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The Fed-Up New Yorker's Guide to Transportation Etiquette

The Fed-Up New Yorker's Guide to Transportation Etiquette

Too often, I find myself at the mercy of people who plunk themselves at the top of the escalator where people are trying to get off, people who hold the door of the subway car so that half of the population of Manhattan can make the train, people who block all passage along the sidewalk by moving just slightly slower than the speed of continental drift, people who wait for their favorite sector of the revolving door to become available before they can enter the building, and other people who make me marvel at the collective incompetence of the general public.

I know I'm not alone in my frustration, and I appreciate the efforts of the collectively competent half (or perhaps twelfth) of the population who do follow sensible guidelines when dealing with a subway entrance or traffic light or revolving door or whatever it may be. And so, with lighthearted enthusiasm, I offer this set of rules that, if everyone followed them, would make the world run that much more smoothly and would make the frustrated just a little less peeved. This is all in good fun, of course, though I expect everyone in my path to follow these rules stringently when I'm in a hurry (which is 98.6% of the time).

Coming soon: the Fed-Up New Yorker's Guide to Theatre Behavior and the Fed-Up New Yorker's Guide to Dining in Restaurants. But first, transportation. Here goes.


Reclining seats I won't get much agreement on this one (you'll start agreeing when we get to trains and buses), but airplane seats shouldn't recline. There's not enough room as it is, and the chance that your seat will knock over my drink when you recline it is excruciatingly high. I never put my seat back unless the seat behind mine is empty.

Air space is claimed by whatever occupies it first. If I've gotten my legs into a comfortable position that precludes your seat from reclining, too bad - I'm there already.

Window seats for large bladders I take window seats because it's easier to sleep, but also because I know I'm not going to get up during the flight and wake the sleeping passengers next to me. If you know you have a small bladder or are otherwise inclined to stroll during the flight, take an aisle seat.

Trains and subways

Commuter trains

Don't save seats "May I have that seat?" I asked a passenger 30 seconds before the train was supposed to leave.

"I'm saving it for a friend," the acerebral dolt replied.

Thirty seconds before departure, and you're expecting your friend to arrive, find you on the train, and escape the glare of standing passengers who would like to throw you onto the tracks?

Seats on crowded commuter trains (the issue is moot if the trains aren't crowded) are first-come, first-assed.

Long-distance trains

Unreserved means unreserved A seat requires a human body in order for the seat to be claimed. The Boston-New York route on Amtrak used to be overcrowded, and seats were unreserved, so I once had to stand. (I don't use the train for this route any more, but that's another story.)

So someone finally got up, and I took his seat. Then he came back and expected his seat back. I grudgingly gave it to him, but I really don't think I had to: Once you leave an unreserved seat, it's up for grabs.


Do not hold doors You know those signs that say, "Do not hold doors"? They mean something like, "Do not hold doors." (I find it amusing that the signs in Boston say, "Do not lean on doors," but the signs in New York say, "Do not hold doors." Is there a difference in priorities?)

I had a friend who worked for San Francisco's BART system, and I applaud his idea for an enhancement to the BART code: If a passenger causes a delay, the conductor should announce that, for safety (or other bogus) reasons, the train cannot depart until the offending passenger is removed from the train. You'd better believe that other passengers will make sure the offender gets off!

Do not crowd doors There aren't separate signs for this, but it should go without saying that if you're not getting off the train at a station, you should assume that other people are, and move away from the door accordingly.

Think ahead If you're getting off a crowded train, start heading for the door before the train reaches the station. How many times have we heard "Stand clear of the closing doors" followed by "Getting off!"? (Pedantry item: Some announcers only say, "Stand clear of the closing," which is ridiculous. I interpret this command to mean, "Look out! The meeting at which my mortgage will be legally finalized is approaching!")


Commuter buses

The bait-and-switch trick A lady pulled this trick on me once: a trick I'd contemplated long before but never had the audacity to use. On an hour trip to New Jersey, I (as usual) wanted a window seat, since leaning against a window makes it easier to sleep. Said lady was in the aisle seat. There was no one in the window seat, and when I asked whether I could have the window seat, she moved over, leaving me the aisle seat. I said that I preferred the window, and she asked where I was going. When she determined that she had the longer ride, she rationalized that she should have the window, so that she wouldn't have to wake up so that I could exit.

So why was she in the aisle seat in the first place, if she wanted the window? Of course you know the answer: She wanted both seats to herself, and since it takes more effort to ask someone for an empty window seat than to take an empty aisle seat, she hoped I (and everyone else) would fill up the aisle seats first. Now, this particular route is almost always full, so her wish was likely to be fruitless, but she had the gall to try nonetheless - and then the further gall to try to rationalize when she got "caught."

In the end, I was probably better off where I ended up, two rows back, in a window seat, next to someone with a positive IQ - as I happened to notice that the bait-and-switch lady, who was several hundred pounds overweight, took up the better part of both seats.

(If you find her, a simple "Tsk, tsk, tsk" - that's an acceptable Scrabble word - will suffice. She rides the 17:20 or 17:40 Academy bus from gate 7 at Port Authority and gets off at Ocean Grove - no doubt the last time she gets off for the day.)

Long-distance buses

The reclining-seat trick While the bait-and-switch trick (see above) is inexcusable on any bus, there is a neat (and perfectly etiquette-friendly) little strategy for getting a row to yourself on a long-distance bus on which the seats recline: Take the window seat next to an aisle seat that's directly behind a reclined aisle seat. The other aisle seats will fill up first, since no one wants to be behind the reclined seat.

Buses tend to have a little more room than airplanes, so I won't categorically say that the seats shouldn't recline, but I wouldn't recline my seat, and I'm not endeared to the person in front of me who does so.

Local buses

Wait at the bus stop Heading to an unbelievably disorganized music gig in Lynbrook, Long Island, I was on an already-late bus whose driver thought it reasonable to collect a family of four between stops - a family that then got off at the next stop, two blocks away! I blame the driver for this one, not the family, but it's probably best not to give drivers a chance: Wait at the bus stop. (Exception: If the bus is stopped at a traffic light and there's time to let people on, it's OK to board.)


Use turn signals That little device to the left of the steering wheel isn't just for decoration. It's to be used for any kind of turn, even a simple lane change, a turn at a T-intersection, or a turn from one one-way street to another. Signaling helps other cars, and it also helps pedestrians determine whether they can jaywalk.

Prepare tolls "Is she paying with a thousand-dollar bill?" Tanya would exclaim nightly as we waited our turn to fork over $2.15 on the New Jersey Turnpike on the way home from Red Bank. (This was before E-Z Pass.)

I guess it's not unreasonable that someone would need to get change for a twenty, but it is unreasonable that anyone, having already reached the toll collector, would need to take time to get out a wallet and search through receipts, credit cards, and deposit slips to find money to pay a toll. When you got on the highway 75 miles ago and they gave you that little ticket with toll rates on it, what did you think you'd have to do when the time came to exit?


The Golden Rule Add up all the wasted time - and the potential for accidents - caused by taxi drivers who run red lights, turn without signaling, signal without turning, block traffic, or commit other infractions, and you've got a massive sum. Taxi 1P59 is at the top of my list of punishable offenders for crossing Madison Avenue against a red light at 20:20 on a Wednesday evening in the summer of 2000. The driver had just missed the light, but he went through anyway, even though the Madison Avenue traffic had already started to move. The opposing cars - and we're talking about five lanes - had to stop short.

While ol' 1P59's driver may be significantly less intelligent than most taxi drivers, I've seen enough infractions to doubt that there are any taxi drivers who always obey the rules. As a result, I take my "never jaywalk if it impedes traffic" mantra a little less seriously when there's a taxi around.

I don't have much to say on etiquette with respect to hailing and riding in taxis, since I never take 'em. I find it rather funny that the same people who complain about not having enough money are willing to spend $20 on a ride that would cost $1.50 - and take only 15 minutes longer - by subway. Or do we all make $74 an hour?


Where they belong Bicycles do not belong on the sidewalk at any time, anywhere, ever. They belong in the street. Bicyclists do not have the authority (though they seem to have the audacity) to run red lights or travel in the opposite direction as the traffic. For cyclists who would like to avoid traffic and pedestrians, there's a beautiful, 153-square-block traffic-free zone called Central Park.


Between the lanes If there's room, I suppose it's OK for motorcycles to weave in and out of snarled traffic. As long as it doesn't interfere with my jaywalking.

The noise We can't fault the motorcycle riders for this, but those things are awfully noisy. I like the small moped version: quiet, small, sleek, and fast.


Reopening and holding doors If I see someone ahead of me about to enter an elevator, and I want to make the same elevator, I'll run for it. If I get to the elevator and the doors haven't started to close, I'll hop on.

But if the doors have started to close, it's not acceptable to stick a hand in and make them open again. (I don't think elevator manufacturers should let doors reopen, but we have to deal with what we have.) The same principles should apply as on the subway: Once the doors start to close, let them close. (Fate provided the tiniest bit of revenge when someone stuck a hand in to reopen the doors on 19 and pressed the lobby button, not realizing that it was an up elevator taking me to 23. I'm just nice enough to have abstained from hitting the top floor button - something like 48 - before exiting.)

Now, what if you're already inside and someone's trying to make the elevator? If you're alone, it's your choice: holding the door open causes no one a delay but yourself. But if there's someone else in the elevator with you, holding (or reopening) the door necessarily causes the other person a delay, and I don't think its permissible to force such a delay on someone else. Again, consider the subway analogy: If you wouldn't reopen the subway doors for someone when the next train is five minutes away, why would you reopen elevator doors, when there's probably another elevator in less than a minute? I moot the issue by always moving to the back of the elevator when I enter - or if I can't get there, by being preoccupied with something else.

Preparing to exit In a crowded elevator going up, if you know you're not getting off next, move aside and let the next getting-off-ers have access to the door - even before the elevator gets to the next stop. How many times have I been the first to get on, moved to the back, seen other people press several higher-numbered buttons, and had to fight my way to the front after the doors had opened at my floor?

Incorrect button press If I'm in an elevator with someone else and I accidentally press the wrong button, I'll get off at the floor I mistakenly chose and deal with the situation from there. There is no reason to make someone wait for an extra floor stop just because I haven't bothered to make sure I press the correct button. Whenever possible, I'll not make others pay for my mistakes.

A note to elevator manufacturers Don't include "Door close" buttons that don't do anything. Do include a "Cancel" button so that someone who has pressed the wrong button may rectify the situation. Include the "Cancel" button near the buttons that call the elevator, too, so that people who call the elevator and then realize they've forgotten something can avoid causing the elevator to stop unnecessarily.


Walk left, stand right The "walk left, stand right" rule seems to hold only in Europe and on the abysmally overcrowded escalators providing access to the E and V subway trains at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. It is a remarkably efficient system whose absence elsewhere must cause hurrying, harried people hours of lost productivity per day. Let's invoke it universally, and we'll all be happy.

I advocate an extension to this rule: When everyone is walking, make the left side a faster lane. If the escalator isn't crowded, even if I'm running up or down, I'll move to the right whenever possible - just in case there's someone behind me who wants to go even faster.

Obviously, luggage and other parcels shouldn't block either lane.

After exiting I'm amazed how many people don't realize that it's necessary to start walking after exiting an escalator. After getting off, move away!


Revolving doors

Don't waste sectors Go through the next available sector. When a bunch of people are waiting to pass through, don't let an available passage go unused.

Non-revolving doors

Don't hold them Let chivalry die, unless you and your chivalrees are the only ones to go through. One person holding a door while five people contemplate who will go through next is not the world's most efficient use of time.


Jaywalking Ah, jaywalking: an art crafted and refined by millions of savvy (or simply practical) New Yorkers through the years. The cursorily invoked Manhattan jaywalking fine has remained at $2 for decades, but most cops are more likely to jaywalk with you than issue a summons.

Common sense should prevail. If you can get from A to B without affecting the passage of a properly driven vehicle, you should be allowed to make the journey, regardless of whether the journey happens to be on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk or near a grammatically challenged traffic signal. (I see no reason to pay attention to a sign that says "Dont walk," which rhymes with "font talk." If they get that apostrophe in there, maybe I'll take them seriously.)

So jaywalking is obviously to be allowed, and in fact I often find it essential, as the pedestrian lights on avenues don't sync with my walking speed when I'm going in the same direction as the traffic. (If I'm going against the traffic, I tend to make all the lights.)

However, jaywalking should never impede the progress of traffic that has the right of way. If a car would have to slow down to let you jaywalk, you shouldn't do it. (Pretend you're in Moscow, where the cars don't slow down.)

Umbrellas I'd call for them to be banned, but I don't think I'd get much support. At the very least, there should be a minimum height requirement: They ought to be carried high enough that there's no chance that they'll obstruct my path. Rule of thumb: An umbrella is being carried too low if I have to walk around it, rather than the person carrying it.

Don't walk in a group side by side The sidewalks are two-way. Realize, if you're in a group, that some of you might have to walk behind the others. It's OK for three or four people to walk in a line as long as they devote a sufficient amount of mental RAM to recognizing when they will have to split up.

Let fast people through Anything that has the potential to slow my normal walking speed of 39 seconds per block is a sidewalk hazard. I may be fast, but I'm logical; unlike many people, I walk in a straight line, and unlike many people, I actually like to get where I'm going. I consider it perfectly reasonable that I should be the one to find my way around slower people (which is almost everybody), but I should not have to find my way around incompetent people; this category includes people who linger in the middle of the sidewalk, people who obstruct street crossings, and people who walk in a group side by side.

Exception: Dogs are perfectly free to move in their own cantankerous paths, and they should be given plenty of room, especially if they're cute.