Public transport behaviours explained

January 11, 2010

( -- Victoria University graduate Jared Thomas spent many hours riding buses and trains in the greater Wellington region as part of his PhD research.

"My focus was to look at the social needs of public transport passengers and the delicate balance between the need for privacy and social interaction on public transport," says Dr Thomas.

As part of his PhD research, Dr Thomas observed the behaviours of 1,703 passengers, including seat selection, activity use and whether they conversed. He also surveyed around 900 public transport commuters about their attitudes and behaviours, such as which seats they chose and why.

"My findings showed the seating layout of public transport forces people into an intimate distance with strangers, causing a degree of social discomfort. I found that people use a range of interactive strategies to adapt to this close yet impersonal social situation, including defensive behaviours such as reading, listening to music or talking on cell phones, which restricts their ability to engage with their fellow travellers. Others adapt with physically defensive behaviours such as putting their bag on the seat next to them, which also reduces their ability to socially interact."

Dr Thomas said there is evidence that interactive strategies—such as talking and positive body language with other passengers—are more successful than defensive strategies at reducing social discomfort.

"Much like reading a magazine in a dentist's waiting room, defensive strategies may make the time pass more quickly, but they do not necessarily reduce the underlying discomfort of the situation."

Interactive strategies are used by around one-quarter of commuters, but more would interact if there were fewer barriers to interaction, he says. Part of the problem is that social niceties, such as smiling and greetings, are ignored in a crowded public transport setting.

"Another key barrier to is the seat layout of both buses and trains. Most passengers are offered seats immediately beside one another, where facing each other to communicate important non-verbal signals is awkward. These passengers are about 30% less likely to engage in a conversation than those sitting in other layouts, such as those passengers that are facing each other."

Dr Thomas, who is himself a public transport user, is currently working for Opus as a transport researcher. He says his research could be used by public transport agencies, passengers, and those who design carriages and buses.

Dr Thomas graduated with a PhD in Psychology from Victoria University in December and was supported in his study by funding from the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST). His principal supervisor was Dr Marc Wilson.

Explore further: A car's middle back seat may be least desirable, but it's the safest

Related Stories

Flexible approach works best for public transport

September 1, 2008

( -- Urban transport options need to steer away from a 'one size fits all approach' in order to better serve our ageing population, according to research by Newcastle University.

Defectors take the car, cooperators go by bus

February 3, 2009

National economies are driven by the automobile, even during an economic downturn. Every day, hundreds of millions of people take their cars to visit remote places, to commute, and to reach the supermarket.

Slotted buses keep passengers cool

July 20, 2009

A simple redesign of public buses used in hot and dry climates could make passengers more comfortable without the need to use extra fuel running air conditioning, according to a study published in the International Journal ...

Recommended for you

Biologists trace how human innovation impacts tool evolution

November 24, 2015

Many animals exhibit learned behaviors, but humans are unique in their capacity to build on existing knowledge to make new innovations. Understanding the patterns of how new generations of tools emerged in prehistoric societies, ...

How experienced buyers can mitigate economic bubbles

November 19, 2015

(—Over the last decade, many people got a tough primer on the effects of economic bubbles, as the bursting of the 2007-2008 housing bubble sent shockwaves through most of the major world economies. But property ...

First Londoners were multi-ethnic mix: museum

November 23, 2015

A DNA analysis of four ancient Roman skeletons found in London shows the first inhabitants of the city were a multi-ethnic mix similar to contemporary Londoners, the Museum of London said on Monday.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 11, 2010
With the advent of electronic payment (like E-Pass highway tollboths) I think busses should be compartmentalized with lots of individual doors on the sides (like the gates at a horserace).

Then you can put in video screens and speakers, so riders can bring alont their media and watch or listen to what they want without having to wear headphones. You could talk to your companions via a video intercom system.
not rated yet Jan 12, 2010
As a public transportation user every day I have always suspected that the current plethora of cell phone use was more about non-communication than communication.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.