Wednesday, April 11, 2018

David Bissell's "Transit Life"

David Bissell is Associate Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne where he researches the social, political and ethical consequences of mobile lives.

Bissell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Transit Life: How Commuting Is Transforming Our Cities, and reported the following:
On page 99 we are confronted with a photograph of a very ordinary city scene. Three people are at a crosswalk. Even though the image is still, from our own experiences of walking through a city, we might be able to intuit that this scene is fizzing with different intensities of movement. A bus has just zoomed by, almost out of shot, a car is just about to whizz through the crossing. Two figures are stiller, poised, waiting for the green light to walk. Another figure is approaching the crosswalk, his foot about to touch the floor. The caption tells us that it is York Street crossing at Wynyard, and it is 7:20 a.m.

I am delighted that page 99 provides a brilliantly faithful sense of what the book as a whole is about. This is a book all about one of the most significant rhythms of city life. Lots has been written about commuting from a transport perspective, focussing on statistical information accompanied by diagrams about where people travel from and to. Yet somewhat surprisingly, much less has been written about the ordinary events and encounters that make commuting what it is. In part this might be because moments such as the photograph on page 99 are so ordinary as to be unremarkable. However, what this book tries to do is zoom in on these ordinary moments and the people experiencing them to draw out what is so significant about commuting.

The book is based on five years of fieldwork with commuters in Sydney, Australia. The image on page 99 is from a time-lapse photo experiment at a crosswalk in the middle of Sydney where I took photos every ten minutes for a week-long period during the morning rush hour. The point of doing this was to become attuned to the site itself in a way that, over time and through repetition, I could sense the unique intensities of this particular crosswalk. As I write on page 99, “Something is happening right now—a now that is so often obscured by projections and retrospections.” What these time-lapse images helped me to do is to try and be more present, helping me to sense some of the things going on in these ordinary scenes that would otherwise be concealed in the ongoing dance of everyday life; smothered with forward-tracing anxieties and backward-tracing ruminations.

What the book argues is that the intensities that bead our everyday lives in transit are subtly but powerfully changing who we are and the places that we travel through. The final sentence on page 99 strikes to the heart of this claim, where I write: “Rather than identifying similarities, I am interested in the shifts in intensities taking place in this space that might otherwise fly under the radar.” By drawing out and narrating these changing intensities across different sites in the city and with different people, my hope is that the book will raise questions for readers about their own transit lives, perhaps prompting heightened reflection on what might be particularly significant for them, and what they might wish to change.
Learn more about Transit Life at the the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue