at one extreme, secessionists, who show high levels of repulsion against other passengers and a low propensity to mix on public transport, but value the privacy of the car. At the other end of the spectrum, pro-mixing subjects, who like to indulge in flâneurish activities such as “being in public”, observing passengers and “familiar strangers” on public transport and even undertaking conversations with them. Conversely, subjects in this ideal type seem to dislike what they perceive as isolation in the private space of the automobile. These findings have interesting implications for urban scholarship: transit-friendly cities should be considered as a favorable context for the endurance of public space, because public transport allows a kind of negotiation of the stranger phenomenon that is attractive to (at least) some urban dwellers. By contrast, sprawling and car-dependent urban areas limit this possibility, arguably making the development of “secessionist” attitudes to public spaces and mobility all the more likely
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWalking in the European City
Subtitle of host publicationQuotidian Mobility and Urban Ethnography
EditorsTimothy Shortell, Evrick Brown
Place of PublicationFarnham
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-4724-1617-9, 9781472416179
ISBN (Print)978-1-4724-1618-6, 9781472416186
Publication statusPublished - May 2014


  • public space
  • public transport
  • Attitude
  • car


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