Humanizing effects of transit

I spent the weekend in Iowa.  When planning the trip, I had good intentions of finally trying the bus between St. Louis and my hometown in Iowa, but there’s a small airline that flies 8-seater planes between the two locations, and the plane is much faster (more on bus vs. plane in another post).  Not the greenest option, but I made it a bit better by taking transit to and from the airport in StL.

My return trip could not have gone better, transit-wise: I boarded the MetroLink (light rail) at the airport just a minute before it departed, and I only had to wait a minute at my bus stop before my bus rounded the corner.  Smooth travels!

On the bus ride, I couldn’t help reflecting on the differences between using transit and driving a motor vehicle.

Public transit is so much more personal.  You see faces and hear voices.  You start to imagine stories of peoples lives: the mother with her teenage daughter boarding together, the woman chatting with the bus driver.  You’re connected by, if nothing else, your shared humanity with the other bus passengers.

This just doesn’t happen when we isolate ourselves in individual metal and glass cages.  We are inside and insulated from our surroundings, and others — whether pedestrians, other m or cyclists, are out.  We create an environment and conditions that make it very difficult to realize that these other road users are also people just like us, as highlighted in this video clip (WARNING: language not suitable for workplace, young children, etc.).  The audience is laughing, but when you think about the implications and consequences of this mindset, it’s not funny.

Studies have looked at, and named, what I experienced yesterday as a bus passenger: the windshield effect / perspective, described here:

Observing the world from behind the wheel, it turns out, has a powerful influence on our judgments about places and even people.

Researchers found that people driving a car tend to view unfamiliar, less-affluent neighborhoods more negatively than people who were walking, biking or taking transit.

The windshield effect also contributes to the myth that other completely legitimate road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, and, yes, that bus that delays you for all of 10 seconds while you wait to change lanes, are “in the way.”

In the way of what???  That person walking across the street is just going about his business, getting from point A to point B, just like you are.

Even being aware of the windshield effect, and often being one of the “other” road users myself, I am still susceptible.  Just hours after stepping off that bus, I drove our car to our garden.  I was on an arterial road, with relatively light traffic, and I saw a man walking across the street in front of me (mid-block, no crosswalk).

My very first thought was, “What is that guy doing crossing the street like that?”

His presence may have necessitated my slowing for half a second, but he finished crossing well before I arrived at that point in the road.  And the answer to my question, once I settled down and thought beyond windshield perspective, was that there was a very long stretch between stoplights and “official” crosswalks on this stretch of suburban arterial, and, in his place, I probably would have (and have, in similar situations) done exactly what he did.

Was my slowing down ever so slightly, and being aware of this fellow human’s place on the road, really that big of a deal?


Is it hard to work beyond, or fight back against, this windshield perspective?

Yes.  But not impossible, and something we all must do if we want civility and compassion on our roads.


  1. I completely agree. I try to take the train to KC when I can, and I enjoyed taking the bus to SLU when I lived in Soulard. When I had my apartment in UCity, I would often drive to the Delmar park-and-ride and take the Metro downtown. Those were always great days. I think Windshield Perspective is a real thing, and while I don’t know that we can eliminate it completely, I’d posit that a great first step would be to slow motorists down significantly whenever and wherever possible. By lowering the speed differential between the various modes of travel, the “inconvenience” of stopping or slowing down a few miles per hour is less frustrating, and I think it makes it safer for those on foot, on fewer than four wheels, or on wheels that lack motors.

  2. EcoCatLady says:

    I love, love, love, LOVE this post! I think this is why I have such a disdain for “personal technology” like earbuds, bluetooth headsets & smartphones. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the technology itself, it can be quite useful, but people seem to use it as yet another way of keeping themselves inside their own little personal bubbles – which is just a way of bringing “windshield mentality” with them wherever they go.

    I can’t tell you the number of times I come across someone wandering down the middle of the bike path lost in their music or their phone. I’ll come up behind them, slow down and call out that I’m trying to pass – of course, they can’t hear me because they’re lost in their personal bubble. Finally, with no other option left, I wait until they happen to move over a bit and try to sneak past them… at which point they often yell something nasty or act all bent out of shape that I had the nerve to startle them by going around them! I’ll usually just ride on when that happens, but CatMan stops and confronts them. Usually when he does that their attitude changes completely – it’s like they suddenly “snap out of it” or something.

    Whenever I’m riding in traffic, I try to make a real point of making eye contact with the drivers of the cars around me. And whenever someone stops to let me cross an intersection or whatever, I always wave thank you. It sometimes seems to startle them that I’ve actually treated them like a human being instead of an obstacle in a video game or something.

    Great post!

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