A pair of tidbits on public transit

Because fuck my commute right in its furry little ear.


Rush-hour public transit is a special hell for introverts because it puts us unavoidably in close contact with other Hated Fellow Bipeds.  Some of those fellow travellers place a quite unreasonable emphasis upon “being sociable” or “friendliness”, which brings with it the need for those of us who don’t want to help you talk about your day to post the nonverbal equivalent of “please die in a crotch fire” without being so offensive as to draw even more attention.  Yale University sociologist Esther Kim actually managed to get published for documenting said FOAD signals:

Kim systematized the unspoken rules into a list of strategies commonly used to keep a free seat:

  • Avoid eye contact.
  • Lean against the window and stretch out your legs.
  • Sit on the aisle seat and listen to music to pretend not to hear people asking for the window seat.
  • Place a large bag or multiple items in the empty seat to make it time-consuming to move.
  • Look out the window with a blank stare to appear crazy.
  • Pretend to be asleep.
  • Put your coat on the seat to make it appear already taken.
  • If all else fails, lie: Say the seat has been taken by someone else.

Good thing someone published that list in a high-impact factor journal or I would never have guessed that those tactics weren’t utterly sincere.

But “keep a free seat” isn’t the only motivation driving transit asshattery, and if you’ve ever actually commuted by bus you can probably guess what comes next:

The game changed, however, when drivers announced a bus would be full. Riders just wanted to avoid the “crazy” person and sit next to a “normal” person.

Kim found that race, class and gender weren’t key concerns when commuters realized someone had to sit next them. They were primarily concerned with maintaining their own safety.

Shockingly, people really don’t want to get assaulted.  Yeah, I’m surprised too.  This is my surprised face.

“Ultimately this nonsocial behavior is due to the many frustrations of sharing a small public space together for a lengthy amount of time,” Kim said in the release. “Yet this deliberate disengagement is a calculated social action, which is part of a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces.”

Surprised.  Face.


We go from explaining asshattery on behalf of bus riders to explaining asshattery on behalf of bus-system-running freeriders.  Careful readers will recall Frances Woolley’s excellent piece on the conflicting goals of public transit systems: Getting poor people to work cheaply; getting rich people to work with a (we hope) reduced carbon footprint; and providing good jobs for unionized employees.  I submit that many — most? — public transit decisions are being made for a fourth reason: Accruing status to the system’s directors.

For example, greater Vancouver’s transit administration is running dangerously low on funds, to the point where it’s dipping into its cash reserves (bloated by some admirably canny real-estate deals during the recent boom) to cover operating expenses.  It has consequently cancelled a number of planned improvements and expansions to its commuter bus routes.  The decades-old Evergreen Line project, however, is pressing forward regardless — a stunning piece of triumphalism which just happens to parallel a major bus route in subsuburban Vancouver.  Were this about moving more people from Point A to Point B, it would surely suffice to (say) double the number of buses on that route, at lower cost and with greater flexibility.  This isn’t about making people’s commutes easier, though: it’s about self-satisfied triumphalism rising on brutalist concrete columns above the stuck-in-traffic masses.  Who cares if it bankrupts Translink?  They can just blame the provincial and municipal governments for not wanting to raise taxes in an election year.


3 Responses to “A pair of tidbits on public transit”

  1. 1 TMI
    August 9, 2012 at 10:13

    I didn’t see a link for this guy on your sidebar:


    In Oregon, we have Tri-Met. Spending billions on yesterday’s technology, today!

  2. August 9, 2012 at 10:52

    And because Kim is a sociologist and not an anthropologist, she doesn’t seem to realize that she’s just done an ethological study of behaviors designed to inhibit aggression among strange primates forced to share the same small space.

  3. August 10, 2012 at 18:22

    My sister is a Jehovah’s Witness. Years ago when we lived in the same town and I was a frequent flyer, she kept me supplied in Watch Towers to use in this kind of situation. Wear nice clothes (I was traveling for business after all), sit straight, and set a Watch Tower on your lap – and all the seats around you will stay empty. I never ran into a real JW doing this ;-)

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anarchocapitalist agitprop

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