Negotiated Space

When I got on the Gold Line in South Pasadena yesterday I found the bikes and strollers space on my traincar occupied by three gigantic bags full of cans for recycling. A bit disappointed at first, I asked the fellow sitting nearest to them if they were his bags, and, when he affirmed that they were, whether he minded if I leaned my bike on them.

He not only said that he wouldn’t mind, he helped me rearrange them so that the left pedal fit in between two of the bags, holding the bike steady as the train sped up and slowed down, and making for a much more relaxed experience. I could sit back, look out the spacious windows, and chat occasionally with the fellow whose bags they were.

Similar little negotiations occur thousands of times daily almost automatically on the trains, mostly in a benevolent or at least neutral tone. The trains are just that much more spacious than a bus that one doesn’t react to feeling forced into contact with others, and so public transit trains are a minor but steadfast civilizing force in society. We recognize this instinctively: people who would never ride a bus for transport unless forced to by circumstances will willingly leave their car behind and use a train.

On the train. you are exposed to each other but not crowded. Same on the street on a bike. Car drivers rarely communicate with each other except through honks and glares; the exaggerated extension of their privacy zones which are the shells of their vehicles makes them feel crowded even when as humans they are really far apart. A cyclist has no ego-extending shell. Two cyclists can sit side by side at a stoplight only eighteen inches apart and not feel crowded, where two cars that close together would make both drivers nervous. A car, by its enclosing nature, has an invisible but unmistakeable “Keep Out–Private Property” banner surrounding it. Drivers ask me for directions all the time; they don’t dare ask the driver in the car beside them.

Pedestrians too, of course. Like cyclists, they don’t conflate the private space of a car with the public space of the road. Drivers, I suspect, do think they “own” the road, because they own the car that is upon it.

I got off the Gold Line at Chinatown, as did the bag man. We shared an elevator down to street level, chatted a bit more, then wished each other good day.

Meanwhile, the motorists roared past us on the road, hurried and lonely in their metal cells. It was a beautiful day outside for the rest of us.

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2 Comments

  1. Andy W
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Rick, I believe we knodded to each other recently riding in opposite directions on 4th St through Hancock Park. Agree with all you said about interactions with each other on the street and on trains. It’s really reassuring and offers a measure of civility and simple connection that we share space….gives us a nice excuse for simple gestures of kindness and thoughtfulness. I love seeing that almost everyday during my work commute on the trains. More and more we get to experience that on our bicycles stopped at lights or riding along each other. It’s really great. When the cars roar by or jockey in front of us for space, it feels like a quiet little secret amongst riders of what a treat it is to be able to be nice to each other and share that moment.

  2. Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Andy, yeah, most likely that was us…just a couple of days ago.

    There’s a social magic to cycling, transit, and just plain walking around. I noticed it even in the supposedly-coldhearted Manhattan of the ’80s, where people were far friendlier and helpful than in car-trammeled LA at the same time.

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