• Tim

Public Art and Public Transportation

Public art shapes space in a way that points people toward one another. It can revitalize run-down areas and give a neighborhood a more profound sense of identity. It can unite communities and teach visitors about the city’s culture and history.

In many of the same ways public art connects communities, BART has unified the Bay Area and shaped its identity. As renowned social scientist, Eric Klinenberg, puts it, “The daily experience of spending time on crowded train cars helps passengers learn to deal with difference, density, diversity and other people’s needs. It fosters cooperation and trust. It exposes people to unexpected behavior and challenges stereotypes about group identity.” Unfortunately, the negative perception toward public transportation has overshadowed its social, economic and environmental benefits.

Socially speaking, BART is a shared space where people from all walks of life come into contact with one another. It is a space that lends itself to serendipitous encounters with old friends, neighbors and even people you might not otherwise interact with. It connects us with the broader public and exposes us to people outside of our insular worlds. Or as commuter Myra Moore puts it, “You never know who you’ll run into.”

From an economic standpoint, BART provides people with access to better employment and “provides companies access to a larger workforce,” said Rhonda Young, professor and chair of civil engineering at Gonzaga University. BART itself employs over 3,500 people full-time, according to Ed Pangilinan, assistant controller at BART for 19 years.

Environmentally, BART reduces the amount of cars on the road. According to BART, “Daily riders save nearly 140,000 gallons of gas and directly reduce CO2 emissions by 2.7 million pounds per weekday.” Less cars on the roads also means less traffic congestion in the already crowded freeway system.

But those who see the trains as purely convenient, practical or efficient do not see the whole picture. Beyond transportation, BART doubles as a social infrastructure that serves as the Bay Area’s backbone. Implementing art into a transit system that does so much to support the Bay Area will only enhance the social and economic benefits of public transport, highlighting the civic value art can have in a community.

Simply put, social infrastructures are civic institutions that provide shared spaces that shape our social lives. They include public transportation, libraries, parks, communal spaces like community centers or gardens, and even schools and hospitals. By investing in social infrastructure around the Bay Area, we can revitalize communities, give neighborhoods a more profound sense of identity, and facilitate more civic discourse. In doing so, we hope not only to unify through art and stories, but through action and social efforts that unite us.

Of course, as with public transportation, there is a lot of negative bias toward art. “For whatever reason, we have allowed the arts to be perceived as something extra,” said Melissa Huggins, executive director of Spokane Arts. It is often seen as a nonessential activity that has no bearing on our lives. Perhaps it’s because we think of a 17th century oil painting hanging in a museum, or maybe it’s that we just don’t think about the ways in which art can benefit us as humans. But we can change that by bringing the art into the people’s everyday lives.

The value of art is not in its utility, but rather in its ability to reveal underlying structures and forces that guide humanity. Art, in all its forms, provides a window into human nature and our own psyche. It reveals to us what lies beneath the surface and calls us to reevaluate our understanding of ourselves and the world. Art, when done well, pulls us toward virtue and empathy.

thebArtproject seeks to unlock art’s full potential by providing BART riders direct access to meaningful art and stories that capture not the identity of the Bay Area but its identities. Through art and storytelling, we will celebrate the diversity of our people and highlight aspects of our shared humanity.

Before completely integrating art into the trains and stations, thebArtproject will use social media and our website to showcase local artists and share slices of life of Bay Area residents. A subscription to our quarterly magazine will provide exclusive and more in-depth content, and proceeds will also go toward funding the development of social infrastructure around the Bay Area - the final aspect in our mission to connect communities.

Connecting communities with sound physical infrastructure is a vital venture, but not the final one. True connection finds roots in public spaces infused with its participants’ own humanity. Marrying public art and public transportation is the optimal way to invest in the forgotten people, spaces and stories of which we cannot afford to let go. thebartproject remembers, unifies and moves people in more ways than one.