Metro route to social bonding

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By Alice Johnson, Deputy UAE Editor, Gulf News  www.gulfnews.com

Besides connecting many parts of the city, the Dubai Metro has the potential to bring residents closer.

A public transport system serves the role of a catalyst in melting away class boundaries.Image Credit: Luis Vazquez, Designer, Gulf News
A public transport system serves the role of a catalyst in melting away class boundaries.Image Credit: Luis Vazquez, Designer, Gulf News

A row of suits sits silently, poring over the morning papers, a group of young people wearing jeans five sizes too big for them cram into the standing section and tired looking mothers clutch their young children’s small hands. They all have one purpose — to travel to their destinations.

It is a morning on the London Underground, where people of every nationality in the United Kingdom’s multicultural society, every age, skill set and social class converge every day to travel to their respective destinations.

The London Underground was the world’s first such transport, which started running in 1863. Many others followed and now there are more than 200 under/overground “metro” systems, also known as rapid transit systems.

English society of 1863 is incomparable with that of today — the upper middle class was king, many families still had maids and butlers and children were more than often looked after by a nanny.

In modern English society, maids and butlers are very much reserved for royalty or the upper class (now mostly celebrities, sometimes politicians and the super-rich who have made their own fortune — or “new money” as they are sometimes referred to) while nannies or some kind of childcare have become necessary since the feminist revolution of the 1960s, which saw the female population enter the workforce with gusto. With the introduction of the London Underground, class barriers became increasingly blurred. This was due to many social changes, including the evolution of public transport.

Today, all sections of society use the London Underground, as it is the most convenient way to get around London. People from the upper middle class take “the tube” around London to visit the opera or art galleries, while the underclass (such as the homeless) sit alongside.

Although changes — for example the rise in the cost of tickets — have prevented the underclass from using the tube to such an extent, the fact remains that the majority of people from all layers of society use this transport every day.

The UK is not a classless society; however, class boundaries almost melt when individuals take themselves around London on the tube.

So how can this type of transport affect modern society, particularly a society that is far more segregated, with more evident social strata, than the society that has developed in the UK?

For a city such as Dubai, social strata are evident because of the affluence of its expatriates and Emirati population and the huge working class workforce that labour on the rapidly developing city’s projects.

At present Dubai is a car-centric city. This is due to many factors, including affluence, the lack of taxation, cars being perceived as symbols of social status and the availability of finance even during the global financial crisis.

However, the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority has made great strides in encouraging people to leave cars at home, reduce road congestion and use the public transport options. With the world’s newest metro now up and running, the face of Dubai’s society is set to change.

For Dr Mohammad Aboelenein, chairman of the Department of Sociology at the UAE University in Al Ain, this form of transport, open to all, reduces segregation within a society. “In public transport, people gather in such a small space. They have to deal with each other. They have to accept each other,” he said.

Driving in a car alone, seeing people riding on a bus, makes such societal segregation evident, he added. “Here I am a distinguished person [in my car]. But when I mingle with others who share with me the same means of transport, I am not segregated from the other,” he said.

The Dubai Metro does have two classes of carriage (silver and gold) and a carriage only for females and children. The London tube does not have such features.

Despite such classes and categorised carriages, Aboelenein expects a new culture to be introduced in the city, “where people from all walks of life share one public transport”.

Within this new culture, social mobility occurs when an individual moves upwards or downwards between classes.
Such shifts can take place when, for example, a teenager from a working-class background, with parents with a low income and living in low-standard housing, gains qualifications that push him to a higher class.

This could happen for the teenager in many ways — a sponsor may pay for his education or he wins a scholarship. This higher education opens doors within the workforce for him and he eventually works in a higher paid job than his parents did. He has moved up by gaining higher education and so an increasing number of job opportunities are available to him.

The metro, or this kind of public transport, Aboelenein said, definitely encourages social mobility. “Geographical mobility is always related to social mobility. When people move from one location to another, their social lives change. This happens both in terms of their standard of living and their way of life.”.

Alongside social mobility, there is also the possibility for the boundaries between classes to become blurred through the use of public transport. However, this is more likely to be a longer process, which occurs in societies because of social, political and economic change.

Education, Aboelenein said, is likely to play a greater role in breaking down class barriers: “Public transport cannot be the only factor leading to the breakdown of class boundaries.” While public transport cannot be the only factor leading to the breakdown of class barriers, social strata do have the potential to equalise to some extent.

“It is expected that strata gradually equalises but let’s not forget that upper and middle classes are always keen to distinguish themselves by establishing new areas that they move to (what is called [the] suburbs), Aboelenein said.

In the UK, the suburbs are the playground of the middle and upper-middle classes. In what is known as the “commuter belt” (which can be found in numerous parts of the country) the middle and upper-middle classes often live in large houses with more than one car but commute to work via overground train and (if working in the capital) the London Underground.

So if the social strata in Dubai do equalise, it is likely that the upper and middle classes will use public transport but keep their class consciousness in mind when choosing a location in which to live — the “new areas” that Aboelenein refers to.

Not only is the Dubai Metro likely to change the face of UAE’s society, it could also change community members psychologically.

Sailaja Menon, with the Dubai Community Health Centre, said use of public transport fosters a sense of being part of a community. “You do not sense isolation when you are travelling as a group, at least physically. A sense of ‘feeling safe and protected’ might be high for some when they travel together … a ‘sense of acceptance’ can be another factor that might be appealing for some,” she said.

Taking the metro every day, or regularly using this type of public transport, can also bring immense benefits to one’s self-esteem and self-worth, Menon added. “It fosters a sense of independence — being able to move around easily and quickly without being dependent on anyone.”

Travelling in an enclosed space with other members of a community can sometimes lead to friendships and networking, she said. “This can aid in fostering meaningful relationships, improving one’s self worth and self-confidence.”

Inaugurated on 09/09/09, the Dubai Metro is one month old today. However, its potential to change communities, bringing together social strata, is already evident.

In a letter to the editor, Gulf News reader Ameen Hachemi wrote about this change. “While driving through Dubai, many people who commute to work every day often find themselves a lane and two panes of glass apart. With the introduction of the Dubai Metro, however, all that could change. As we start to use the metro — a mode of transport that places people from all classes, professions and ethnicity in one train — we start to realise the effects it could have.

“Before, the average worker’s interaction might have been limited to a two-word conversation with a petrol station attendant, or placing an order at a restaurant or at best a rushed discussion about the scene on the property market with a co-worker.

“However, today, with the advent of the metro, we may meet a health care worker from the Philippines, a businessman from the UK or a tourist from Australia — all in one place. The mixing of diverse people is infinite and it’s taking effect already,” Hachemi wrote.

Indeed, when the metro experienced delays in its first week of operation — during Ramadan — people found themselves in the same boat. The train was delayed and iftar was approaching.

What happened next is a classic example of how people in a segregated society found themselves in the same situation: united irrespective of class, nationality and final destination. Passengers wishing to end their fast shared their water and groceries, allowing everyone to end the fast together.

Aboelenein concurs that eventually, societal mindset will change with this kind of transport.

“This might not happen in the short run. Other factors need to exist for that, such as a good turn towards industrialisation and the big increase in population,” he said.

However, he added: “In the short run, Dubai will remain a car-centric place.”