I’ve been developing a theory for a while now, fleshing it out each time I get on a train, plane or bus. This theory, which is bound to annoy some folks, is that much of the suburban American population does not know how to behave on public transportation.
I also believe that much of the American public, generally, doesn’t know how to behave in public, period. But I will let that complaint ripen for a decade or two until I can throw the full force of crotchety old age into a particularly cranky rant.
In any case, I suspect that a population isolated in its detached homes and roomy SUVs does not get much practice in how to behave on buses, trains and airplanes. As a suburbanite, born and bred, I’m not without sympathy, Just the protocols can be confusing. How do you know where to buy the bus ticket or where to stand to let everyone off the subway car before you try to get on?
I remember traveling through Montreal with my daughter who, after living there for a short time, could sail through metro turnstiles and identify the right bus from a block away, despite her suburban upbringing. But when my husband and I ventured out alone and couldn’t figure out what slot to put the metro ticket in, the ticket agent ignored us and the passenger behind us snarled.
Of course, public transit ignorance can be overcome with observation and practice. There’s no reason the most sheltered suburbanite can’t eventually become one with the urban masses or learn how to stow luggage on a plane and sit down quickly. But I worry about those who don’t seem interested in trying.
I mean the parents who let their children play loud, beeping handheld electronic games on airplanes. I mean people who cut in ticket lines or push to get off a plane ahead of the people in front of them. I mean the business travelers who carry on a loud, profane or lewd cell phone conversations in front of children at an airport gate — or on a train’s quiet car.
Have they lost the sense that there is or should be any difference between the way they behave in their own cars and homes and the way they behave in the confined, crowded spaces of public transit? Do they think it’s OK to “just be yourself,” no matter where you are? Do they realize they are annoying others, or do they just not care?
Of course, the generalization that this is a fault of people without much experience in public transit is oversimplified. Some novices (alas, not me) pay attention and get it right immediately. Many people behave exceedingly well, giving up their seats to small children and the elderly, thanking the driver as they get off the bus or just smiling in kindness on their fellow passengers. And all kinds of people misbehave for different reasons and under different circumstances.
Nor is this problem a condition of the young. I recently rode the BoltBus from Washington to New York among a crowd of 20ish folks, all snoozing, conversing quietly or silently absorbed in their laptops and iPods. Say what you will about the negative effects of electronic isolation, at least it does not intrude on others.
Perhaps more troubling than the occasional encounter with thoughtless behavior is the reaction it can evoke, and the hostility it can engender. Tired commuters and business travelers fed up with unreasonable behavior may begin to lose tolerance for those who deserve more sympathy — people with language barriers, crying infants or the slow-moving elderly.
And that’s a shame. Because we need more tolerance of the factors that people can’t control and higher standards for the things they can.