Friday, October 26, 2007

Things That Make You Go "Huh?", Part 2 - The Metro

Over at The Milk Bar the other day, Amanda put up an interesting post offering her observations on how people form lines ... or not. She and I are cosmically connected somehow, because I'd been thinking about the same thing in light of our recent adventures in Las Vegas and my daily travel on our local public transportation system (the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority, or WMATA ... better known just as "Metro").

Our Metro rail and bus service is, in general, clean, attractive, and runs more-or-less on time, unless you're really in a hurry to get somewhere. If you're a people-watcher, as I am, it offers matchless opportunities to see the best and the worst in human behavior.

As you enter most Metro rail stations, you put your ticket into or flash your pass at the turnstile, which opens just long enough to let you squeeze through (although it has closed painfully on me - right at family jewel level - a number of times). Then you take an elevator or escalator down to the track level to meet your train. The adventure begins at the turnstile, where there's always someone in a blazing hurry to catch this particular train, and doesn't mind knocking down anyone in his/her path to get there. This person will roar through the turnstile, fly down the escalator, zoom across the platform, and do a flying leap through the train doors, leaving a trail of battered fellow-passengers behind ... then sit down innocently in righteous appreciation of a job well done.

If you are waiting on the platform when a train pulls into the station, the arrival announcement asks you to step away from the doors and let passengers exit the train before you try to board. This works occasionally. What usually happens is that as soon as the train stops, the people on the platform crowd right next to the train door in a teeming mass that curves inward to leave a small, semicircular funnel outside the door, through which people try to exit before the boarding stampede begins. Fairly often, some character desperate to get onto this particular train will plant him or herself directly in front of the doors, and push forward like the center line of the Washington Redskins as soon as the doors open. God help you if you're in the way.

There's also a subtle psychology to seeking one's seat on a Metro train. Because I carry both an over-the-shoulder briefcase and a lunch box, I usually try to get one of the front seats which has extra floor space and leg room to store my bags so that I don't have to keep them on my lap. This gives me a good vantage point from which to observe other passengers. In general, when the train is relatively empty, each person boarding will take a vacant seat (our trains are designed with two-person seats, one on each side of the aisle, half facing forward, half facing backward). As the train fills up, women will generally try to sit with other women, while men will (surprise!) generally try to sit with the more attractive ladies. Women (and most men) usually either read or doze (especially in the morning), while those men who don't read or doze, and have parked next to attractive ladies, will usually spend the trip slyly peeking at their seatmates out of the corners of their eyes.

When the train arrives at the station, there's always someone on board who doesn't realize it's arrived until the doors are ready to close again. This causes the "exit panic reaction" characterized by a frantic scramble to the door while shoving people madly out of the way. It only works about half the time. More often than not, the person will end up with the train doors slamming on some part of his or her anatomy (or baggage), and the train operator having to re-open the doors to free him, which allows other people to try to cram on, which gives more people a chance to try to get off, which ... well ... you get the idea.

I suppose I shouldn't complain about our odd Metro ways, because at least we don't have official train-packers like they have in Japan to smash the largest possible number of people onto the trains. But we don't need them because we can do a great job of it on our own, thank you very much.

I have lots of other observations of Metro psychology, and the general psychology of forming lines and taking turns, but I need to bull my way onto one of those Metro trains in a little while, and I need to do my blocking and tackling exercises so that I'll be ready.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



La Chanson de Phoenix said...

Aha! They do still call it Metro. I have to locate my old ticket stub.. I believe I saved it... be back later with an update...

The Mistress of the Dark said...

So glad I don't take the train. I'd probably get squished. :(

La Chanson de Phoenix said...

Darnit! I do have Metro tickets, but not from the DC Metro... it is from Metrolink in Missouri (previous entry's comment). Sigh. Those were only a dollar a piece too.

I have a personal question to ask you and I don't want to ask it on the blog. It's not TOO personal, but I'm not comfortable asking it here is all.

Amanda said...

I'm a real train person and really enjoyed this post! I didn't notice the train-packers in Japan but I remember feeling like I was in a huge human wave whenever the doors opened and closed.

zero_zero_one said...

I didn't encounter train packers in Japan when I visited noisms there, perhaps we simply didn't travel on busy enough trains.

I encountered some "exit panic reaction" the other day. Woman sat opposite me doing the crossword suddenly realised that she was at her station and jumped up, stabbing me in the leg with her pen at the same time.

(just realised that I am in fact wearing those jeans, complete with biro scrawl... I could have sworn I put these in the wash...)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

People all have their own ways with metros, which is why things are uneven.

John said...

Public transportation certainly offers great opportunities to observe the public. Fun post and great observations, Bilbo.