“It’s absolutely great being in a group of people that make me feel that it’s not weird to be frustrated and scared [when] high-speed aluminium cages fly at me, and to be angry at the cultural privileges they are accorded.”
David Bender, a student at the University of Hull, sent this response to me. He’s talking about New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, a viral Facebook Group that now has over 57,000 members.
The group began in March 2017, when discussion in a similar group ‘I feel personally attacked by this relatable map’, featuring conflict between urbanist Jane Jacobs and New York city planner Robert Moses, spilled over.
‘New Urbanist Shitposting’ was born, created by Juliet Eldred and Emily Orenstein, both students at the University of Chicago. The name was soon changed to ‘New Urbanist Memes for TransitOriented Teens’, and ‘cross-pollination’ with other groups in addition to a newfound viral status have lead to the group’s 57,000+ members.
Speaking about the size of the group, Eldred notes “it is way more people than any of us expected to care about a fairly niche topic!” The growth has meant that “the group definitely has a different feel now than it did a couple months ago, [though] it still feels like a place for interesting, productive, and funny content and conversations.”
“I WAS JUST TAKING THE SUBWAY HOME IN NYC WHEN THE ENTIRE TUNNEL FUCKING EXPLODED AND FILLED WITH FLAMES.”
“PEOPLE WERE RUNNING AND SCREAMING AND I THOUGHT I MIGHT DIE.”
This post from Thursday reiterated the group’s function as a hub for transit-related news. “This JUST happened so I can’t even find that much about it in the news.”
The subway fire caused a stampede: though TIME reported one person was sent to hospital, this humble post had spawned over 200 reactions and 47 comments within 15 minutes of being posted. It’s a prime example of the usefulness of these groups: ranging from week-long discussions about urban planning methods and gentrification, to breaking news for those who want to read about it most.
I posted in the group asking why people joined, and what kept them coming back each day. Each post requires moderator approval (“[it] makes it much easier than it would be otherwise,” says Juliet), and the painstaking wait for the notification leads to moments of doubt that my investigation would be successful.
The responses I received varied dramatically, but everyone had a love for the group and the niche content it inspired. James Preiss connected the dots, writing that “public transit is a common thread between many interesting topics: urban planning, government and societal structures, income inequality, mechanical engineering, architecture, geography, environmentalism, character of different cities around the world,” and Mickey Joyless praised the community itself, commenting that “this group has a steady stream of good content and one of the least contentious comments sections i’ve [sic] experienced.”
The group has spawned careers, furthered Facebook groups, subreddits, and more. The subreddit /r/SubwaySubway, which features theoretical rail networks connecting franchises of the sandwich-making chain, was inspired by a discussion within the group. Job listings are posted regularly, with a spreadsheet that lists regular entry and graduate programs in local transport industries.
Eldred hopes that “having all of these people in one place who care about issues of affordable housing, public transit, etc. is getting folks fired up about organizing [sic] around these issues in their communities.”
“I don’t expect [the group] to be a political force in and of itself… However, I definitely want to be more proactive in getting people to support organizations [sic] in their communities that focus on these issues, and encouraging folks to pursue careers in planning, transit or running for local office.”