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Hanna Holborn Gray Fellow: Caroline Robertson '24 Examines Public Transportation

January 4, 2024
Caroline Robertson standing at the top of Carpenter Library stairs

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.

Caroline Robertson '24
Growth and Structure of Cities and Psychology
"Public Transportation Culture: Case Studies on the New York City Subway, Washington D.C. Metro, and Los Angeles Metro"

Abstract: Subway systems are underground worlds that tend to be overlooked by those navigating the city above. This project explores a variety of subway systems to better understand these worlds and explore how public transportation culture varies across the United States. Public transportation culture includes the reputation of a system, quantifiable culture such as ridership statistics, and, finally, rider experiences. Firsthand experiences navigating the New York Subway, Washington D.C. Metro, and Los Angeles Metro are at the core of this project. The comparison of these three systems grasp how the age of a system can influence the structural and social rider experience. In addition to personal observations, interviews conducted with residents of each city revealed a variety of ridership experiences. Themes of safety arose in these interviews, illuminating the delicate balance between having effective safety policies and having a public transportation culture where riders respect these policies.

Was there anything surprising about the work you did?

I think I was pleasantly surprised by how the more I worked on this project, the more I wanted to learn about the topic. Conducting independent research over the summer did sound daunting going into it but I quickly learned to appreciate the process and the opportunity to go out into the real world and explore my interests. I was also surprised by the freedom with this project. Unlike long term assignments I have completed for classes, it felt very freeing to craft my own questions and themes to explore.

How will you use your research in future studies?

This summer research served as a launching point for my senior Growth and Structure of Cities thesis that I wrote in Fall 2023. The knowledge I gained this summer about the New York Subway, Washington D.C. Metro, and Los Angeles Metro served as case studies in my thesis. A core theme of my thesis is perceptions of safety, which I investigated through a survey of the Bi-Co community to better understand the role of safety in shaping public transportation cultures.

How did you choose your topic?

This topic was inspired by my experience studying abroad in Copenhagen. It was a culture shock to be able to ride the Metro at three in the morning alone as a woman and feel safe and assured I would make it home. The safety and trust associated with these systems made the Copenhagen Metro feel so foreign to American public transportation. I wanted to learn more about the role of American culture on public transportation to answer why public transportation in the U.S. is so different from Copenhagen. My intention with this topic is if we have a better understanding of the cultural influences on public transportation, we can better construct policies and plans to improve American public transportation experiences and perceptions.

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences.  The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.


Growth and Structure of Cities Psychology