Crowd Culture on the TTC

Many months ago, I was pleased to find myself in an empty subway train. When you’re feeling tired and on a long commute home, nothing beats having a train to yourself, grabbing a front-facing seat and settling into your best slouch.

At the next stop, another passenger came on and sat in side-facing seat right in front of me.

What the hell?

Everyone knows that in any kind of public arena, you’re entitled to at least an empty seat on all sides until it gets crowded. (See the rules of packing efficiency, minus the bathroom setting.) I’m a relatively tall guy, and I was not pleased to lose my leg room. Here we were on an empty train, and now I had to sit up straight so my knees wouldn’t encroach on someone else’s personal space, when it was my space that had been invaded in the first place. But, if I moved to a different seat, I’d be acknowledging that I had a God-given right to that space, making a mountain out of a molehill, and what kind of person would that make me? I can’t kid myself – that’s one heck of a molehill take drastic action over.

So I sat and stewed for the rest of the ride. Not exactly an improvement, but at least my public face said “I am a reasonable person, happy to sit up to make room for others, and not at all filled with expectation that I have a right to isolation on public transportation.”

Torontonians in general have a peculiar attitude toward crowded buses, streetcars and trains. We know perfectly well that the system is overloaded and that people often get bypassed by a stuffed-to-the-gills vehicle. We’ve all probably been the ones to get passed by at least a few times. And, almost assuredly, we’ve been left on the platform for a vehicle that wasn’t even full.

You know what I’m talking about. People won’t have moved to the back of the bus. You’ll see a smattering of empty seats while the straphangers are packed like sardines on a streetcar. The subway boasts empty space between the doors where another 10 to 15 riders could easily squeeze.

Compare that to the Japanese, who pack themselves in so religiously that it is now a paying job to stand on the platform and shove people in so the doors can close (skip to the 30-second mark):

Do we shove our way in, knowing there’s room to spare? Not usually. Are we likely to be one of the offenders, leaving a seat empty or an extra foot or two of space on either side just for our own comfort, knowing that fellow comrades-in-transit are stranded curbside? Probably. Because we Torontonians, broadly, are perfectly OK with valuing personal space over efficiency. We strand ourselves, secure in the knowledge that we’ll do the same to whoever’s behind us in line. Plus, the next bus is only what, 40 minutes away?

Unless – and here’s the cute part – someone calls us on it. Call it transit guilt. The overriding, invisible Toronto acceptance that we’re all selfish, that we accept the selfishness of others and that we plan to be selfish again, all of that goes out the window when someone challenges it. Students may use empty seats as their luggage rack, but see how quickly that bag moves to their lap when another rider moves to take the seat. Watch how one impatient rider on the platform forcing his or her way on board results in everybody silently acknowledging that yeah, we can move in more, we guess. Watch how I was so embarrassed at my expectation of a two-metre isolation bubble that I refused to re-establish it once breached. When that one special rider challenges the herd, you can almost feel a tangible wave pass through the crowd. Nobody is willing to admit that they hogged personal space on purpose, and nobody is willing to act like they had a right to it in the first place. We just make others fight for their ride. I mean, if they want it badly enough to push for it, then who are we to argue?

It’s wait and let wait out there.