Through The Turnstiles Darkly

For many young Montrealers, or for anyone who moved here during the past half-decade or so, the metro has been a primary means of transportation for as long as we can remember. A lot of metro users probably take it for granted, and some of us even think of it as a space in which we enjoy being. However, for some others, it is a space that can become a source of distress, which can make it much more difficult for them to navigate than it is intended to be. This essay will use a phenomenological approach to talk about how body language, orientation, proprioception, proxemics, and psychogeography interact to produce the metro’s spatial practices. I will examine which objects on the metro are presented to us as more reachable than others, and which social behaviors on the metro are encouraged and discouraged by its structural configuration. Questions of access and exclusion concerning the metro are significant because the metro is the only recourse that people who cannot afford other modes of transportation can resort to. What are the design and culture of the metro trying to tell us about which kind of society is desirable and achievable? Is there a way to improve the quality of life of everyone who needs to use the metro, regardless of their circumstances?

I first started using the Montreal metro in 2004 and 2005. I had no problem using it during that period of time. However, when I moved to Montreal and started using it every day to go to work from 2006 to 2008, my trips on the metro would often be accompanied by agoraphobic and claustrophobic responses. “The insolence, the promiscuity of the crowd, jostling” (Wilson, 1) would give me “prickly feelings on the skin surface, and the more intense experience of discomfort.” (Ahmed, 57) My “intimate experience of boundaries” was that I could not get “responsibility in their construction,” (Haraway) and it was “one of the most disquieting aspects of the modern city.” (Wilson, 3) After having left Montreal in 2009 to come back to it in 2011, I can now use the metro several times a week in a calm, relaxed manner to this day. I am not certain of what changed, of how I became used to these “routinized rituals of transportation,” (Wilson, 7) but it is part of what I am attempting to figure out by writing this essay. In any case, I certainly do not miss it, and I remember the factors about it which I used to find distressing when I did, like a ‘ghost phobia’ that lingers on like a ghost limb where a limb used to be. The thought that I must have been the only person who had problems using the metro felt especially isolating at the time. When I looked around back then, everyone else seemed to have been having an easy time using it: the functional metro/other people dyad seemed to be the constant, and I the variable. Was everyone else really having such an easy time using it, or did it just seem that way? If I still believed that I was the only person who had this problem, I would not be working on this paper today – it would not seem constructive for me to write.

The very social dynamics of the metro encourage people to hold inside any discomfort they may feel about the outside world, lest they appear as weak and be singled out from the herd. Would it really be so farfetched for other metro users to now be working as hard to conceal their current distress from others as I used to work to hide my own? Convincing evidence with which I have been presented since then has persuaded me that it would not. There are limits to thinking about such issues as individual problems, as personal problems that belong in the private sphere, limits beyond which we can only move when we put them in context by conceptualizing them as collective issues, as systemic, social problems that belong in the public sphere. Enough members of the population use the metro frequently enough that issues using it are not only my problem or your problem, they are everyone’s problem. To treat such an issue as only the problem of the person who it is happening to at the time, to atomize it this way, is to approach it through the medical model rather than through the social model of disability. (Titchkosky, 39, 57) In other words, it is disingenuous to imply that only the person with the problem needs to fix themselves in order to be able to use the system the way it already is. It is more helpful to remember that there are also many ways in which it is the structure of the metro itself that can be reconfigured to adapt it to the needs of its users the way they already are, to make it into a more accessible and inclusive space for them. The metro may seem as though it cannot be any other way than how it is now because it is how we are used to it, but “no ‘natural’ architectures constrain system design,” (Haraway) only the “utilitarian plans of experts.” (Wilson, 11)

So what could have someone found “naturally depressing” (Debord, 66) about wandering the metro’s “subterranean catacombs,” (67) for which reasons could this geographical setting have had that particular effect on someone’s mood? (68) First of all, the metro’s architecture can definitely be said to “strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.” (Debord, 65) It is designed to encourage herd-like movement from point A to point B, like a conveyor belt in an industrial factory, in an airport or in a meat plant. It strives to direct the greatest possible number of users into the smallest possible amount of space in the name of ‘efficiency.’ In this space, time and space become hotly contested commodities, as one rushes not to miss the next wagon while struggling to avoid the other users, a race with limited resources in true capitalist spirit. There are only so many turnstiles, so first you must figure out who goes in first where without getting in anyone’s way, and past the gatekeeper, if you are lucky and one is present at all, otherwise you will have to get a ticket from the machine, so you had better have brought your card, not only cash, or no metro for you.

The symbolism of the turnstiles is already interesting, as though we are products being processed by a machine ourselves.

Then, you hurry down the escalator, left to go fast, right to go slow, just like on the highway, unless there are people in front of you who have not used the metro enough to have internalized this spatial practice yet. The escalators upward at Cote-Vertu are deliberately separated from those on the way down, so that if you follow someone up them to see them off, you cannot return downstairs on your own without paying again, not unless you are willing and able to run back down the upward escalator the ‘wrong’ way down (as I have). Then there is the waiting ledge, a long, narrow space in which we attempt to navigate around each other without getting shoved onto the rails and without shoving anyone onto them ourselves. I had to call the police to physically prevent a stranger from jumping on the rails themselves about ten years ago, that may be part of why I think of things like this… When ‘an incident slows service on line X,’ we all know what it means, but no one says anything. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

Lionel-Groulx station is notable because the run straight across from one wagon to another on the opposite side, with the benches that transform from spaces of rest into obstacles to avoid when you are on the run, has a particular ‘every person for themselves’, ‘you’re on your own’ vibe to it. At metro stations other people become obstacles for you, and you become an obstacle for other people. You become “one more among external objects” (Merleau-Ponty, 53) without “impingements of subjectivity.” (Grosz, 48) People will attempt to walk through you as if they could not “remember that some spaces are already occupied.” (Ahmed, 62) I remember having disliked the difficulty of finding a place to which you could have your back so that no one could get behind you without your knowledge, or those times when a second wagon would introduce twice the crowd into the station before the wagon I was to get on would show up. The varying levels and diagonal paths between them make the station seem as though it is right out of a first-person shooter. The doors of the wagons are another threshold – the STM signs near them theoretically remind us to let people out of the wagons before swarming in ourselves, for all the good it does in practice. Once in the wagons, I would always make a beeline for the corner seats, if there were any free – a corner seat could mean the whole difference between having a comfortable buffer from the crowd and having a distressing trip. Today, when I offer to give up my seat to another, I do so with a private awareness of what it means to me that I would now be able to do so. On a good day, when my load in life is uncharacteristically light, the ramps and poles almost seem as though they belong on a playground. From under feminized Earth, I briefly see them as though I were a child, engaging in “playful-constructive behavior.” (Debord, 65)

There is a flipside to the unconscious symbolism of traveling underground, though. It is underground that we bury the dead and, if the city is already a “new version of Hell,” (Wilson, 6) by being underground the metro is even closer to a kind of ‘underworld.’ I first became aware of the metaphor of the subway as underworld in 2009 in The Urban Primitive (Kaldera & Schwartztein), a technopagan manifesto for the re-sacralization and positive re-mythologization of urban space as opposed to an anti-urbanist “demonology of technology,” (Haraway) encouraging the reader to “find nature in the city.” (Wilson, 8) Thus we go down to travel through the underworld but, like Dante and Orpheus, we do so while still alive, and we make it back to the overworld, sometimes slightly different than when we went in. There can be an introspective component to going underground (where even phone signal cannot reach us), one that encourages us to dig deep within ourselves, sometimes to confront repressed material, to learn to confront and tame our inner demons without bracketing them, and to look for catharsis. The metro ‘buries the body’ metaphorically, insofar as it puts us in situations in which we must pretend to ourselves that our bodies do not exist, emphasizing “consciousness over corporeality,” (Grosz, 49) but if the body is buried, how can it “inform the mind of its needs and wishes?” (48) Yet considering the pace of action on metro stations, and the importance of being able to read the movement of the crowd to navigate it, the body takes on an important role to convey and perceive messages from other bodies as fast as possible through body language, becoming “a signifying medium, a vehicle of expression,” (Grosz, 51) our ‘means of communication with the world.’ (Merleau-Ponty, 54)

We will remember that, in the Middle Ages, it was considered important that the king be physically situated above all of his subjects, because anything otherwise would have been seen as a challenge to the superiority of the king over his subjects. Today, the upper class flies around in private jets, the middle class drives around in cars, and the lower class rides around on the metro, as though they still had to be both literally and metaphorically ‘below’ the classes that are supposed to be ‘better’ than they are. For a long time I would be disoriented if I had nothing to hold onto when the wagon would start. Today, when it happens, I try to play into it and ‘ride’ the metro as though it were a very large surfboard or snowboard built for my amusement. I try to think of navigating the crowd as just another kind of puzzle game where the pieces are always moving. Street musicians and performance artists are taken for granted on metro stations, in ways that can ‘normalize the carnivalesque.’ (Wilson, 7) But Lionel-Groulx station is notable in another way that reminds us that it is not always safe to be childlike on the metro, and that it supports hierarchy not only along the axes of gender, race, and class, but of age. It is one of the locations on which a mosquito device was installed, targeting the hearing of anyone under 25 to make space physically painful and uninhabitable for them, discouraging them from loitering or leaving graffiti by controlling space through the weaponization of sound, regardless of the form of discrimination and assault that it represents against young people. (Herland)

Finally, the metro is a space that was “organized and written to perpetuate disablist practices,” (Kitchin, 346) and the metro lines “just weren’t built with people with disabilities in mind.” (Titchkosky, 42) Haraway theorizes that “Perhaps paraplegics and other severely handicapped people can (and sometimes do) have the most intense experiences of complex hybridization.” Technologies such as wheelchairs “allow the body itself to be extended,” yet technology in the form of the metro is more of a “tool that does not extend its capacity for action,” making it a space “made for some kinds of bodies more than others.”  (Ahmed, 51) It is difficult to take claims by the STM seriously that they take the accessibility of their services for the disabled into consideration when their gates literally close on the broken legs of disabled people trying to use their services, only to have it dismissed as ‘unfortunate’ even as their plans for improved access drag so far behind schedule. (CBC News, Wheelchair user demands…) The STM blames lack of funds, reportedly making do with $80 million rather than the $240 million it was said to need to complete its 10 year plan from 2008 to 2018 to make 3 stations accessible a year, and claims its original plan was ‘overly ambitious.’ (CBC News, Montreal’s public transport…) The gap from ledges to wagons may require the help of an attendant, and there are only 8 stations that can be accessed by elevators, less than 10% of the sum total of stations, with no attendant at Cote-Vertu station. (STM Website) I have seen disabled people occupying the spaces reserved for them in certain wagons, but I have not seen the journey that took them there, or on their way out. The human rights complaint is evidence enough of its unacceptability.

Since protests against lack of accessibility for disabled people go all the way back to 1988, the STM can be said to have had all the necessary information to know that something was wrong then and there. If the STM had started its “3 stations a year” plan all the way back then, and continued it reliably onward as it was supposed to, it would have finished making all of its stations accessible approximately 4 years ago – not 70 years from now. The problems of the agoraphobic/claustrophobic and of the physically disabled on the metro are notably different, and they cannot be addressed via the same methods, but there is a larger sense in which their cause is one and the same. That is, the right to have access to transportation that makes it possible to exist as a meaningful part of the public, social world, regardless of the circumstances that have led you to be the person you are. The personal is undeniably political in each case. Moreover, the culture of ignoring the problems of others, the culture of ‘it is not my problem’, the unconscious Social Darwinism that the structural configuration of the metro implants into the habitus of its users, is in each case a logical leading point toward the bracketing of its inaccessibility. I cannot infer that anyone else’s problems using the metro will go away with time as mine did, and the damage that they cause while they do exist is no less important now even if it is to be addressed in the future. Now I may have a negotiated reading of the space of the metro, not the oppositional one that I used to have, nor the hegemonic one that others may have, but I do know this: all of my own complaints aside, when it all comes down to it, I can no longer take for granted that I can still at all, at this point in time, venture down into the belly of the beast through the turnstiles, darkly.


Ahmed, Sara. (2006) Queer Phenomenology Ch. 1: Orientations Towards Objects, section “Inhabiting Spaces” (51-63). Durham: Duke University Press.

CBC News, “Montreal’s public transport plan falters,” 14 August 2013,

CBC News, “Wheelchair user demands better Montreal metro access,” 15 August 2013,

Debord, Guy. “Theory of the Dérive and Definitions.” In Gieseking, Jen J. And William Mangold, (Eds.), The People, Place, and Space Reader. (65-69). London: Routledge.

Grosz, Elizabeth. (2005). Reconfiguring Bodies. In Mariam Fraser and Monica Greco (Eds.), The Body: A Reader (47-51). London: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna. (1991). “Cyborg–Manifesto.” IN SIMIANS, CYBORGS AND WOMEN: THE REINVENTION OF NATURE. New York: Routledge, 149-181.

Herland, Karen, “Hear and Now: Sound Map,” Concordia University Journal, 7 May 2009,

Kitchin, Rob. (1998) “‘Out of Place’, ‘Knowing One’s Place’ : Space, Power and Exclusion of Disabled People”, Disability & Society, 13, 3, 343-356.

Merleau-Ponty. (2009). The Experience of the Body and Classical Psychology. In Mariam Fraser and Monica Greco (Eds.), The Body: A Reader (52-54). London: Routledge.

Schwartzstein, Tannin & Kaldera, Raven, “The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle,” Llewellyn Publications, October 2002.

Titchkosky, Tanya. (2008). “To Pee or Not to Pee?” Ordinary Talk about Extraordinary Exclusions in a University Environment “, Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, 33(1): 37-56.

Wilson, Elizabeth. (1991). The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women. Ch.1- Into the Labyrinth. (1-11). Berkeley: University of California Press.


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