Mass transit anthropology

Flipping through a book on people’s relationship to space in the library over the weekend, I came across an analysis of seating patterns on British trains, and in particular the unspoken rule that people never sit directly next to or directly opposite someone else unless they have to. I’ve seen this rule in action on pretty much every bus and train I’ve ever ridden. My high school chemistry teacher once described Hund’s Rule as "the empty bus rule," comparing electrons in an atom to passengers who don’t want to sit next to each other. (And I remember it to this day. Thanks, Mr. A.!)

Since moving to Philly, I’ve noticed that the seat-occupation rule doesn’t always seem to apply here; there have been a handful of occasions when someone has taken the seat next to me (or someone else) when there were empty pairs of seats nearby. I can’t see any underlying pattern that would explain why this happens, though, or whether it’s true in other parts of the country and I just didn’t notice it as much when I lived elsewhere. Perhaps it’s time to read some Edward T. Hall.

My other recent mass-transit observation: Not only is the bus stop one of those places where strangers can talk to each other, it’s also sometimes the site of an interesting kind of cooperation. There’s a corner in Center City where two bus routes converge, on opposite sides of the street. The two routes go in the same direction, so people often take the first bus that arrives. But watching for both buses entails looking in two directions and being ready to dash across the street. When multiple people are waiting, they tend to move to opposite sides of the street and divide up the task of watching for the buses. I’ve occasionally seen people at one stop call out to the people at the other stop that the bus was on its way. What interests me is that the agreement to keep a lookout is always tacit, but perceptible. There’s a whole layer of nonverbal communication, until the bus shows up.

(SEPTA: providing opportunities for amateur anthropology every day! It doesn’t make up for the fare hikes, but it keeps my mind occupied, at least.)

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