Commuters get squished, etiquette gets squashed

The bag got a seat on a standing-room-only SEPTA train.
The bag got a seat on a standing-room-only SEPTA train. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: May 22, 2014

On a recent rush-hour Market-Frankford train, a woman lugging a large bag settled into a spot just inside the doorway - or, more precisely, blocking it. As the next stop approached, a man yelled "Coming through!" and tried to squeeze by. She suggested he wait his turn; he suggested she calm down. Bickering ensued.

SEPTA ridership is up, but, given scenes like this, some would say common courtesy is not keeping pace. Passengers who a decade ago might have had a couple of seats to themselves are now being packed in more tightly than ever. Add in those oblivion-inducing earbuds, mobile phones, and the all-absorbing world of Candy Crush, and it can make for a bumpy ride.

"Ridership is at an all-time high, especially on the railroad. And because resources are scarce, we're putting more and more people into the same number of vehicles each and every day. It does present some challenges," said Kim Scott Heinle, SEPTA's assistant general manager for customer service.

Nationwide, transit ridership is up 37.2 percent since 1995. On SEPTA Regional Rail, ridership grew by 50 percent in the last 15 years.

But it's a recipe for rudeness, said P.M. Forni, founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Incivility is an age-old problem, he said. "But in a close-quartered bus or train, you have in action two of the main incivility-causing factors. These are anonymity and stress."

In other words, it feels OK to be a jerk on the bus, because you're harried and no one knows you.

But, Forni warned, "Incivility often escalates into violence, and that's one reason we need to take it seriously."

For those who aren't familiar with transit tests of patience, let us count the ways: when people refuse to move to the back of the bus, claim the aisle seat and won't slide in, push onto the train before passengers can get off, block the doors, take up extra seats with belongings, shell peanuts (or conduct food prep of any kind), eat, drink, smoke, sell loosies, spit, catcall, play loud music, sing, and swear.

A recent Reddit thread on Philly transit etiquette offered some helpful reminders of what a SEPTA car is not: a dance club ("turn off your . . . music"); a karaoke bar ("please stop singing along to the music as well"); a restaurant ("if your meal requires a fork, you probably should eat elsewhere"); and a restroom.

Andy Sharpe, a spokesman for the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, said the most common complaints he hears have to do with smoking and loud music.

Smoking, at least, may be an easy problem to solve. SEPTA police have boosted enforcement for "quality of life" infractions like smoking, harassment, and disorderly conduct; arrests were up 147 percent to 3,815 last year.

But other transit faux pas, like refusing to move to the back of the bus, are more intractable and, in a way, more problematic.

"There is definitely a cost of bad behavior," Heinle said. "It's the cost of vehicles going slower than they need to, because people are not cooperating. . . . If the bus driver has to stop and encourage people to move back and he loses a [traffic]-light cycle, there's a cost to that."

On certain routes, it may mean that buses blow past stops because crowding near the front makes it impossible to let more riders on.

Howard Kelly Jr., a bus operator in the Midvale District, said he struggles with such situations, called pass-ups, when he drives the Route 23 and 56 buses. "It's tough on the passengers and the drivers," he said.

So, managing the bus becomes an unending chore (as well as an opportunity for creative patter: Heinle tells trainees to say there's free ice cream at the back). Kelly is more straightforward. "I try to use 'please' a lot."

A similar bottleneck has been sighted on subways, where riders linger in the doorways, creating a human funnel for those getting on or off.

"I have a nickname for them: the Doorasauruses," Heinle said. "That's a phenomenon that's relatively recent. . . . People standing there engrossed in their cellphones didn't exist when our cars were designed. We didn't have that same clogging."

Andrew Stober of the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities said his office just got a $525,000 grant to address the "public-health epidemic" of distracted walking. But distracted riding is an issue, too.

"My personal pet peeve is people not getting up for seniors, pregnant women, people who clearly have some kind of mobility impairment. And I think that's only gotten worse with people looking down at their phones," he said.

James Rivers, a 24-year Regional Rail conductor, often finds himself drafted into the role of mediator between the loudmouths and the shushers. Passengers will ask him to tell others to reduce the volume on their cellphone conversations. He said about 80 percent will comply. And the rest? They start talking even louder.

Heinle's preferred solution to all this is cultivating "esprit de corps" among riders.

After all, SEPTA hasn't had much luck with zero-tolerance policies. In 2009, after a no-food-on-board rule failed, SEPTA liberalized its rules to ban only the messiest and smelliest of meals (think wings and Chinese food). "We're trying to be progressive," he said.

SEPTA plans to roll out a new passenger-etiquette campaign this year, with a social-media strategy and perhaps a hashtag contest.

Whether such advocacy efforts can actually change behavior is another matter.

When it comes to front-of-bus crowding, more effective (but also more expensive), Stober said, are engineered solutions like revamped policies that let people pay off-board and enter through any door.

Still, he's hopeful that, following the long-awaited passage of a state transportation-funding bill, perhaps some of SEPTA's etiquette problems might fix themselves.

"There's a role for enforcement, and for education. But also, the nicer the environment, the better people treat it. Hopefully, with additional capital investments, people will feel the system is treating them with more respect."



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