Sardines. Every morning subway commuters are packed into overcrowded tins like generic and anonymous fish. The only way out of these cans is through three small doors. And by the time I’m ready for my exit there’s almost no way out.
I’m lucky. I get on at the beginning of the subway line so I can usually sit close to the egress. This gives me a front row seat as human nature typically unfolds; when people get on the train they mass at the exits rather than moving out of the way towards the center of the car. The closer we move downtown the more packed it gets. Natural selection has culled commuters in its own efficient way; we all want to make sure we can get off at our appointed stops. It’s the survival of the fittest. And who can argue with Mother Nature?
Working against her is the Metro. They’ve configured subway seats like a train’s: a small center aisle with two-by-two seating on each side (unlike the NYC subway where the seats are arranged along the sides creating large open areas for movement in and out). People don’t move to the center as instructed because the aisle is narrow and, in a crowded car, hard to navigate. So they congregate at the exit, a small space bounded by two windshield partitions. But when the doors part, they continue to stand there creating a dam and ignoring the rush that ensues. Riders are reduced to shoving upstream through a small rivulet.
As we enter each station we are admonished by the loudspeaker to “step back to allow customers to exit.” No one listens. And we push to get out and push to get in before that voice returns to let us know the doors are now closing. Subway doors are not like elevators. Touching their edges does not make them retract. These doors will close right on you like pincers. Human sardines beware.
The Metro is considering reconfiguring the seats like New York’s subway to allow for a better flow. But that’s a ways off, if it happens at all. Instead, last Fall they had a contest to find just the right new loud and forceful speaker to command us to move out of the way. The old voice was sweet (but, alas, ineffective). “Doors closing,” she’d say in her nurturing second grade teacher sort of way. But Metro was looking for a something sterner. The context winner is more like your six grade teacher (Quicktime Audio, 308 KB). You know, the one who rapped you on the knuckles if you passed a note to your girlfriend across the room.
Everyone hates her grating and condescending voice. And to prove our disdain we ignore her. People continue to crowd the exits. But I have a better plan and one we can implement right away. My idea also comes from New York. But not from downunder. Instead my inspiration comes from above (ok, more like street level).
Borrowing from New York’s plan to reduce intersection gridlock, the Metro should institute a “Don’t Block the Box” campaign. Mark off subway car exits in bright and bold yellow. Give the announcer a new script that includes the admonishment DON’T BLOCK THE BOX said in her best uncompromising tone (more like your middle school vice principal).
Metro, you need to link your serious announcer’s words to something concrete. Unlike the amorphous request to “move to the center of the car,” with these visuals you create a clear no-standing zone. Additionally, this campaign would give commuters a verbal snippet that will stick in our minds even when we try hard to banish it (just like the latest example of “subliminal” marketing from the makers of HeadOn). Easily repeatable when offenders, well, offend: “Don’t block the box, sir. I need to get out.” Civilized and to the point, with just a hint of shame –just the retort I’ve been looking for. Perfect. When the subway system figures out how to stop trains in the same exact place at each station every time, place these boxes on the platform too.
A little bit of yellow paint and already I’m beginning to feel like a big fish in this murky sea.
Update: The Washington Post takes note of my suggestion.