From #FreeMobility to #StayHome

As we creep toward the end of what has been a very long month, the enthusiasm of the beginning of March about free public transportation – and the large public events that marked its implementation – have come to feel like distant memories. It’s hard to believe that just one month ago I was rubbing shoulders with strangers at the Free Mobility Concert, amid marketing campaigns comparing fare abolition to “the first step on the moon” or “the invention of the wheel” (touting the slogan “It’s A Big Day”). 

I had intended to dedicate this blog entry to discussing the first few weeks of fare-free transit in Luxembourg, but of course the fact of public transportation being free has very little impact on mobility patterns in the present moment. During the first two weeks following the transition, a few people mentioned to me anecdotally that they had noticed more riders than usual on their everyday commutes. However, the country-wide lockdown instituted in the middle of the month after the first diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Luxembourg has dramatically altered how people get around – or, in many cases, don’t. 

During this unprecedented period, it often feels like we are living in a bizarro world, in which the usual rules for life in society no longer apply. As an anthropologist studying public transportation, I feel as though many of the premises on which my research is based are (at least temporarily) turned upside down. While the ability to move around is usually crucial to life and livelihoods, we are now being told that movement is a liability. Despite being stripped of its cost, mobility in Luxembourg is no longer free but highly restricted, with police regulating the public’s movement. Now, as many of us are urged to stay at home, it is those who must still spend much of their time in public – and amongst the public – who bear a greater risk. 

On the one hand, it has been widely noted that this crisis has illuminated several (perhaps previously underrecognized) jobs that are critical to the continued functioning of society, including medical professionals, grocery store employees, educators, and of course transit personnel. Here in Luxembourg, the public and private employers of these workers have in turn taken measures to protect their health and safety. In the case of public buses for example, passengers are no longer permitted to enter through the front door, and the front few seats are blocked to maintain distance from the driver. (Perhaps the fact of transit being fare-free now is, incidentally, useful here as drivers no longer need to sell tickets to passengers.) Might we consider this public act of deeming transit work “essential” and worthy of protection to be an affirmation of the social value of this labor? 

While this situation has rendered some work and workers more visible, the challenges faced by many others remain largely invisible. As many of us in Luxembourg are hunkering down in our homes, those who do not have a safe, clean, private space in which to self-isolate – including homeless people, refugees living in close quarters in provisional dwelling-places, and those incarcerated in prisons, detention centers, etc. –  inhabit much more precarious circumstances. As we as individuals, communities, and societies continue to reflect on how to protect “vulnerable” populations during this time, it is critical that we do not forget these groups. Similarly, those who do not own a car and must rely on public transportation to do their grocery shopping or other “essential” tasks bear a greater risk than their driving counterparts. In these and other public spaces, the feeling of mutual dependence is heightened.

When out in public during this time, we must not only adapt our own behavior to reduce physical contact and proximity, but also depend on everyone else around us to do the same. Bus users, for example, must count on their fellow passengers, drivers, and cleaning personnel to keep this service safe and accessible for all who need it. Undoubtedly, fear and uncertainty arising from the pandemic are causing many people to turn inwards, acting instinctually to protect themselves and their families, while treating others with distrust, indifference, or hostility. Yet I have also observed a rise in sentiments of solidarity and connectivity. Public health experts continue to tell us that we must work together to stay apart, that we must collaborate by mutually accepting new social and public health norms. While human mobility is one of the primary factors by which the virus became a global pandemic, our temporary immobility is the way to slow and eventually stop its spread.

While working from home over the next weeks, I will be looking at how people’s mobility has been altered, and how some are navigating this period of (enforced) immobility. If you live and/or work in Luxembourg and are willing to share your experiences, please send me a message to schedule a Skype interview.  

My next blog will look more closely at the public transport as public service, comparing it to two other sectors which are working frantically to adapt to the present rapidly changing circumstances: health and education. If you have thoughts to share on this topic – particularly if you work in any of these three sectors – please don’t hesitate to reach out. 

In the meantime, take care of yourselves and those around you, and please continue to maintain social ties while physically distancing!

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