Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Social Environment of Public Transport

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posted on 2021-11-09, 22:33 authored by Thomas, Jared Austin Peter Kay

Crowding is identified both internationally and in New Zealand as a key issue in public transport. Unfortunately, the concerns of public transport providers are focussed on economic imperative rather than a concern for the actual experiences of patrons. The social needs of public transport passengers are neglected, both in practice and in research. This research examines the delicate balance between the need for privacy and the need for social interaction in the setting of public transport. These needs are examined through naturalistic observation of 1703 passengers' behaviours, such as seat selection, activity use, and conversation on buses and trains. This was followed by a survey-based Exploratory study examining a range of individual difference variables. Based on the findings of this Exploratory study measures were identified for use in a series of subsequent surveys of public and private transport users. Specifically, questionnaires measuring the attitudes and self-reported behaviour of train (N = 319), car (N = 305) and bus commuters (N = 216). Results suggest that the seating layout of public transport forces people into an intimate distance with strangers, causing social discomfort. Hall's (1966) proxemic theory suggests that these intimate distances are typically reserved for people with closer relations. People compensate by adapting to this close yet impersonal social situation. There is evidence that interactive strategies such as talking and positive body language with other passengers reduces the level of social discomfort, whereas defensive strategies do not reduce discomfort, but do form a negative relationship with social interaction which helps perpetuate a socially stagnant atmosphere. Discomfort from close interpersonal distance and less positive attitudes towards other passengers, while not as important as instrumental variables (such as longer trip durations), are still potential barriers to public transport patronage and should be given greater attention. In conclusion, interactive behaviours are determined to be necessary to reduce social discomfort in public transport. Festinger and colleague's (1950) passive contact theory (PCT) is interrupted in the public transport setting, and it is posited that pro-social behaviours, such as smiling, and acknowledging other passengers with greetings are a precondition for successful interpersonal interaction.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Walton, Darren; Wilson, Marc; Walkey, Frank