Privacy on Public Transport: A Field Study


It’s 8.30am, and I’m on a crowded train to the office. To my left, there’s someone who forgot to brush their teeth, and the person on my right keeps staring at my phone screen (excuse me, mind your own business?!). How nice would a little privacy be right now?

A survey of our colleagues quickly showed us that train-time is not the most enjoyable time. People said they often feel that time spent traveling is time wasted; the smells und loud phone calls are annoying, and of course, problems like “manspreading”, staring, and a general lack of privacy were named issues.

The lack of privacy was an interesting challenge for us. How could we provide privacy in a public space, and provoke connections in a space where, really, everyone just wants some privacy?

What started out as a random idea from my colleague Ajda turned into a funny project during our Maker Days last month. The initial idea was a portable hide-out-space which was installable on the train; people could disappear within it, and uninstall it when they got off. Of course, we did some profound research.


After a quick ideation phase, we jumped right in and created the first prototypes. On three-dimensional objects, we sketched out how the construction would need to work, and how much space the traveler needed to not feel claustrophobic.


Obviously, we still weren’t too serious about it. However, when we installed our four final prototypes (made out of wire, fabric and suction cups) on the U1 train, our fellow travelers were quite curious. “I like it! It feels very relaxing.” “I wanna take a nap right now. This would be really comfortable!” “I need to post this to Facebook! So cool!”


And some people actually did post it:


While the product itself was originally intended as a joke—just a fun thing to try out—we actually learned a lot while building it. The fast prototyping and field studies helped us to rapidly improve an initial idea, and talking to real people about their problems gave us the confidence to further develop our idea.

Even though it’s not very likely that our hide-out area will be installed on Berlin’s public transport, the BVG reacted to one of the tweets with the smart idea to install them directly behind the on-board restaurants—if only there were any. Until then, let’s try to give everyone the privacy they wish for, even in crowded, smelly, public spaces.