Jessica Hester had a great post detailing how we've been trying to alternately shame and cajole people into being respectful and not taking up too much space since the subways were built more than a century ago. But she didn't explicitly draw the conclusion I did: that there is no evidence these campaigns have actually decreased manspreading, blocking doors or rude language on the subway.
Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of stuff on the subway that annoys me, and I want it to stop. But it's not the same stuff that annoys other people. For example, I can't stand cell phone conversations or some asshole playing deejay on their tinny little speakers, but I have no problem with people clipping their fingernails. I would do it myself if so many people hadn't told me they hate it. And that's what I think a lot of these people are missing: the understanding that even if you can't understand why something bothers other people, it still does, and maybe you still shouldn't do it.
It may be simply that evil will always exist in the world, and the campaigns are necessary to simply keep us running in place against the forces of backpacks and panhandling. But if you've been doing something for a hundred years without making any progress, maybe you should try something else? As Hester points out, these conditions respond to forces outside the system: there is a lot less boombox-playing, smoking and tobacco-spitting today than there were in previous decades, and more mobile video games, cell phone music and Showtime.
Police Commissioner Bratton visited the subway last week, and as Ben Kabak observed, his comments were mostly clueless and out of touch. Outsider perspective can be valuable, but only if the outsider watches, listens and thinks before saying anything. I think Bratton was correct that if we are seeing more fights it's a symptom of overcrowding.
There are some transit problems that are encouraged by underuse of the transit system, like muggings, rape and graffiti. But there are others that are exacerbated by overuse and crowding, like unwanted sexual contact, door-blocking and fighting over seats. This means that the real solution is to increase transit capacity, and efforts to get people to be more polite and take up less room are mostly a waste of time.
That said, there is at least one area I can think of where a real education campaign - not a scolding campaign - could make a small difference. I'll talk about it in a future post. In the meantime, keep doing what you can to increase capacity!