Monday, November 10, 2008

Waiting for the train

With nine years of BART-riding experience now under my belt, I feel it necessary to make a statement about how people line up to wait for the train. For those unfamiliar with the BART system, each train car has two doors, and the edges of the platforms are marked with black to inform you as to where the aforementioned doors will be when the train stops.

As you might presume, people tend to cluster around these door areas when waiting -- not much sense in waiting, for example, near the middle of the train, and having to relocate to the rear of a mass of people who have more wisely been waiting near the door once the train actually arrives. I've come to the conclusion that there are two possible successful strategies in Waiting Technique:

1) Neat lines (e.g. Rockridge). People line up in single file in front of where the train's doors will be. The earlier you arrive, the better your chance of a place near the front of the line and therefore a seat on the train. Deviations from the system are punished by angry frowns by everyone else on the platform, and very possibly being blocked from entering the train until the end by the combined effort of the boarding line.

2) Total chaos (e.g. Downtown Berkeley until recently). No rules, no etiquette; your likelihood of getting on the train first is directly proportional to your pushiness and/or ability nonchalantly to get in front of everyone else. People tend to form semicircles against the platform's edge and then all attempt to cram inwards once the doors open.

Plan 1 is undoubtedly more orderly, but 2 works just fine as well and I've observed general harmony either way. What DOESN'T work, and now we come to the purpose of today's diatribe, is a combination of the above systems. This is the current culture that prevails at Bayfair where I wait for the train every morning, and it is beginning, ladies and gentlemen, to chafe.

In system 1.5, between about a half and two thirds of the waiting public feel the need to stand in a neat line, but the rest wait to the side and merge with the front of the line when the doors open. The thing I don't understand is why anyone is still lining up. It's not doing them any good, because there's no sense of fairness like at Rockridge: the person who lines up nicely is less likely to get a seat on the train because of all the folks cutting in at the front of the line. Since this happens every day at every door, one wonders what on Earth the incentive could be to keep being "nice."

What we're basically seeing here is a small-scale dramatization via our system of social norms of the concept of the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS) from evolutionary theory. An ESS is a strategy or combination of strategies that can't be invaded by competing strategies because deviations from the norm are punished by a reduced payoff for the deviator. At downtown Berkeley, for instance, anyone who lines up is virtually guaranteed to get on the train last; likewise, at Rockridge, anyone who doesn't line up is virtually guaranteed to get on the train last.

So what in god's name is going on with Bayfair? Is it in transition between the two types, just waiting for one of them to get strong enough to tip the strategy permanently? I sort of don't think so, because I've been watching this for about a year now and I can't say I've noticed any shift at all in the frequency of the two factions. I do have a theory, however.

Because this game is being played, as I mentioned, in the world of human social expectations instead of that of gene survival, there are some other forces in effect that change the rules. When I first started waiting at Bayfair in the morning I was immediately struck by the ludicrousness of this situation and resolved not to put up with it -- I would not be "nice" and line up because, damn it all, I had a long ride ahead of me and I wanted a seat! But the horrible internal social pressure I felt was eventually too much, and I now find myself lining up even though I know it's completely futile and I just wind up grinding my teeth in frustration with the assholes who keep cutting in at the front of the line.

So maybe everyone in this lining-up subset of Bayfair culture fully realizes how utterly pointless it is, but is nevertheless completely unable to restrain himself from trying to align with the perceived correct social behavior.

How do I fix this? Can I stage some kind of nonviolent protest? I'm afraid I might lose it one of these mornings and start berating people in Polish or something.

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