If you live in Toronto, you might be familiar with this scene: You get on a TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) bus or streetcar. It’s insanely packed up front, but you think “Hey, I wonder if there’s more room further back…” so you start muttering “excuse me…pardon me…can I just…thanks…excuse me…” and squeezing your way through a resistant, angry mob who refuse to budge while stubbornly avoiding eye contact. It’s hard. But you persevere. And just as you begin to wonder if you’re ever going to make it, suddenly, you’re in the back half of the streetcar…
…And it’s half empty! There’s tons of room. You could do a little dance! There are even empty seats.
Maybe you’ve experienced this. TTC riders are notorious for it.*
Or maybe you’re one of the others. Those who crowd the front, refusing to move back or let others through. If you are, I think I speak for many when I say: WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH YOU??? There are signs on every vehicle saying: “Please move back!” “A little further back, please!” and “Thank you for moving back!”
Can you read? Don’t you realize that moving back would make room for more people and allow the TTC to function more efficiently? Don’t you care? What’s going on?
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that all these people are clueless idiots and totally oblivious to others and the impact they have on those around them. But that seems a little harsh.
Let’s examine what else might be going on.
TTC buses are stupid
As pointed out on this Reddit thread titled “Why don’t people move to the back of the TTC bus?” The back of the bus is narrow, and the stairs feel treacherous. It’s hard to walk to the back because the thing is flinging you about. Some probably feel it’s better just to stay up front.
Sure. But that doesn’t explain the exact same problem on streetcars, as these are less terrible.
People associate the back of the bus with subjugation
My friend Devon, who always moves to the back, points out that the “back of the bus” is associated with the civil rights movement and subjugation. In 2013, for example, a gay couple was forced to move to the back of a New Mexico bus, and in 2011 a Brooklyn bus line run by Orthodox Jews made headlines for complaints about its practises of segregating women to the back.
Maybe, he muses, some have an aversion (probably subconscious) to the back of the bus for this reason.
People feel safer closer to the driver
This was suggested by public transit consultant Jarrett Walker when I asked for his thoughts.
It makes some sense. The back of the bus is also associated with rebels, thugs, teenagers, and rebellious, thuggy teenagers. Correlated with subjugation, those who either are maligned or who feel maligned may pre-emptively separate themselves from the status quo as an act of defiance.
So, for you nice law-abiding folks, it’s like the Wild West back there. Anything could happen!*
Close to the driver feels safer. (Even if they want to kill you for clogging the bus.)
Studies repeatedly demonstrate that people take their cues from those around them. People see others not moving to the back of the bus and assume that they’re not supposed to either.
So, you only need a few nitwits to block the way and stop everyone else in their tracks.
People don’t know that they can move to the back
Similarly, once the front is crowded with people taking their cues from the crowd, new people then get on the bus and assume they can’t move back because nobody else has. They might reasonably assume that the back is already full.
They fear missing their stop and think they’ll get to the door faster if they stay near it
Walker said, “This is why people are especially resistant to moving back beyond the rear door of a bus.”
But, I don’t know…if there’s nobody else past the door, aren’t you going to get off the bus faster if you move past it?
This issue might be exacerbated by the fact that most Torontonians would rather chew off their own arms than assert themselves by firmly saying “excuse me,” and pushing their way through. I believe this due less to the famous Canadian “politeness,” than an insecurity that, combined with the less-famous Torontonian passive aggression, results in people staring at their feet while shooting themselves in them.
People are clueless idiots who are totally oblivious to others and the impact they have on those around them
I said this isn’t a conclusion one should jump to. That doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility.
We all have to live in the world together. Maybe it wouldn’t kill you to look around and figure out how you can make everything work a little better and flow a little smoother.
But hey, don’t let me tell you how to live. You stay crushed in the front. I’ll be sitting in the back, revelling in all the space. At least until new designs eliminate the problem.
* Though it flies in the face of research suggesting people will go to any lengths to avoid being near others on public transit.
** Nothing is going to happen.