The other day, on my way to interview New York’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, the subway was messed up. The train I had planned to take wasn’t showing up for some unexplained reason. After waiting and fidgeting for about 15 minutes, I dashed to catch a different line, throwing myself through the door of the 2 train just before the recorded voice intoned, “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”

People at a bus stopTaking a chance on interacting with a stranger.I was anxious that I was going to be late for the interview, which I had spent weeks anticipating, and pissed at the goddamn MTA. I wasn’t the only one, either. A man across the aisle from me shook his head as I sat down and said, “The trains never run right these days.”

That started a conversation that lasted until I got off three stops later and involved two other riders as well. We debated the funding woes of the MTA, the venality of the New York State Legislature, the prospect of yet another fare increase, and the perils of public assistance for minority communities (he was African American and believed that welfare should be completely abolished). It was a pretty interesting discussion. I made the interview just in time, and had a good story to tell the commissioner.

People talk a lot about how irritating it is to encounter other humans on public transit. God knows I’ve been there. But I don’t think people talk nearly enough about how often those encounters are funny, or educational, or moving, or even romantic.

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That’s why I was so pleased to see an experiment in encouraging in-transit conversations in Brisbane, Australia. It’s called “I Just Wanted to Say.” It uses posters at places like bus stops to give people the little push they might need to start talking:

[A]t the bus stop most people don’t talk because we are afraid to talk to others. Afraid to say the thing they really wanted to say for fear of the reactions or judgments we might get.  But more often than not this fear is unfounded and that most people will have a polite chat if someone starts a conversation.

In life, not saying what you wanted to say is a missed opportunity to connect with someone else.  It creates a world of regrets and a world of “I just wanted to say…” in a negative, resigned tone.

I just wanted to say hello  (….but I didn’t)

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I just wanted to say nice shirt  (….but I didn’t)

I just wanted to say I love you  (….but I didn’t)

If we all just said what we wanted, we open up the possibility of a friendly city where we can connect and share with ourselves, skills, ideas and with other person.

At a bus stop even if it’s not a deep conversation, a mere hello to a stranger, it is still an interaction that influences that person, the next person they meet, and the next person.  Ever noticed how a friendly bus driver can change the demeanor of a whole bus?  Friendliness is contagious.

The project, which will run through March, also includes an online component: People can map conversations they’ve had on transit as a result of the program.

It’s a sweet and hopeful idea. I’ll be checking back in to see how it goes.

Hat tip to @PPS_Placemaking.

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