Public Transit Is How We Can All Get Along

Getting up close and personal with complete strangers is a fact of life for most bus or train commuters. But does this make us more or less tolerant of others?

Public Transit Is How We Can All Get Along
[Image: Beijing subway via Shutterstock]

Public transit is one of our most socializing experiences. For many of us, it’s one of the few times when we’re forced into contact with anyone and everyone, despite our preferences and prejudices.


It’s therefore a good arena for researchers to study how strangers interact with one another. Do we, for example, become more tolerant of homelessness when we listen to panhandlers on the train? Or maybe we become less empathetic and permissive?

The conventional wisdom might be that socialization breeds tolerance. But a study by Harvard assistant professor Ryan Enos actually provides evidence for the opposite–at least in the short term.

Enos’s research focused on nine train platforms extending from Boston’s South Station. He recruited pairs of Mexican immigrants from Craigslist and asked them to stand at each location during rush hour. Enos and his team then asked 757 commuters for their opinions on a range of political issues, including immigration, comparing their responses with answers they’d surveyed before the experiment. More than four-fifths (83%) of the commuters were white.

The three questions: Were the commuters open to increased immigration? Were they willing for the kids of undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S.? Should English be the country’s official language?

Initially, the responses were starkly negative: After three days, many respondents were less keen on immigrants, period. But after a week or so, those attitudes receded somewhat. The commuters were still more against immigration than they were at the beginning of the experiment. But not as much as they were after the initial three days.

“When people were exposed to these immigrants, the average reaction to the exposure was an exclusionary reaction,” says Enos, in an email. “This effect diminished over time, but after an extended period it was still more exclusionary than for people that had not been exposed to immigrants at all.”


That could indicate that socialization starts to change attitudes over time. But Enos reckons that the effect is limited in the context he studied, because the two groups did not talk to or get to know one another.

The experiment lasted only two weeks. So, we don’t know if the commuters would eventually have positive reactions, and, importantly, whether public transit helps people get along. It would be nice to think so, but Enos only tentatively makes that case. “Segregation increases hostility between groups when those groups are in close proximity,” he says. “Public infrastructure that helps to overcome segregation can diminish this hostility.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.