The Silent Skill of Sharing

The following brief chapter recently appeared in a book called Railway Cultures, which forms part of my collaboration with the British National Railway Museum. It’s a chapter about trains and bikes. Unfortunately, the editor had no space for images of trains or bikes. Luckily, space is not an issue in an online publication like this.

Sharing is en vogue. The past few years have seen a lot of initiatives for shared transport, whether they grew from environmental concerns, economic necessity, or simply because sharing is a highly marketable concept. However, if sharing is what we talk about, that does not necessarily mean we are also good at it.

Although this is a third-class interior, it shows the sort of compartment Virginia Woolf would have been familiar with from her suburban journeys. Southern Railway 4-Sub electric motor coach S8143S (built 1925), National Railway Museum no. 1978-7069.

In her story ‘An Unwritten Novel’, Virginia Woolf encounters the figures that people her literature in the train compartments of the Brighton line, which she frequents between London and the south coast:

Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of […] Five faces opposite – five mature faces – and the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth – the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it!

As if she heard me, she looked up, shifted slightly in her seat and sighed. (18)

Had Woolf lived in 1990 instead of 1920, she would have owned a car and driven up and down between her two homes. As it was, she lived in the golden age of rail travel, and, more specifically, in an age during which people were used to sharing their means of transport.

When we take a peek into one of the carriages from that time, kept by the National Railway Museum, we immediately sense what it meant for six strangers to share this confined space for a few hours. The space only seems the narrower because of the textile flowers that push themselves forward from the benches. Every sigh could be heard, every neighbour’s pulpy page read from the corner of one’s eye. Woolf’s journeys therefore offered the author a natural space from which to observe and imagine the tangled lives of the anonymous figures whom she loved so much, and on whom such a great part of her work centres.

The same carriage, standing in the museum.

Trains might be called the pinnacle of public transport. In no other vehicle do we habitually share a single space with so many other people, while also sharing an infrastructure – the railway – with many, many more.

Such sharing carries a high moral status in our world. Whether we look to the Bible for guidance or to Sesame Street, we are admonished to be hospitable, generous and accommodating.

Sharing spaces, services and goods also has practical benefits: it is cheap, it is social, and, if the shared service is centrally or collectively managed, it takes away some of the hassle and responsibility faced by individual owners. When it comes to transport, trains, together with trams and buses, form the most energy-efficient technologies for the middle and longer distances, while also saving their passengers time and work. For the shorter distance, the same can be said of bicycles.

Although the benefits of sharing have long been known, low incomes, housing shortages, climate change and a range of technical innovations have made sharing a serious option for a growing number of people over the past decade. Some of them have been motivated by the desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For many more, hit by the Recession, sharing is a bitter economic necessity. As they move in with their parents or take their children back in, opt for the tram or hire a bike, they share in order to save money.

But the marketing departments have also done their work. They have turned sharing from an embarrassment to some, into the new cool. Now, all who can afford any choice want to be a part of the sharing economy. Some of this successful marketing has been done by those commercial services that have been in the news so much in recent years (Über, Airbnb…). These companies make a profit by skimming the turn-over of the old-school independent entrepreneurs who provide the goods.

The new cool may benefit yet another type of provider: those companies that provide shared services themselves, for instance the rental services that replace the things we traditionally owned – the bulbs in our lamps, or the bike in our shed.

Passenger transport is one of those sectors currently seeing a surge in experiments in sharing. The most successful often build on the experiences of decades of smaller and sometimes failed initiatives. Looking at one of these recent developments, the development of shared bike systems, we can draw inspiration from two centuries of railway history.

Vandalised Ofo bike in Sheffield (photo: APHG, 2018).

The first system of free bike sharing seems to have been proposed in Amsterdam in the 1960s. At that point in time, the scheme failed, at least in the city. In De Hoge Veluwe National Park, the free white bikes were a success. Today, no one could imagine the park without them.

The problems faced by the white bikes in Amsterdam are some of the classic problems of collaborative consumption more broadly: the problem of the vandal (who makes the service unfit for further use) and the problem of the freerider (who takes of the service without paying for it). Both ignore the terms of use agreed by the other sharers. The fact that the national park is completely fenced off undoubtedly contributes to the success of bicycle sharing there, but since a fence does not eradicate the problems of joyriding and abandonment, a certain ethic or etiquette also seems to play a role, more about which below.

(photo: APHG, 2018)

More recently, bike-sharing has taken off in cities as well, and even across entire countries where bikes are allowed to cross local boundaries. These schemes have rarely been free, however, and they have always had fixed docking points.

The technology needed to manage subscriptions and payments across a large number of renting stations – often unstaffed to make the system more effective and efficient than traditional bike-rentals where bikes need to be returned to the original outlet – this technology has only been developed over the past two decades. What this technology does, in effect, is offer our somewhat feeble human sharing ethic a helping hand. After registering our identity, and paying for our bike by the day or the hour, we are less motivated to steal it, abandon it or use it ‘indefinitely’.

The newest innovation has been the provision of bikes without stations. After use, these bikes may be parked anywhere. Essential to this has been the development of mobile payment and identification technologies, as well as location tracking. This allows users to find a bike in the first place, but it also helps the company to make sure that their bikes stay within their designated area.

This new way of renting bicycles has been both welcomed and criticised. On the positive side, we do now find bikes in locations that the owners had not anticipated as potential customer bases, which seems to encourage a demographically more diverse take-up of such schemes. Yet the bicycles are also parked in obstructive and dangerous locations, and they take up parking spaces of privately owned bikes. A professor at the University of Amsterdam has called them ‘scatter bikes’ or ‘litter bikes,’ and various cities have already restricted their rollout.

‘Litter bikes’ in Sheffield (photo: JHMS, 2018).

The yellow bikes which have recently started to populate Sheffield are also frequently vandalised, with people taking lock, lights or basket, or simply destroying the bikes’ chain, mud guards or breaks, leaving behind a sorry sight. Such vandalism is made all the easier because of the bikes’ scattered and less visible locations. Although they are checked and redistributed on a regular basis, it does not take any effort to find a few vandalised specimens for a photo, even without using the app.

A few weeks after their introduction, the trail of abandoned bikes had started to resemble that other track of industrial wasteland that runs through Sheffield, the derelict railways.

So sharing does not just happen. You have to do it. Or rather: we have to do it. Sharing is a skill, and a social skill at that. The question is, therefore: can we, the citizens of Sheffield, York, or any other town or region, deal with this innovation in transport sharing?

I believe that there is every chance that these initial abuses will lose their novelty and decrease to a manageable level, and that with the right levels of support in both popular culture and infrastructure policy more people will get into the habit of using shared bikes responsibly. Earlier examples of successful sharing may inspire us in this process.

Before the age of sharing: George Keate, ‘Manner of passing Mont Cenis’ (drawing, 1755), British Museum no. 1878,0209.304.

When, two hundred years ago, railway pioneers first attached a steam engine to a carriage, they too were asking their passengers to experiment with sharing.

To be sure, shared transport was not altogether new. Public coaching services existed across Europe, as did barges drawn by horses over tow-paths, and packet-boats that sailed at regular intervals.

Nonetheless, travellers of the early nineteenth century arranged the bulk of their transport themselves and did not share it with strangers. The rich would take out their own carriage or rent one locally; or they would pay carriers to carry them in a sedan, or hire riding animals. The same applied to the poor: they would enlist an acquainted skipper to help them cross a river; during wartime, soldiers would commandeer farmers’ wagons; and the overwhelming majority of journeys were made, of course, on foot. Public transport, in contrast, made up only a small proportion of the passages made by travellers in the early nineteenth century.

As we enter the second half of the nineteenth century, we find a quite different situation. Travellers across Europe had come to prefer trains, stagecoaches, steamboats, omnibuses and tramways. Trains, specifically, had quickly become the default travel option for longer distances over land.

One example demonstrates how such choices were made. In 1861, a well-to-do Dutch preacher, Marie Adrien Perk (1834-1916), made a journey across the south of Europe. We can discover a lot about the way he travelled in the account he published soon afterwards. Although both private road carriages and shared trains were available to him, the railways were his first choice. Only when on one particular stretch of the journey he learnt that his train would not depart for another two hours, he secured a private carriage instead.

Travel accounts from the 1850s all the way up to the early years of the twentieth century show this predilection for shared transport. And then, as now, sharing was encouraged by the transport companies that might benefit from it. From its very beginnings, the railway sector promoted collective leisure activities. Railway lines organised cheap group excursions, published hiking guides, and facilitated everything from temperance meetings to great exhibitions.

After this period of busy sharing, individual transport gained the upper hand in Europe once more. From World War Two onwards, private bicycles and automobiles in particular came to form the dominant means of mobility. Yet the lesson I think that this story has to offer is that it is possible for a culture to adopt a new ethos in travel and other ‘consumer preferences’ – and adopt it quite swiftly, too.

So how did this shift in attitudes occur? Various incentives may have contributed to it.

Perhaps the most obvious reason people have to choose public transport is that it is cheaper. When sharing a vehicle, passengers benefit from advantages of scale. Naturally, this had been the case for earlier public transport as well, but since labour has been growing more expensive from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, the effect became more pronounced.

What was new, of course, was the railway and the steam locomotive. Trains and trams introduced faster and more comfortable ways of travelling, and since it is difficult to operate individualised transport over rails, a preference for rail transport would inevitably also mean a preference for public transport.

Yet an even broader development was on its way. A first clue is that the development just sketched did not coincide with a shift from road transport to rail transport. In both, the same tendency towards sharing was manifest. Although the railways may have spurred such developments along, road carriages and trains continued to co-exist, and in road carriages too, the shift from private to shared usage can be observed.

A second clue is that even wealthy travellers – for whom the wish to save money and time were less pressing motivations, possibly even diminishing their status – participated in the shift.

Finally, other cultural norms also changed, norms that were only tangentially related to the choice between rail and road. Travellers began to take considerably less luggage on their journeys, being less attached to the food, linen, furniture and other comforts from home, and more interested in partaking in their host cultures. Travellers started to cultivate a pragmatic and flexible attitude. To travel light was the new ambition, also promoted in the media and education: the scouting movement evolved in the same period (prompted too, it must be admitted, by increased militarism). To share things and spaces therefore became desirable in itself.

Rather than a golden age for just the railways, we can speak of a golden age of sharing.

It is important to acknowledge that this does not mean that the people of that era always found it pleasant or easy to share. As anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson is said to have remarked: ‘sharing is sometimes more demanding than giving’.

Consider the following episode that took place in Austria in the winter of 1910-1911. Frans van der Hoorn (1886-1946) came from a family of greengrocers, had finished his primary education and, after starting work as an Esperanto teacher, decided to make a round-the-world trip with three equally idealistic friends. On a daytrip that winter, he experienced a rather familiar drawback of sharing:

The train had been so full with people returning from a match, that many, amongst whom he himself, had not even been able to secure an inside seat, but had had to satisfy themselves with a [standing place on the balcony], where they were not sheltered from the weather. Exposed to the strong, cold air current [and] unable to stir a limb because of the crowdedness, this is how he’d had to pass the entire journey back. (The episode is retold by his travel companion Abraham Mossel, 160.)

Now as then, to share things or spaces can result in a host of discomforts: a lack of privacy; irritation by what is conceived of as noise and dirt, caused by other travellers; and other conflicts that stem from a disagreement about how a space ought to be used. The joyrider and the freerider have already been mentioned. Another threat, the one posed by aggressive co-users of the same space, is among the more serious problems of sharing. And as Van der Hoorn already experienced, a shared service such as a train seat is not always at one’s disposal where and when one likes.

Note that Van der Hoorn’s story differs markedly from Woolf’s: even though we are all sharing, the availability and comfort of the shared services we use depends literally on our class. So too does our safety. Rooftop travel on crowded carriages may not be as common in Britain now as it was during the nineteenth century, but it has by no means disappeared globally. Some people have always had a greater say than others in the conditions under which they share, and the selection of the people whom they are sharing with.

Nevertheless, during that earlier peak in collaborative consumption, everyone knew what it was like to wait for a train, regardless of their wealth. All sharers had to contend with a wide range of drawbacks, and although occasionally they complained, the point is: they managed. They planned their activities to coincide with shared schedules, they stuck to previous agreements, they coped with their lack of privacy or comfort. Whether sharing was pleasant or not, it was normal.

That normality has disappeared in the age of the automobile. Is it now coming back? Are we in the midst of another fluctuation in our culture of sharing – one that has already swung from reluctance to the embrace of sharing once before?

In past decades, it has been car ownership that has consistently been portrayed as the ultimate symbol of and means to independence. But our perspective may now be turning, freedom increasingly lying in not owning an expensive vehicle, which, after all, needs to be selected, insured, maintained, parked… In situations where we can establish the right levels of mutual trust and tolerance and do not become too attached to the things we are sharing, sharing may even become enjoyable.

Of course, there is more than one way of sharing. In Woolf’s story, sharing is accomplished by most passengers through reticence and concealment. But for Woolf herself (and, perhaps, for her readers) it is also achieved through the pleasures of the imagination.

After the necessary financial and design conditions have been met to make collaborative transport a realistic alternative for more people, a new culture of sharing may reach a critical mass. Sharing may become routine and even desirable once more.

Even if we do not yet know exactly what that potential new sharing culture for Britain or Europe entails, or what its rules will be, what we do know is that we have acquired the skills to share at least once before. This offers the hope that we can do so again.

 

Quotations from

  • Mossel, Abraham. De wereldwandelaars. Een zwerftocht door Europa. Maatschappij voor Goede en Goedkoope Lectuur, 1917 (translation by APHG).
  • Perk, Marie Adrien. Uit Opper-Italie [sic]. Schetsen, ontmoetingen, indrukken. Roelants, 1864.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “An Unwritten Novel.” The Mark on the Wall, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 18-29.

Chapter slightly modified from Railway cultures (Longbarrow Press, 2018).

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