This blog mentions violence and death.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this article contains the name of a deceased person.
Public transport is contested; to reap the benefits of post-COVID infrastructure investment, we must acknowledge this.
With Victoria irrevocably changed due to COVID-19, it is fair to say that the events of 2020 have laid bare the deep-rooted socioeconomic inequities which underpin our society, and our struggles to overcome them.
Public transport is a microcosm of society; wider social inequalities are reflected in an individual’s access to and use of public transport. June’s Black Lives Matters protests highlighted Tanya Day, a Yorta Yorta woman who was arrested because she fell asleep on a V/Line service, and subsequently died in police custody. All for daring to fall asleep on the train while Indigenous. This sounds outrageous, but is unfortunately experienced to some degree by many Victorians, who face barriers to public transport purely for who they are.
Our system needs an overhaul, and post-COVID public transport infrastructure investment presents the perfect opportunity to re-examine our public transport system.
Victoria’s stage 3 lockdown, the lack of investment in public transport infrastructure disproportionately affected service and healthcare workers who rely on public transport, because they could not practicably work from home. Simultaneously, Melbourne’s less wealthy outer suburban areas are poorly-serviced by public transport, and are more car dependent, even though car ownership is expensive, and makes them vulnerable to the impacts of oil price fluctuations, as highlighted by Professor Jago Dodson, from RMIT’s Centre of Urban Research. This is not news, as lower-income outer suburbs have long suffered from a lack of walkability and public transport infrastructure, which are the result of poor spatial planning.
However, it is not just the ‘hard’ infrastructure aspects of public transport which affect its accessibility; its ‘soft’ aspects are integral to ensuring individuals feel comfortable and safe. The individual’s lived experience as they navigate their walk to the bus, tram or train, and their experience on these transport mode – and how they are policed on it -- heavily influences the perceived safety and accessibility of public transport.
Whether it be students or young women, recent incidents have exacerbated and cemented a sense of danger on public transport. In 2018, Euridice Dixon was murdered when she was walking home from the tram stop. In 2019, 21-year-old Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe was murdered merely 100 meters away from her tram stop. Prior to these horrifying attacks, researchers from the University of Melbourne found that students already feared using public transport. Of the interviewed cohort, almost 80% of all female and LGBTIQ interviewees reported experiencing unwanted sexual harassment on public transport, and just over half of the of male-identifying interviewees reported being victimised during their public transport journeys. If this is the average student experience, imagine how more vulnerable communities experience public transport.
Intersectionality, a theoretical framework which is centrally focused on the experiences of multiple minorities – people who are marginalised due to multiple, intersecting identities – provides some useful insight into what this experience might look like. Imagine the experience of a transgender women-of-colour, who might experience transmisogynistic harassment whilst navigating public space in a hostile social environment, who cannot rely on the authorities – as they might subject her to policing – and must thus actively ‘manage’ her own movements and reactions, such as by moving to another seat, intentionally getting off at the wrong stop, or ignoring a harasser.
In thinking of increasing public transport’s accessibility and safety, should the answer be to increase police presence? If the global Black Lives Matter movements have shown us anything, it’s that over-policing further endangers those who are already disadvantaged. When we police our public spaces, we need to ask ourselves, who is unwelcome in these spaces? Why?
What does a re-thinking of Melbourne’s public transport system mean for Melbourne’s diverse communities? Earlier this week, we received the wonderful news that Victoria’s public transport network will be powered by renewables, in a bid to mitigate and adapt to climate change, whilst providing a post-COVID economic stimulus. However, there is no environmental justice without social justice. To ensure that all of Victoria reaps the benefits of public transport investment, we need to acknowledge that public transport is not a neutral space, and like other public spaces, others certain communities and individuals. Acknowledging public transport as a contested space is the starting point from which we might plan public transport equitably and inclusively.
Authors: Mia Ifergan and Nat Charmaine Manawadu
 Wahlquist, C. (2019). Tanya Day died 17 days after falling asleep on a train. Now her family want answers. The Guardian. August 24. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/aug/24/tanya-day-death-custody-inquest-family-want-answers
 Dodson, J., 2009. The ‘infrastructure turn’in Australian metropolitan spatial planning. International planning studies, 14(2), pp.109-123.
 Crenshaw, Kimberle W. (1991). ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.
 Lubitow, A., Carathers, J., Kelly, M. and Abelson, M., 2017. Transmobilities: mobility, harassment, and violence experienced by transgender and gender nonconforming public transit riders in Portland, Oregon. Gender, Place & Culture, 24(10), pp.1398-1418.