The metropolitan landscape of my childhood was literally divided by race, a divide created and reinforced by intimidating networks of overpasses, underpasses, and four lane highways that allowed white suburbanites with cars, often two or three per family, to come downtown for pleasure while those living in the city limits remained in situ, suspended and without access to the schools, jobs, an opportunities that had long migrated outward.
Twentieth Century Detroit
Two Urban concepts were born in the city affectionately referred to as the ‘Motor City’ taylorism or scientific management of time and efficient production and Henry Ford’s Model T. The latter being a physical object that helped realize a second kind of socio physical rationality the extreme seperation and compartmentalization of places, where place of work was far away from place of residence, which was seperate from places for shopping, schooling, and so on.
By 1920 Detroit had become a mono-industry city (the automobile). The economy and population surged with first and second-generation European immigrants coming to work in places like the Rouge River Plant, the largest factory in the world at the time and site of Model T production. The philosophy behind the Model T was that it should be affordable to every factor worker, a fact that gives interesting meaning to the idea of collective consumption and early 20th century intersections between capitalism and socialism. But what I want to emphasize is that despite car ownership, public transportation in Detroit remained robust. Annual ridership of the city’s tram was about 490 million even in 1947 (Grabar 2016) . Historical surveys indicate that riders found a wait time of more than 10 minutes for transit unacceptable (ibid), with further details demonstrating that public transportation was the lifeline of the city. In so far as public transportation remained robust, so did the streetscape, the street as a place of fleeting interactions and experiences.
Changing Landscape, Changing Mindset
The post WWII GI bill of the 1950s funded veterans to establish new families in new detached homes in new suburbs that were too far from the downtown to commute by tram. In 1955 General Motors lobbied to have the well-laid Detroit tramline torn up, declaring it a mode of the past. A year later the 1956 Highway Act laid hundreds of miles of expressways that connected downtown to the suburbs for easy in, easy out access. This alteration of the physical landscape very tangibly altered the mindset of people; such policies and infrastructures were accomplices to growing post war ideologies of autonomy, supreme rule of the nuclear family, and transportation as an individual affair.
A secondary affect of these transportation policies was transportation became a conduit through which racial prejudice was manifested. A decade prior to these significant transportation alterations, close to 350,000 African Americans, largely from the South, came to Detroit in search of blue-collar employment. Historically, lines of ethnic tension in industrial centers revolved around the influx of labor from ‘new’ groups who were willing to work in the factories for significantly less. However, Detroiters who were first and second generation immigrants of mostly white European descent, treated this labor influx with blatant racism, excluding blacks from the unions, the suburbs, schools and more. In their work on Detroit, the shrinkng cities group expalin that 'the excessive, even and aggressive character of suburbanization is to put it bluntly, the result of a love of the car on one hand and racial hate on the other.
Well established employees of the auto companies continued the trend of moving out of downtown, a phenomenon known as white flight, which escalated in 1967 when Detroit had one of the worst race riots in the country. Racial tensions escalated further with the oil crises of 1973, when much of the car manufacturing shifted abroad and the new service sector located not in the urban core but in the suburban periphery. By 1981, the year I was born, there was not a single grocery store in the urban core, these, along with the department stores, movie theaters, jobs, and reputable schools had moved into the sprawling suburbs where a new typology, the strip mall, began to flourish. The only way to access these establishments was by private vehicle.
Detroit in the 80s was lawless and downright dangerous. What was once the motor city was now referred to as the murder capital. New Years Eve, Fourth of July, Halloween, and any other holiday was spent indoors avoiding windows on account of the stray bullets that would fly through the streets on such evenings. Growing up in a white family but living downtown with a car, my memories are of two very different landscapes pass before me, with a thick pane of glass isolating me from directly interacting with either one. Spotting the bus was like seeing an urban ghost, an empty, ethereal vessel gliding on the smooth pavement down a deserted downtown street. No one with any means took the bus. To do so was to invite murder, sexual violence, or theft upon ones self. In short, city transportation was about rolling up windows, locking doors and not lingering for too long at a red light, you might get jumped.
Bus Riding in India
That is where I am from. By the age of 18 I vowed to only live in cities with robust public transportation and a decade later, when I started coming to India for urban planning research I became fascinated with the politics, the nuances, and etiquette of bus riding.The job of the bus conductor was of particular interest to me. In all of my previous bus experiences, this role was either relegated to the driver or a machine. I watched the conductors with awe, how they squeezed in between bodies with such dexterity, their extraterrestrial sense of gravity and unfaltering ability to not waiver with the movement of the bus as they counted change. When it was too crowded, the hands that came together, overhead, passing coins and notes from back to front and back again. A human chain. I looked for subtle indications of respect, dissonance, indifference and wondered if and how the presence of a conductor facilitated some kind of larger collective feeling within the bus.
As my doctoral research was already focused on gender and transportation mobility in urban India, when I permanently relocated to Bengaluru and discovered the significant number of women BMTC bus conductors, I wanted to consider the relationship between embodying gender and embodying the city while, in the case of the woman conductor, moving up and down the bus.
Change, Please was a brief, exploratory project, generously sponsored by the Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut, Bengaluru. With permission from BMTC, my days were spent riding various bus routes of women conductors, informal interviews with the woman, extensive participant observation, and endless kaapis at the Nandini Milk Parlours. Two focus group sessions, the first occurring in Lal Bagh and the second in the home of one senior conductor also took place. Nayana Udayashankar, a lawyer with EQUATIONS and Bangalorian, acted as translator and project co-partner as we worked with the conductors to enact several role playing scenarios where the women impersonated different passengers example an old man or situations, such as one in which a woman is being accosted, and eventually, scenarios such as how it was to be a woman conductor in the early 90s verses today. The purpose was not to focus on BMTC policies for women, such as equal pay, and indeed one of the initial challenges was ensuring that women felt comfortable with Nayana, the topic, and myself. Many were initially reluctant to talk about their job as they perceived a possibility of “getting in trouble” for speaking about the gendered dimension of this work. However, three motifs stood out.
Several of the woman said that the choice to become a conductor was a difficult family decision, emphasis here on the family. On the one hand, it was a government job and therefore offered a certain level of long-term financial security. On the other hand, it was a ‘public’ job, not in the sense of public sector but in the sense of being a woman whose employment entailed not only being in public, but interacting, touching, helping, even disciplining the public. As one senior conductor explained “When I came here [Bengaluru], till then I had never extended my hand this way shows her hand with palms facing upward. But when in a bus, I have to extend it this way [changes her hand position]. Earlier, if someone touches me just a bit, I would want to go wash my hands. First I have to wash hands. If someone gave me something, I would wonder if I should eat it. But now it is not like that. I eat without washing my hands sometimes.”
Another spoke of the difficulty in finding a marriage partner who approved of her work as a conductor. “It was difficult to find someone who would support me in my work. I was very sure that I wanted to continue working so I faced a lot of rejections and I was also looking for someone who would let me work. But I did get married.” In both examples, work as a conductor has impacted relationships, intimate and general. In the former, it is relationships and perspectives related to caste and in the later, being a conductor has had an impact on the gendered dimensions of marriage. In several focus groups discussions and role-playing we addressed the relationship between the conductor and male driver as this is an essential relationship for a successful bus service. One question we explored was whether women faced resistance from the drivers they were assigned to work with and, if so, how long it took to develop an amiable working relationship. Each woman had a different response. Some said it took two weeks, for others it was close to a year. One conductor spoke of the time she was pregnant and how the driver always ordered her a bisi bele halfway through the shift so that she had enough strength. An unexplored aspect of this inquiry was whether or not working with a woman conductor has, in any way, changed the driver’s views toward woman, perhaps generally but also specifically within his household.
One conductor described her training and confidence as a conductor as coming directly from the public. “I’ve had a lot of support from the public when I first started the job, the general public helped me a lot. I used to worry that this is such a difficult job and how will I manage. But the public would be the one to tell me the routes. At that time, we used to stop the bus to write down the ticketing status. Now we have machines so we don’t need to stop the bus at all. Even if I took time over it, they would say “it is alright, it is a woman working”. Without the support of the public, I would not have been able to work.”
Another conductor who joined in 1992 spoke about the relationships she developed with her passengers over the years. “When I joined the organization, on behalf of the conductors, nobody would really help. But now, the passengers are very well read. One passenger gave me jackfruit that had grown in his/her backyard. It was so full of honey. ‘It is not now that we are seeing you. We have been seeing you since you were working in the double decker bus. You are exactly the same. You talk also in the same way. You are the same way.’ My passengers, when they pass away, their kids come and tell me that they are no more. I get their wedding invitations. And I have to go for the wedding. I have to go for their children’s wedding…”
Learning the City, Gaining the confidence
Several women conductors are not originally from Bengaluru and even for those who are, most start without a comprehensive geographic knowledge of the city. As one conductor explained “I used to be scared of the job when I started out. People here talked so many different languages and I knew only Kannada. But after some time, I learned to manage too. I have worked for so long now and I have done over 30 different routes.” Spending time with several of the women outside their job, I began to feel that their relationship to the public, be it the confidence of their body language and verbal confidence to confront an individual for an inappropriate action or the subtle yet firm way in which these women occupied physical space in public was a direct result of the need to be confident in their self in order to be an effective conductor.
This observation led me to wonder how the process of learning and knowing the city is intimately tied to being confident in the city, and what implication this might have on women’s safety in public spaces more broadly. As the media, politicians on both sides of the spectrum, activists, national and international policy makers, academics, and of, course, women themselves debate the question of safety, it is the woman conductor who is truly confronting the question. While TedTalks, United Nations ambassadors, and Women’s Day event organizers continue to demand more women role models, the woman bus conductor continues to walk up and down the bus, collecting fares, perhaps overlooked because of the repetition, monotony or mundaneness of the work.
Conductor As Automation
As BMTC moves toward smart cards, online payments, and app based technology is the conductor at risk of becoming outmoded? Are there parallels between the elimination of the conductor and the elimination of the street as a multidimensional, collective place? As private modes of transportation are increasingly favored over public forms we must examine, in addition to questions of environment, pedestrian rights, etc… the kinds of social interactions that are being lost. Being from Detroit I know far too well what happens when a city goes the way of the car.
Time spent with the BMTC conductors, both men and women, shows that this labour is invaluable. As questions around explicit and implicit displays of patriarchy are actively discussed, debated and challenged, women conductors add to this powerful fight by challenging perceptions of what it means to be a woman in public in very meaningful ways. The space inside the bus is a place in which all kinds of social positions are negotiated and renegotiated. If we lose that space to the private vehicle, or these conductors, we lose such opportunities for interaction.