When it comes to public transport, we engineers are typically good at planning efficiency and our first focus is on measuring the level of service accordingly. This means attributes like reliability, frequency, speed and time savings are our priorities, leaving passengers to be thought of as a freight/commodity instead of human beings. 

But given the increasing evidence of the impact the built environment has on life – both positive and negative - it would be irresponsible of us not to expand our thinking and make human-centred design the first priority.

We know there are physical benefits to taking public transport versus travel by car and there is increasing evidence to suggest there are also mental health benefits.

Humans are among the most social species on the planet, with brains uniquely adapted for living in large groups, yet as we approach mass urbanisation on a scale never seen before we’re also seeing an increase in loneliness. Across the globe, loneliness in a health issue in major cities.

Public transport has the potential to create an environment where face-to-face social interactions are more likely, which research has shown to be beneficial for mental health. Trips on public transport can be the only time we encounter others outside of our communities of family, friends and colleagues.

Think what public transport means to you, if you are living alone. Further to that, if you’re unemployed or a senior citizen living on your own then it gives you an opportunity to meet another human being in an environment that doesn’t require extra effort.

Currently public transport isn’t encouraging people to face-to-face social interactions, instead it’s forcing strangers into intimate proximities. This leads to a very deliberate “civil inattention”, where strangers in close proximity demonstrate their awareness of each other without imposing: not making eye contact, not sitting next to someone if there are empty rows, not talking to strangers.

That approach has worked well in terms of treating the passengers a commodity, but as we start to grapple with how to halt the trend towards loneliness this must change.


I don’t think those of us who work in transportation have thought about people hard enough, we’ve viewed passengers as a commodity that needs to be moved efficiently and quickly.


Changing attitudes

Research shows that even minimum social interactions with strangers can have a positive impact. While people are often reluctant to have a genuine social interaction with a stranger, they are happier afterwards (Mistakenly seeking solitude, University of Chicago 2014).

My colleague, Dr Jared Thomas, WSP Technical Principal in Behavioural Sciences, researched the social environment and seating layout of public transport.

He observed and surveyed 1,703 train and bus passengers to identify their social needs and behaviours. He found 50% intentionally engage in isolating activities, such as listening to music or reading, which discouraged conversation, while 25% participated in conversations on their trip.

Thomas says forcing people into an intimate distance with strangers can cause social discomfort similar to a crowded elevator, but talking and positive body language with other passengers can reduce this.

Interventions such as L-shaped seating, arm rests and small tables can establish more interpersonal distance and improve passenger comfort. Staff also provide leadership that sets the social scene, having a chat with passengers and positive greetings have a flow-on effect to positive passenger interactions.

“Public transport at its heart is a social mode of transport. We need to take care of the social needs of passengers, including opportunities to connect with our community on wheels, to really unlock the benefits.”

In the UK the BBC worked with public transport companies to run a day-long experiment to see what happened when people talked to fellow passengers. It was launched on the back of a study that found commuters have a significantly better experience when they connect with a stranger than when they sit in solitude.

Crossing Divides: On the Move Day saw designated chat carriages, conversation prompt cards being handed out and announcements from drivers to break the ice. One operator deployed actors, poets and games to help trigger conversations on a route that connected Birmingham's most affluent and deprived areas. See some of the positive outcomes of the day here.

Another approach taps into our love of smart phones. Researchers in Australia developed a mobile app called TrainRoulette that facilitated real-time chats between train passengers.

Researchers noted that social interaction on public transport is commonly ICT-mediated, passengers use their phones to get away from the constrained physical space by contacting those they’re familiar through texting, phone calling, or social media.

TrainRoulette worked on curiosity – people are interested in knowing who is sharing the same space with them; what they do, what their interests are. It plays on social interaction – even between strangers – meeting our intrinsic need for relatedness. Although just a trial, it highlights the possibilities for creating connections amongst strangers.

Better connections can improve social connections, health, personal security, comfort while on the service and, ultimately, lead to improvements in passenger flow and operational factors.



Risto Jounila joined WSP’s Auckland transport planning team from Helsinki, Finland, where he was Director of Transport for WSP, and was regularly involved in multi-disciplinary, urban integrated transport projects. He’s passionate about projects that are sustainable and good for the humans, families, communities and businesses that connect in a vibrant and well-functioning city.

More on this subject