The pain of public transport

Wow, I haven’t posted a pinch for nearly a year! I was open with you, my lovely readers, and myself that pinches would sometimes be irregular. Things happened last year that meant pinches had to take a backseat.

One of those things was that I took a creative non-fiction writing course as part of my professional development. I have been writing a lot, and in a different way. Taking the course was incredible and I’m excited to bring creative writing into pinches.

Why am I returning with a pinch now? Last night, I was scrolling my Twitter feed and saw a post about Metlink’s new etiquette signs. Metlink run the public transport system in Wellington.

At the end of my last pinch I said, “In the next pinch, I’ll use my experience to illustrate some of the potential impacts of an overactive threat protection system on day-to-day life and on wider interactions with the mechanisms and systems of a big society.” I did have public transport in mind as something I’d write about then. Metlink’s first new sign has prompted me to share some of my creative non-fiction writing with you today.

You can read about the Metlink campaign in their own words. And here is the first sign:

A cartoon depicting a young man wearing headphones, using his cell phone sitting on a green seat next to a man with a cane. An older woman is glaring at the young man from her green seat while a pregnant woman is standing stares at the young man. Text says: "Ride like your aunty is watching. This lady needs a priority seat more than your bottom".


I use the green seats, which are the priority seats, when they are free. And on the surface, like the young man in the picture, I look like I don’t need them: I’m young-ish, with no obvious disability or support, not pregnant.

Using a green seat means I have more space to move my stiff body, resulting in less pain and distress. There are some days where I can’t actually get up from a blue seat without help.

I’m all for a community of care on public transport, for being aware of each other, helping and treating each other with respect. However, you cannot tell from looking at someone what their experiences and needs are.

Now I’m going to switch tone and take you with me on part of my regular commute; weaving my experience of the bus ride with pain science.

Standing in the dawn crispness, I prop myself back against the leaning board of the bus shelter. The light of the 22 catches my eye, and it swings round to draw up. I take that as my cue to start arranging myself. Shoulder bag across my body first, then backpack on one shoulder or in my right hand, bus card in my left.  

The step is close to the footpath today; a good start – “Good morning” I say cheerily while tapping my card. All the green seats with more space between the rows are taken. So, I put my backpack by a window in a narrower blue row and turn to put myself in an aisle seat. I’m slow, holding up the passengers behind me. They hover closely. I’m an annoyance and try to rush but I’m too stiff to move easily and catch and drag my calves against the seat. It burns. I’m going to have bruises again.  

We’re moving now and the fire in my calves gets some friends. Sparks of aches radiate in my back, neck, and shoulders in time with the jolting shuddering of the bus. I try not to tense up, but pain and relaxation are contradictions. Nausea arrives. The journey takes a mere seven minutes, but it always drags. I check my bus card is still in my hand, feeling anxious.  

The bus stops and I wait for the other passengers to go by before pulling myself up and out of the seat, hot pain in my calves again. I’m relieved the bus driver doesn’t snap “are you getting off or not” today. The step is high and out from the footpath, but I call out “thank you” with as much brightness as I can muster before jumping off. A final jarring of wrenching pain before the workday starts. 


As my calves catch the seat, mechanical nociceptors – those danger detectors sensitive to pressure – fire. There’s no such thing as pain-fibres, -signals, -nerves or -receptors. As neuroscientists Patrick Wall and Steven McMahon said in 1986, the year I was born, “The labelling of nociceptors as pain fibres was not an admirable simplification but an unfortunate trivialisation”. The prefix “pain” suggests an inevitability of my experience, that there is a one-to-one correspondence between injury and pain; and prevents us seeing the importance of factors beyond the body.  

Instead, ascending nociceptive fibres carry information that my calves were hit towards my spinal cord and up to my brain. There, questions are asked. What is the current context? Catching the bus, tired and stiff. Have I had this experience before? Oh yes. I know what this feels like, knows what to expect following catching my calves. I’m well versed in the current understanding of pain; there’s no magic switch to turn off pain though, even when you understand what is happening physiologically and psychologically.  

The big question now. Is there danger to my body-tissue? The context, my prior experiences, expectations, knowledge and meaning combine unconsciously to scream yes. In his 2007 reconceptualisation of pain, Lorimer Moseley (pain scientist and clinical educator with a background in physiotherapy) names these factors as key information considered by the threat protection system. It doesn’t take much input for my chronically overactive threat protection system to perceive danger.

I feel a pain no-one else will ever know, subjectively mine in this moment, to make me do something. I’ve already moved my legs away from the seat, there is no further current risk of tissue damage. My threat protection system doesn’t know that though. The perceived danger increases once you add in the expectation of catching my calves again when disembarking, and the rising fear accompanying the memory of reactions to my slowness. The physiological and psychological processes underlying pain are not isolated from the social worlds I inhabit. I hurt but head off into my day. 

Metlink have said in a Tweet that “the illustrations to come will visit a variety of scenarios encouraging kindness on the bus and train”. I look forward to seeing the next signs but am desperately hoping that the first sign doesn’t result in anyone having to justify their presence in a green seat.

Moseley, G. L. (2007). Reconceptualising pain according to modern pain science. Physical Therapy Reviews, 12, 169–178.   

Wall, P. D., & McMahon, S. B. (1986). The relationship of perceived pain to afferent nerve impulses. Trends in Neurosciences, 9, 254–255.    

4 thoughts on “The pain of public transport

  1. Clare

    Hi Hazel
    It’s good to hear from you and glad you have been able to do and have enjoyed the creative writing course. Sorry to hear about how you are affected by pain on a bus journey…and no one would ever know….Creative writing is so good at being able to paint a picture – it can help my brain to get my ME/CFS ‘fuzzy’ head around what you are saying in a beautiful rich, easy to grasp way. Thank you for getting back out here in internet land to share your experience. I certainly identify with invisible illness and a lack of understanding (understandably when they don’t know what you are having to deal with) by others – because there are no outward signs. We just all need to be incredibly kind and understanding and non-judgmental to everyone as we don’t know what the person next to us is having to deal with. Pain is also, so exhausting from an energy point of view, which just adds that extra layer of challenge for you at the start of your day! With love x

    Liked by 1 person

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