finding community in the unlikeliest places

At 7:45 AM on a Monday morning, not many people expect to be making friends. It’s early, most are still recovering from a post-weekend stupor, and the idea of spending the next eight hours at work is not exactly riveting. But, as they say, misery loves company – and it often serves as common ground for forming a sense of community.

Community can be defined as “a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings.” The social ties can be something as specific and personal as volunteering in a homeless shelter to a recurring pattern of behavior, such as frequenting the same coffee shop. However, even these seemingly random choices and loose links can actually say a lot about an individual: why choose this coffee shop? Do you live near here or work near here? What do you like about the ambience – or coffee – at this particular coffee shop? Do you appreciate that they serve only fair trade and organic beans because you are passionate about human rights issues? And, of course, no two people’s reasons are alike. But these differences – and yet the common market they support – are the basis for interesting, diverse community.

The eight steps of the Vibrant Streets toolkit are built around the idea of creating vibrant, thriving communities. Each of the steps is critical in forming neighborhoods of which people want to be a part and are socially and physically invested. But it’s not just on the streets that these communities are formed, and it is often independent of whether people are trying to make friends. Indeed, in its most natural state, community happens best when it is not forced. Public transit, for instance, can be a microcosm of community all on its own.

Unlike cars, public transit literally forces people together – physically and, more often than not, emotionally. “The train is delayed again?” I mutter under my breath, rolling my eyes. It elicits a half-smile from my train neighbor, a co-star in the hilarious play called Morning Commute. I notice her again the next morning, and then the day after as well; once Friday rolls around and she isn’t standing on the platform beside me, I wonder if she’s out on vacation or changed jobs and hope that everything is okay.

I am not the only one who has ever made a Metro friend. Brand new to the city, Caroline was excited to explore the nation’s capital on a sunny Saturday morning – but was setting out alone, armed with maps and water bottles. She was one of two people on the train at 8 AM, and it just so happened that the other person was new to DC, too – and looking for a friend. At first he hesitated when she stepped off the train at Farragut West, but jumped out a second before the doors closed, ran up behind her, and explained that he was new to DC and planning on exploring the city for the day. He had noticed her maps and thought perhaps she was doing the same and maybe she wanted a buddy. Two years later, Caroline and John were married.

Public transit allows us to make connections to people in a way that driving will never allow. It is an unfortunate fact that drivers live inside insular bubbles, closed off to the built environment around them. They are unable to participate in a vibrant community. Indeed, rather than building any sense of camaraderie, driving encourages anger and annoyance – road rage! It also reduces awareness of the most crucial aspect of a vibrant street: the retail itself. People are much less apt to notice a new boutique while driving by rather than while walking to the subway. Instead of being a part of the community forming around them, drivers are closed off to their own streets, less likely to observe things about their retail corridor – whether good or bad.

This morning my commute was delayed as my train offloaded at a station, and I ended up having a hilarious conversation with the guy standing next to me. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like such a wasted morning after all.

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