This process [of forming lines] may not be fun, but it’s fair. Curse lines all you like, but we would be doomed without them. Unless you’re simultaneously the strongest, smartest, fastest and most universally capable human being on the planet, you should be thankful that lines exist and that, for the most part, people use them in ways that make life less miserable, not more. Which is to say the line is not a persistent social nuisance. It’s one of our most noble collective achievements.I came to this via Timothy Noah, Jeremiah of inequality, and was led in a Twitter exchange to think about a relative bright spot where the new classism has not yet penetrated: commuter trains. I ride New Jersey Transit into Penn Station in New York, a prime example of inadequate U.S. infrastructure which, on the plus side, has induced regular commuters to develop their own complex, site-specific queuing etiquette.
Penn Station is not only a groaning architectural misery above-ground, but remains saddled below-ground with a hundred year-old track-and-platform architecture ill-equipped to handle current volume. For those waiting to board a train, track numbers are posted just ten minutes (at best) before departure, which leads to a rush for the too-narrow gates (we commuting vets can usually find our trains before they're posted, but that's a different story). Coming in, passengers must navigate a narrow platform on which long lines form in front of the various staircases (some lines much longer than others), which people approach from opposite ends depending on where they exit the train and which direction they choose to walk. Passengers who are invested in getting a good seat (going down) or in getting up off the platform in good time (i.e., most everyone when it's 100 degrees down there) may find themselves making several decisions, consciously, unconsciously or semi-consciously, to ethically maximize advantage (some, like my dearworthy wife, consider it demeaning or just churlish to even try).
Let's say your track has just been called, and maybe 60 people are converging from multiple angles on each two gates within your sight lines. Multiple lines form in front of each, spokes converging on the gate-hub in a semi-circle. Choose which line you will (those directly in front of the gate are generally longer but move faster than those closer to the wall in which the gate is set), but there's an unwritten rule. You can end-run the spokes nearest your approach and choose your favored line. You can't end run a whole array of established lines (if the whole semi circle is not filled) and simply march past the queue nearest you straight up to the gate. At least, very few people do. You can, however (and I confess this is going a little squishy on me as I mentally reconstruct it) go straight at the gate if you're approaching it from its exposed flank. Looping round is different, and people see it. They may move move (subtly -- I can't remember an actual confrontation) to box you out, or make you think twice about the flanking maneuver.
Exiting the train confronts you with a different decision tree. There are I think four staircases and one elevator on most platforms. Depending on where they exit, people will approach these staircases from two sides (actually four, since some will traverse the platform width to the less crowded side). Long lines will form on some or all of them. The platforms are narrow, and the lines will take up almost their entire width -- you have to walk on the yellow warning strip along the track edge to bypass a line.
You can bypass a line if you walk on to a staircase beyond (the time involved may be a wash, but some of us prefer to keep moving). Commuters who recognize what you're doing will move in to let you pass. And if you approach a staircase from the direction opposite to the one on which the lines forms, you needn't go to the back; there's generally a shorter reverse-direction feed-in (sometimes more than one), which is a joint product of various people's I-won't-go-to-the-back-but-I-won't-cut-the-whole-line internal compromises. You can't simply bypass a line and fold in near the staircase, or double back and jump on the short-end feeder line.
When I say "can't," I mean that 99.8% of people don't.
These rules are to some degree implicitly formed (and I suspect subtly enforced via body language) by veteran commuters familiar with the territory.They are also to some degree spontaneously recognized by the vast majority in a civilized society. Which ours remains, more or less. Here's hoping that galloping inequality doesn't destroy our internal monitors.
Boarding an inbound train from one of the suburban platforms is a different art. Some trains line up their doors at the same points every day, others don't. I've known people who position themselves at the same crack in the platform every morning and are generally first on. Pro tip: if you're on an unfamiliar platform, and people are clustered at intervals, choose a cluster and position yourself behind its midpoint. The wisdom of crowds operates here: some obsessive commuter competitor has grabbed the prime spot, and later comers have positioned themselves around him (I'm pretty sure it's usually "him"). Here's your, pardon the gender stereotyping, man:
One man in a gray flannel suit
with iPhone and Evian bottle
is king of my daily commute,
an 8:17 Aristotle.
Like a wandering bird to the nest,
he has a sixth sense to direct him:
wherever the train comes to rest,
its opening doors could bisect him.
Rat race, or fluid human dance?