Friday, November 16, 2012


On MUNI, San Franciso’s excellent transit system, riders get it: 1) that when the seats are getting full, they have to move to the back of the bus to let other riders board; and 2) that one fare entitles a rider to one seat.  I rode the buses and street cars and cable cars in that city for about 11 years.  Almost always, as a bus got packed the standing riders would drift to the back without being asked.  When a driver did have to call out, “Move back,” or “Make room,” people moved.  

There was a guy who sometimes got on the Market Street bus with me at rush hour who liked to holler “Lady with a baby!  Make way!” if the crowd was a little slow to move to the back.  He didn’t have to do it very often.

In that city I seldom saw a rider splay himself or his stuff across multiple seats.  Nor did I ever have to tap one on the shoulder to get his attention and explain why I wanted him to free up a seat.  

I also commuted by public transit in Los Angeles.  There, you might never see the same driver on the same route and the vastness of the city gives a background vibe that is overwhelmingly impersonal. Of course, drunks and the deranged occasionally got out of hand.  Sometimes a petty crime took place.  I was punched in the face once.  I watched pickpockets at work.  Fare evasion was rampant.

But in L.A., people were usually as well-behaved as angels when it came to moving back and keeping seats open.  (Maybe they were just trying to stay out of harm’s way?)

Yet in Portland, a tamer town than either of those California grease spots, it’s standard procedure when standing to plant oneself in the front of the bus; and if seated, to keep the seat next to you handy for your stuff or for kicking back.  

This week on the 75, crushed between boarding riders and a mash of beings stopped behind, I had to ask twice “Could you please move back and make room?”  And the lug at the end of the line, who had six or eight feet of space behind him, glanced at me without acknowledgement. But worse, not a single one of the rest of the group inhaling each other’s air said a thing. 

Why is this?  What dumb territorial impulse is at work? And even if you are not guilty of the original transgression, why don’t you urge the stand-in-fronters to move back?  Why aren’t there more righteous passengers demanding civilized behavior from their fellow citizens?  

Is it a cultural thing?