Twelve Rules for Riding the Bus, Subway, Plane or Train
Dupont Circle Metro Station just before Rush Hour
About a week ago, I was riding the Washington, D.C. Metro to Eastern Market, a public bazaar that sells locally produced foods, and art and crafts, when the woman sitting across from me pulled out a toenail clipper and started grooming her feet. This prompted me to ponder why so many people behave badly on public transportation.
In 2008, the highest number of Americans in 52 years used public transportation, thanks largely to growing unemployment lines and rising gas prices. And that number continues to grow.
The Benefits of Public Transportation
Riding the bus or subway has a negative connotation in much of this country, especially outside major cities where, thanks to suburban sprawl, everyone needs (and has) a car. But public transportation is cheaper, better for the environment and easier on infrastructure.
Sounds great, right? It may make you wonder why you didn’t think about this green alternative before the most recent energy crisis.
However, with the influx of new riders on America’s public transportation networks we also require a set of guidelines to help us make the best of our commuting experiences without ruining someone else’s.
And so, here are my easy-to-follow etiquette guidelines for riders of public transportation:
Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s raining, your car has broken down and you need to get to work. So you decide to take the subway. You head to the nearest station and step onto the escalator that will take you to the winding tunnels below. This first step is often the novice’s first mistake.
Many people – and especially tourists – do not seem to realize that most of the people in any given city are not on vacation and have somewhere to be 5 minutes ago. They proceed to stand across the escalator steps, blocking those in a hurry. This is particularly frequent in Washington, D.C. where our out-of-town visitors often clog up the escalators as they talk about this monument or that president. This leads me to my first rule:
Rule #1: Stand on the right of the escalator, walk on the left.
Many Americans complain about government inefficiency and wasted tax dollars. What they don’t realize is that their greatest contribution to improving government efficiency may very well be to stand on the right side of the escalator when visiting D.C., thus allowing federal employees to shuttle back and forth across town more quickly.
It’s not much, but just like recycling, it adds up. This rule, while especially critical to those visiting Washington, applies in most places that have moving sidewalks or escalators. You see it in nearly every airport in the U.S., and I even noticed it worked the same way on the London Underground when I was traveling through the United Kingdom last spring. And please watch your shoelaces and clothing – these can get stuck in the escalator at the top and can cause the escalator to seize up. Trust me, you do not want this to happen.
Okay, so you have made it down to the subway turnstiles without incident. Next you will need to purchase a fare card and either insert or swipe it to gain access to the subway, depending on the city you’re in. A common sight in busy stations is people trying to walk through the turnstiles and then smacking against them because they haven’t swiped or inserted their cards the right way, leading to a human traffic jam. My best advice here is the next rule.
Rule #2: If you aren’t sure what to do, ask someone or, better yet, stand off to the side and watch a few locals do it.
This works particularly well in New York City where everyone uses the same card, but might not work as well in London or Washington, D.C. where locals often use permanent refillable cards.
Now it’s time to head to the trains. In D.C., you will often find another escalator, so remember Rule #1. Once on the correct platform, you will notice that most people don’t stand at the edge of the platform. The best case scenario there is getting honked at by the approaching train operator and the worst case scenario is getting run over by the approaching train. More people than you might think meet their end in subway stations, and it’s not a pretty sight. Sometimes they jump in front of the train, sometimes they jump down to the tracks to pick up a cell phone or wallet.
No one wants to see you suffer that unfortunate fate and if you do, you will be delaying your fellow commuters for potentially hours while an investigation is conducted. It’s just bad manners, really.
Once the train pulls into the station, you will encounter one of the biggest congestion problems facing the subway systems of the world – people waiting to board blocking those trying to exit. I’ve missed more than a few stops and trains because of people creating a human traffic jam here. Conventional wisdom dictates:
Rule #3: Allow people to disembark before you enter the train or bus.
Everyone will be thankful if you do this – I promise. If you’re boarding a bus, make sure to have your fare ready so you can get to your seat before it starts moving. Everyone waiting behind you and everyone within your reach should you fall will appreciate this, too. Also, do not try to force a train or bus door open because you’re late – just wait for the next one. Things will be much worse if you get stuck or break the door.
The same basic rules apply for exiting the bus or train. Now that you have those down, let’s take a ride together.
So you have boarded the train or bus or even the ferry boat and are now scanning the space for a seat. If it’s rush hour, you’ll be lucky to find one no matter what city you’re in. But if you do find one in a crowded train, it’s fair game. Don’t push or shove but if you get there first, congrats. If the train is virtually empty, however, then abide by the next rule:
Rule #4: Respect personal space.
Don’t sit next to someone when there are several empty seats around him or her. If she is sitting in a row by herself and there are six empty rows nearby, it’s not only rude but also creepy to sit down next to her. This also translates to finding a spot to stand on the bus or train. Personal space takes a back seat on the rush hour cattle cars but if there’s room where you can spread out and keep your elbow out of someone’s book or mouth, take advantage of that. But make sure you avoid the following public transportation sins:
Rule #5: Don’t hug poles or hog seats.
Assuming you cannot find a seat, find a pole or handle to hold on to so you don’t go flying when the train or bus lurches. Where you decide to hold on greatly impacts other riders: if there are short people around you and you are tall enough to reach the pole running across the ceiling of the car, let them use the more convenient vertical pole. The benefits include not inconveniencing them and not setting them up to bowl you over when the driver slams on the brakes because they have nowhere to hang on. Along the same lines is a major no-no, pole hugging. You see this when someone either leans against a pole or wraps his or her body around it to make it easier to read and hold on at the same time. This prevents anyone else from using the pole and the poles are far and few between when riders need them most. Please, share the poles.
Assuming you find a seat, be courteous and thoughtful in your selection. Again, respect personal space but don’t be a space hog. If you sit down in an empty row (most rows on buses and subways have two seats), sit on the window seat if it is available and move your bag if someone else wants to sit next to you. There’s nothing worse than wanting to sit down after a long day of walking around the city and seeing that the only seat is blocked by someone who is sitting near the aisle and using the window seat as a storage facility.
Your bag doesn’t need its own seat. Move over. Many of the folks who do this will often give you dirty or annoyed looks when you ask to sit by them and then force you to take the window seat. This is just plain rude and often these individuals find that they will have to get up again because the person they forced to sit against the window – you – reaches his or her stop before the bully. Karma, anyone?
Now that seating is out of the way, let’s talk a bit about what you should and shouldn’t do while riding the train. First on the list is another common courtesy that is often forgotten these days.
Rule #6: People watching is OK, staring is not.
Just like your mother told you, it’s not polite to stare. In a confined place like a train or bus, staring can be not only rude but creepy. Don’t do it.
Rule #7: Turn down the volume!
This applies to anyone who thinks that the whole train would like to hear their death metal, gangster rap, pop music or whatever it is they’re currently enjoying. Granted, public transportation is loud and you have to turn up the volume just to hear your music, but I should not be able to hear every word and note of your music over the music coming from the headphones in my ears. You’re going to go deaf one day and in the meantime, you’re annoying everyone around you.
Similarly, only talk on your cell phone in an emergency. Nobody wants to know what you’re having for dinner. Simple as that. It’s also wise to switch your phone to vibrate for the ride and it’s especially important to not spend the entire ride selecting a new ring tone or using your phone as a radio. Feel free to talk to the people you’re with – this is public space, after all – but be mindful of the fact that the louder you are, the more annoyed everyone else is. If you have to shout across the train to conduct a conversation, just call your friend or colleague later.
Rule #8: Cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze. If you’re sick, stay at home!
Generally, just try to not be gross. With fears of swine flu swarming about, I don’t want to share any of your germs. I don’t need Joe Biden telling me that riding around town in a packed subway car is a bad idea but since I need to get to work, I’m going to use the Metro. I promise that if you don’t sneeze on me, I won’t sneeze on you. Deal?
Rule #9: Don’t eat or drink if it’s not allowed and pick up after yourself if it is.
This rule seems to be pretty straightforward but people are always breaking it. In D.C., it is unlawful to eat or drink on the Metro or the bus yet low and behold there’s a guy drinking from a Starbucks cup every morning or some teenagers eating pizza in the afternoon. The reason it’s illegal is because the cars gets pretty disgusting when people spill or leave their garbage behind. Plus, the Metro has carpet, which doesn’t go very well with smeared ketchup or a spilled grande nonfat soy vanilla late with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Compare it to New York’s subway, which is no stranger to spilled food and swarming rats. We don’t want any of that here so please leave the food at home. If you have to bring it on the bus or train, wait until you exit to eat it.
Related to that is the everyday litter that clutters the train. Whatever you bring onto the train or bus should leave with you. This applies to the aforementioned snack you snuck on board, the receipt from your morning coffee fix and the freeExpress newspaper you picked up outside the station. In London, they have the green idea to leave their papers on the window sill behind the seat for the next rider – pretty clever, really. But in D.C., we have recycling bins at the Metro exits and the papers that are left on the seats are usually thrown on the ground. Just take your garbage with you.
Rule #10: Give up your seat to anyone who needs it more than you.
The only excuse to not give up your seat to an older or handicapped person is if you are older or more handicapped than they. If your leg is broken, the need to give up a seat moves to the next healthy person. But if you just don’t feel like standing and make an old guy with a cane clutch a pole and get thrown around when the bus or train inevitably lurches, someone should break your other leg. The same goes for pregnant ladies. Don’t be that person who makes the pregnant lady stand.
Rule #11: This is not your living room – it’s public space. Treat it that way.
Take notice, lady clipping her toenails on the Metro. And please keep public displays of affection to a minimum. A hug, a kiss, leaning on each other in your seats – these are all fine. Making out while you’re sitting next to a stranger is not fine. You won’t be riding forever so hold off on the heavy petting until you exit the train.
Rule #12: Remember, we’re all in this together.
Riding public transportation does have its downsides – like the need for an etiquette guide, but the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences. And don’t forget – you could be stuck in traffic.
This is Alex Barriger’s First Byline for Wild River Review. WRR’s First Bylines program provides beginning writers with an internationally recognized platform as well as edito
An avid reader and budding writer, Alex lives and works in Washington, DC. He graduated from American University with a Bachelor’s of Arts in International Studies in 2007 and has worked for the J. William and Harriet Fulbright Center since graduation. Besides being a political junkie, he is a volunteer at the Washington Animal Rescue League. Alex rides the Metro to work every day.