Something Old, Something New

Embodied Practices and Production of Mobility in Moscow Public Transport during Covid-19


“… then I realized it is not hysteria, it’s just reality”

(description of the pandemic from an interview with a 45 y.o. woman)

The COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to the moving body that has been perceived as a source of the disease or its victim. Along with other public spaces during the outbreak, Moscow public transport became a place for the implementation of the rules and recommendations in order to prevent transmission of the virus by controlling these bodies. Since late March 2020, Moscow residents, like many other people around the world, have been advised to wear gloves and masks, to keep distance, to avoid touching face, to stay home. The new normativity has been produced in public transport by means of news media, voice announcements, screens, and posters, floor and seat markings. Since the 12th of May 2020 face masks and gloves have      become compulsory in public transport, but compliance with the rules was not strictly monitored at least until the end of July. In a few months, the number of people following these precautions has decreased markedly when the number of people returning to public transport increased.

The morning metro train at the end of May 2020.  On the 12th of May, a lot of people got back to work after “non-working days” declared by the president. 
(screenshots from the collection of video data)

Thus, in recent months assemblages of public transport mobility were transformed by anti-virus precautions. These changes affected various bodily interactions not only with other people but also with transport infrastructure and other material objects, such as masks, gloves, sanitizers.  However, these practices did not just come out of nowhere and were not as new as it might have seemed. They were closely related to users’ previous public transport experience. Thereby, the embodied practices brought by the COVID-19 pandemic to everyday mobility should be considered in temporal perspective in order to see the users’ experience as continuous, not discrete.

My focus here will be only on those public transport users who actually put some efforts into following the rules, i.e. used sanitizers, avoided touching their faces or surfaces, practiced distancing, or wore masks. I draw on the collection of video data and semi-structured interviews with Moscow residents, who travel by metro and buses, collected in April-June by my colleagues and me within the project “Everyday practices of public health: (Non)Following sanitary rules at Moscow public transport during the coronavirus pandemic” (Laboratory of Urban Sociology, HSE University, Moscow, Russia).

“Wait, Haven’t You Done This Before?”: Bare Hands, Movements, and Sanitizers

Hand hygiene practices, which were enacted by the pandemic, introduced a challenge to users’ body management on public transport. But sometimes they required a different amount of effort from people with different previous hygienic experiences. The Covid-19 discourse has produced a lot of health-related anxiety. But people did worry about catching a disease in public transport even before the pandemic. Hence, they were accustomed to hand hygiene practices, such as using sanitizers and not touching surfaces. Those users who had not been used to such precautions had to gain competence in managing their bodies so that they could open doors without using their hands, keep balance while standing on a moving train or escalator without holding onto the handrails, avoid touching their faces, use sanitizers frequently and so on. For them, the pandemic became the period of mastering new body techniques to feel safer in public transport. The question is, will these practices become a part of people’s everyday transport routine, or will they be just temporary adjustments? Users were challenged to be more attentive to their almost imperceptible actions, and, if it was completely new to a person, it felt quite difficult for them not to get back to the old habits. Consequently, following anti-virus precautions exhibited differences in users’ hygienic experiences which influenced how smoothly they handled the current situation.

The standing men had an opportunity to sit down but they did not. Sometimes this type of user simply likes to stand. (screenshot from the collection of video data)

“It is Like a Muzzle”: Situational Use of Face Masks

Public transport users tried to return to their habitual travel behavior in order to get rid of the sensory discomfort. It became apparent when we observed the style of wearing masks which was situationally determined.

Before COVID-19 wearing a face mask was hardly a common practice in Moscow public transport. Therefore, it was definitely noticeable and probably signaled that this person was sick. During the pandemic, masks noticeably transformed mobility assemblage regardless of whether people actually followed this recommendation or pretended to do it. In both cases, masks caused a sense of discomfort which made it difficult to follow this precaution properly. As a result, masks were applied situationally. The decision to wear or not to wear a mask depended on multiple factors, such as the number of people around, location (escalator, platform, carriage), the perceived probability of sanctions, or sensory experience. Furthermore, situational wearing implied the wide variety of ways to put a mask in the most comfortable but not exactly right way (under the chin, under the nose, and etc.). Thus, face masks came through the process of adjustment to bodily routine and changed their meaning from the mean of protection to the everyday accessory that could be used differently depending on the social context.

The woman is taking off her mask passing through the metro lobby.
 (screenshot from the collection of video data)

“Do Not Come Near Me!”: What Does Distance Mean

 Keeping physical distance had already been practiced by users before the pandemic started. Despite the relatively new meaning of “social distancing”, people used familiar body techniques and faced old transport challenges. Usually, Moscow public transport users reproduced social and physical boundaries when they encountered certain categories of people who were considered as a threat to their security or caused the unwanted sensory experience. For example, they could be smelly, potentially aggressive or suspicious, noisy individuals, people standing too close, or everyone nearby if someone wanted to find relative solitude in the crowd. Trying to keep a safe space, people managed their bodies to show that being close to another person was unacceptable. These body techniques were similar to those before the pandemic. As before, the distance was produced through avoidance of or escape from close physical contact. Occasionally, users’ body and emotion management included verbal and non-verbal expressions of hostility and discontent towards a person who violated physical boundaries. Moreover, in order to create empty space, users put their belongings, as extensions of their bodies, beside them to prevent others from breaking the distance. However, distancing rules were hard to follow in the crowds or inevitably dense places of public transport, such as exits, entrances, escalators, or small buses. In this sense, Moscow public transport during the pandemic was hardly different from the “usual” one because the crowd determined embodied practices in both cases, and it dominated over individual intentions. As a result, the pandemic brought out another meaning of distancing on public transport, but the transport infrastructure and users’ practices of distancing stayed relatively the same.

On the top: the crowded metro train during the morning peak hours.
On the bottom: users exit the metro train close to each other.  
(screenshots from the collection of video data)


 The pandemic brought some alterations to the production of everyday mobility. But apparently, the previous transport experience had a significant influence on people’s behavior during the coronavirus outbreak. Some precautions demanded different amounts of body management, depending on the previous experience of public transport users. Some of them were altered by people in such a way that they give the sensory experience similar to the “normal” one. Other precautions became an extension of the “old” transport practice.

When everyday mobility is considered within such a temporal perspective, we are able to avoid the overestimation of novelty of the current situation. The pandemic simply highlighted the significance of public transport as a place of bodily co-presence and meaningful practices.


Yana is a PhD student and Researcher at the Laboratory of Urban Sociology at HSE University (Moscow, Russia)

Images are from the research project

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