Travelers' teachable moments
Just how far should you go to convey information or encourage a certain behavior in a driver, transit rider, cyclist or pedestrian?
That was among the themes in a very social version of our weekly online chat about transportation issues. (I say "social" to distinguish it from our factual discussions of such topics as when a lane closure is going to end, or whether Metro should open stations later to save money. "Social" transportation discussions involve travelers complaining about each other.)
Part of the discussion involved how to convey our "walk left stand right" approach to Metro escalators. This is a follow-up note I received after the discussion:
"I tend not to climb the escalators (bad knees). So, if I see people in front of me standing to the left, I'll say something like "excuse me" (in a very friendly tone and with a smile), "I don't know if you ride the Metro often, so I hope you don't mind if I give you a friendly tip, but it would be appreciated if you would stand to the right if you aren't walking up, so that other people can pass. Unfortunately, if you don't, there are some people who are in a hurry and won't be very polite about it especially during rush hour." I usually add "Oh, and the train doors aren't like elevator doors -- if you stick an arm in them, they will just close on it. Hard. Best not to."
"Yes, just 'excuse me' as you try to pass works for that once, but I look at it as part of the 'teach a man to fish' theory. If you just say excuse me and pass them, they may think it was just you, keep blocking the escalators, and wonder why Washingtonians are so rude. If you nicely explain it's sort of the norm, they'll be aware and feel part of the system."
My first thought was, this is really polite. But you'd have to be on the long escalators at Dupont Circle, or Bethesda or Rosslyn to convey that much information. I think it's more likely travelers will take my shortcut: Just say, "Excuse me," walk on, and hope they get the idea.
As Dr. Gridlock, I've heard from all sorts of travelers who want to convey a message to other travelers to modify their behavior. No way is foolproof. Some are downright dangerous. Here's how it breaks down.
Say it. This should be the best, most rational and least threatening method. But you were probably thinking about the reactions our escalator rider gets about walk left-stand right. And imagine if the teachable moment involved a talk with someone eating aboard a Metro train. I've also heard from cyclists and pedestrians who shout behavioral advice to drivers at intersections. I think "say it" has the best chance of success if it's a message between the same types of travelers. In other words a pedestrian to a pedestrian, or a transit rider to a transit rider. People have a tendency to divide themselves into categories once they get in motion, and it becomes us against them.
Show it. For when words fail you. This usually involves drivers. To send a message to someone following too closely, for example, they tap the brakes or -- more aggressively -- turn on their window washers to spray the following car. But it also covers all sorts of hand gestures. The most common is meant to cool tempers after a near-collision. The miscreant makes one of several gestures to convey, "My fault. I know I goofed." The trouble is that there's no manual for these. The "I'm an idiot" gesture looks much like the "You're an idiot" gesture.
Act it out. This action, unfortunately, is usually meant to punish the perceived bad behavior. The category includes behavior in merging traffic. A driver believes that another motorist seeking entry to the lane has violated the unwritten code of conduct, so he gets right on the bumper of the lead car, denying access to the transgressor. Action leads to action, leading to rage. On a crowded train, this could be the exiting passenger who barrels straight into the person standing on the other side of the door. (Yes, the person shouldn't be blocking the exit. But there's no glory in sacking another commuter on a platform.)
This category also covers those who do the right thing, in silence, because they think it's possible another traveler will imitate the behavior.
I've heard two basic arguments for and against attempting teachable moments.
For: There aren't enough police to observe and correct bad behavior on the roads, rails or sidewalks. The only consequences most travelers face when they step out of line come from other travelers who admonish them or block them from reaping a reward from selfish conduct.
Against: In the typical confrontation between travelers, there's too little time and way too much stress for teaching to be effective. You could be wrong; the perceived bad behavior may have a legitimate explanation. The exchange you start with the best of intentions may escalate out of your control.
What's your view on when -- if ever -- to correct another traveler's behavior?
April 20, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories: Biking , Driving , Safety , transit | Tags: Dr. Gridlock
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