How Public Transit Use Affects Prejudice

Seeing people of different ethnic backgrounds increased commuter rail riders’ anti-immigrant attitudes.

How Public Transit Use Affects Prejudice
[Images: NYC subway via pio3 / Shutterstock]

Riding public transportation means encountering people from all walks of life. Initially, being thrown into a crowded commuter train can have the immediate effect of fostering exclusionary attitudes between different ethnic groups, according to a recent study from Harvard University. Over time, however, a commute filled with unfamiliar faces may make people more accepting, the study found.


Researcher Ryan Enos, an assistant professor of government at Harvard who studies politics and racial segregation, monitored the reactions of commuter rail riders in predominantly white sections of Boston when Spanish-speaking commuters were introduced to the daily commute. Enos hired pairs of native Spanish speakers, all from Mexico, to wait for trains at nine commuter rail stations at specific times and then to board the trains. Commuters were then surveyed about their attitudes toward Mexican immigration and whether they believed English should be made the official language. Commuters from another train coming into the station around a similar time served as the control.

Only three days after beginning to see and hear the Spanish speakers, riders showed more exclusionary, anti-immigrant attitudes, compared with their initial survey responses before the intervention. However, subjects that were surveyed after 10 days did not show as strong of an effect, suggesting that attitudes soften over time (although people still displayed more of an anti-immigrant bias than they had initially.)

The study was small–around 480 people participated–and to get a real sense of how people’s attitudes change over time, researchers would need to analyze for more than a few days. Still, the study suggests that public transportation could be a viable way to test how interactions between different ethnic groups may affect attitudes, since those kinds of experiments are difficult to replicate in the laboratory.

“When we invest in infrastructure, we bring intergroup harmony by encouraging people to interact,” Enos told The Boston Globe. Sounds great. Except that first, you’d have to get strangers to start talking to each other on the subway. Good luck with that.

[H/T: Boston Globe]

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.