Researchers under the leadership of Tallinn University start to investigate public transport as public space

Tallinn University will lead the project “Public Transport as Public Space in European Cities: Narrating, Experiencing, Contesting” (PUTSPACE). After a competitive selection process, the project was awarded this highly-prized funding from the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) network, worth approximately a million EUR.

public transport

Researchers from four countries are going to study public transport as public space by exchanging the usual transport-planning point of view for a humanities perspective. This will show public transport from novel perspectives.

The three-year project is led by Tauri Tuvikene, a Researcher at Tallinn University School of Humanities Centre for Landscape and Culture. For the first time in the history of the HERA network there is a consortium with an Estonian lead partner.

Public transport is not a place where one goes to walk. It is also not a place for arranging meetings. Rarely are there public protests on buses or on metro stations as there are on streets, squares or parks. It seems a closed and regulated space, characterised by many restrictions and regulations.

“Nevertheless, many encounters with strangers happen on buses and trams, and cities’ identity is reflected in the design of public transport. Previous research projects show that public transport is a place where in addition to everyday experience of the city’s multi-cultural nature various meetings and conflicts take place, some of them even aggressive in nature. Like every public space, one encounters societal diversity on public transport. Unlike others, however, public transport is a dense and compact public space, which alters its meaning and function as public space,” explains Tauri Tuvikene.

However, Tauri Tuvikene argues that there is still a lack of knowledge of what kind of public space public transport is and what kind of society is supported and generated by public transport. Also what kinds of meaning are given to cities and society by public transport and its design.

Tuvikene says that researchers still do not exactly know how public transport helps to generate meaning-making on a societal level. Moreover, a question that remains open asks whether public transport has the potential to challenge conflicts and social exclusion and be, instead, a space for integration. Previous research has focused on single case studies. How does the potentiality as public space of public transport move from being a matter for a single city or country but generate possibilities for European identity and integration? This is what the international team of researchers is going to find out.

Four research groups with three postdocs and two PhD researchers led by four principal investigators will study through archival and literary sources, interviews and observations the development and disintegration of tram networks in London and Turku, the influence of fare-free public transport on the meaning and quality of public space in Tallinn and Dunkirk. Also to be investigated are practices in the multicultural and migration-influenced city of Brussels and desires and practices of becoming European in the formerly Soviet Union.

“The successful leadership of the HERA project proves that researchers at Tallinn University are at the forefront of modern humanities, exploring issues that are closely related to our everyday lives and offering a human-centered perspective on smart city planning, which is often associated with technological innovation,” says Katrin Niglas, Vice-Rector for Research at Tallinn University.

The Vice-Rector for Research says that the grant is very important for university. According to her, it shows well that humanities are not only national science, but are based on strong international cooperation.

The project brings together historians and literature scholars, anthropologists, cultural geographers and social-science transport researchers from Estonia, Finland, Belgium and Germany.

The project lasts from 1 May 2019 to 30 April 2022. Apart from Tallinn University, the partnering institutions are Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Leipzig and the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Brussels. Complementing the research, a mobile exhibition will also be organised, in partnership with the Estonian Road Museum. Two new doctoral researchers are expected to join the project team from September.

HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area) is a partnership between 24 Humanities Research Councils across Europe and the European Commission.

Project website here.