Santiago Metro: the daily crush

I was one of the 2, 204,462 passengersnearly 37% of the city’s entire populationwho used the Santiago Metro (subway) system on Monday,
April 20, 2009. And although the Metro’s official figures say that spatial density is 5.67 people per square meter, I, for one, can tell you with all the confidence in the world, that in the Escuela Militar Station at 7:30 pm, that was definitely NOT the case. It felt like all 2 million plus were right there, right then.

Santiago Metro at rush hour, Escuela Militar Station, April 2009

Santiago Metro at rush hour, Escuela Militar Station, April 2009

In fact, I generally try very hard not to take public transportation at rush hour. I even changed my office hours to avoid peak travel times and, whenever possible, I prefer to work at home.


I want my “metro cuadrado”
In Chile, when people speak of a need for personal space, they refer to their metro cuadrado (square meter), but the simple fact is, that in Santiago, there seems to be a lot of spatial exaggeration going on… WHO, in reality, has a square meter all to themselves? Not many.

Santiago Metro- Manuel Montt Station-suck it in

Santiago Metro Suck it in!! (Manuel Montt Station)

According to the official Metro Santiago web site,  Line 1, which runs through the center of town and most of the length of Alameda (including all of its corresponding name changes) has a daily density of 5.67 people per square meter. Think about it as a space that’s 1 meter by 1 meter, or just about 10 feet square (3.3′ x 3.3′). I’m no math whiz, but while that seems a bit close, it still means that each person (please correct meanyone!) has a circle of about 1¾ feet in diameter around them… but that daily density must take in the average of all-day-everyday-including-Sundays-at-7 am when there’s only 1 person per car, cuz take a look at the freakin’ picture and tell me how many people are in any of THOSE square meters!

One of my favorite courses in grad school was on the anthropology of space, taught by a wonderful professor (Dr. Deborah Pellow) who had been a student of Edward T. Hall (the Hidden Dimension, the Dance of Time). At the time I enrolled, I thought it would be an interesting elective course, how little did I know how much it would come to shape my way of thinking.

Let’s face it. We (humans, that is) are territorial beings. Some more space than others, of course, but we all have a certain amount of distancethat free-space barrier that we need between us and the people around usin order to feel comfortable and safe. Cultural differences in the amount of space needed vary tremendously, as just about any westerner has noticed upon coming to Latin America.

Edward T. Hall on Proxemics

In a nutshell, Hall talked about proxemics as a way of defining our perceptions and sense of “ownership” of the space around us… who can do what and under what circumstances and within what distance.

Hall defines 4 spatial spheres and the amount of space that most North Americans need. (I would love to see the same study adapted to Latin America, specifically Chile, where those distances would certainly be smaller…Anyone have those figures?)

Edward T. Hall's Personal reaction bubbles(from Wikipedia)

Edward T. Hall's Personal reaction bubbles(from Wikipedia)

  • Intimate space-refers to our personal “bubble” of space, the space that we consider our own personal private space into which we only allow those closest to us to enter. For most people from the US and Europe, we’re happy with about an 1820″ (4650 cm) circle of “My Space” into which only those nearest and dearest to our hearts (and health, as in doctors) are allowed.
  • Personal Distance: This is the spaceabout ½4 ft (.51.2 m)that we allow our friends, co-workers, classmates, and general acquaintances to share. The usual US-style handshake (without the typical Chilean male back thumping and accompanying bear hug) takes place at about 24 feet (.61.2) of distance… so maybe we have longer arms than Chileans, but the idea is to keep the other at bay.
  • Social spaces: refers to the amount of space we consider normal and comfortable for more formal social and business interactions. This may be about 412 feet (1.23.7m).
  • Public space: the space over which we feel we have no claim. This refers to spaces that belong to no one in particular or everyone in general. We (being gringos) feel best with about 12 feet (3.7 m) between us and the next guy.

These are some important concepts for cultural understandingon or off the subwayand I’m sure I’ll come back to them time and again.

For anyone who’s interested, check out the topic of “proxemics” in general and the work of Edward T. Hall in particular, especially The Hidden Dimension. It very much brought home certain cultural differences with regard to the amount of personal space one needs to feel comfortable. And I, as a gringa born and raised in the country, need a heck of a lot more space than most Santiaguinos at rush hour.



Metro Update:

October 15, 2009: See also “Bye Bye Blackberry (Ode to the Santiago Metro)”



20 responses to “Santiago Metro: the daily crush

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  2. Ufff… you should either take Línea 4 or Línea 5 (the one that goes to my Uni campus, San Joaquín) on peak hours. Even with express trains, I sometimes have to be stuck on the window.

    I don’t know if it’s the fact that I lived in the US for some time, that I also like my “metro cuadrado” for most situations (even though, I NEVER got used to not hugging or kissing friends while greeting).

  3. Yes, Line 4, one of the newest, goes from the Tobalaba Station on Line 1 to Puente Alto. In fact, I was surprised that after getting crushed on the train at Escuela Militar (the first stop on Line 1), more than half the people got off at Tobalaba… I cannot even imagine what THAT line must be like at rush hour! It also has the highest Metro density (6.05 people per m2)… Definitely not for me!
    Ah! all the kissing hellos and goodbyes take a bit of getting used to for many foreigners, but I don’t mind… my problem is remembering NOT to do it when I’m anywhere else in the world!

  4. In an upcoming article about metros of South America, I give Chile high points on modernity, but Transantiago has made the personal space thing abhorrent.

    Great pics, btw, did no one see you take them? I’ve been chastised on numerous occasions.

    Also, this is alot of why I ride my bike most everywhere possible. Having taxi drivers honk at me and bus drivers practically run me over is a walk in the park next to that metro ride. Good things Chileans tend to be a very clean bunch for those who do squeeze into that space.

  5. I agree that the Santiago metro is—or at least WAS—a great alternative. I live and work very close to the metro line and it was always very convenient until TransSantiago gummed up the works and made it pretty “insoportable.”
    And yes, I did take those pictures. I always carry a little 7-MP camera in my purse to be able to get these unplanned grab shots. I took several shots from a number of different angles and no one so much as batted an eye—bigger fish to fry I suspect!
    I’ve never had a bike here in Santiago—aside from not having anywhere to keep it, I just plain do not have enough confidence in Santiago drivers to want to put myself in competition with them for road space! Now that many parts of the city have bike paths, I’m sure it’s a much more viable option.
    Cleanliness… Now THERE’S a topic for you! Chileans have a real thing about that… have you noticed? People tend to shower often and be VERY sensitive to smells… even the babies wear purfume here (I am not kidding!)

  6. ouch…

    Great pics, thanks for sharing.

    I have never traveled at 7.30 am but this looks / well – very crowded..

    That said I have used the Santiago Metro a lot usually off peak hours but also between 5 and 7 pm and compared to the London underground it is far superior and extremely cheap

  7. Yeah… I don’t know if it’s the fear of “el qué dirán”, but we’re very self-concious about smells. In the US, I really had a problem with some people who didn’t smell really nice (different cultures, I guess), and seriously I had to put my nose near my body to smell my perfume.

  8. Andre- yep–VERY crowded! (7:30 pm) … the rush starts about 6:30 and goes til around 8:00 or so… There’s a school near my house that lets out around that time and the kids just FLOOD the station with all their pre-adolescent energy… a bit much after a long day at work!
    The Santiago Metro IS cheap–it’s still less than a dollar during peak hours.

  9. Cristóbal-
    Issues of smell and cleanliness merit a whole separate post!! Major cultural issues there!

  10. I was just telling a friend last week that people have no concept of intimate space at the gym here. I’ve had people enter my crowded kickboxing class and practically stand on top of me to participate.

    It teaches me zen in a twisted sort of way.

  11. Ahhh- maybe that’s what I’m missing- a zen approach to rush hour on the metro!

  12. Wow! That top photo says 1,000 words. I had no idea the metro in Santiago was so overcrowded. Given that the country is on a big faultline, that could spell trouble during an earthquake. What’s happened in the past when tremors hit and people were underground?

  13. UUU! Scary thought!! But so far, so good. I’ve been in the subway during temblores that were pretty strong at ground level and never felt a thing down below. I’ve also never heard anyone express any kind of particular concern about it, so I’m assuming (hopefully not naively!) that there’s sufficient seismic technology built into the system. It’s a really big issue in construction here.

  14. Living in Valparaiso, I don’t have such a problem with public transportation, but what’s with Chileans practically shoving their shopping carts into your back in line at the stores and being body checked every time I walk down the street without anyone saying a word. Deep breathing is the only thing keeping me sane sometimes.

  15. Ohhhh! You’ve hit on a good one there! More cultural differences in uses of space! Or how about leaving the shopping cart in the middle of the aisle blocking everyone else? Deep breathing is good…. OMMMMMM…

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