Monday, September 15, 2008

Train Exchange Madness

"To our surprise, the people who stopped to talk did not move out of the main pedestrian flow; and if they had been out of it, they moved into it. The great bulk of the conversations were smack in the middle of the pedestrian flow -- the 100% location, to borrow the real estate term."

William H. Whyte,City: Rediscovering the Center

Whyte discovered one of those strange human patterns of behavior that holds constant across places and cultures. I was reminded of this discovery last week when I observed with some annoyance, on my daily train commute from DC to Baltimore, that departing passengers were again closing off the path of escape for arriving passengers, ultimately slowing down their own progress. This happens most often when trains are running late, but not always. Contrary to Whyte's hypothesis, however, these people were, for the most part, strangers who were not in conversation.

If conviviality didn't explain this counterproductive behavior, what did? I have a few thoughts. First, Amtrak (who operates the state MARC trains) is unable to regularly deploy staff at the right times and places with the same set of instructions for commuters. If uncertainty prevails, commuters go for it. Last week a conductor jumped in front of a crowd of departing passengers, threw out his arms, and cried "Stop!" to no avail.

Second, the Amtrak stations I deal with are not well designed to handle daily commuters. In DC, MARC trains use one double set of doors for arriving and departing passengers on 5-6 trains loading and unloading at the same time during rush hour. It's the design, stupid! I've seen train ridership increase considerably in the past few months as travelers switch to trains,flying Southwest to BWI, and returning to school in the law or health professions in Baltimore because of the economy. In this case, design really does matter.

Finally, this problem is one more piece of evidence that people pursue their own self interest in some circumstances rather than the collective good. That is, departing passengers will try to get on the next train or get to the front of the line even though this slows stuff down for everyone. Getting a seat means everything, the right seat, even when there are excess seats, as in the morning going north. A similar pattern of behavior occurs when highway traffic lanes reduce from 3 to 2: some cars will race down that third lane until it ends, taking advantage of everybody else lined up complying with the signs. The whole thing slows to a halt.

Who says commuting to work isn't intellectually rewarding?


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I was just reading about this 2,3 lane merging. Apparently, doing last-minute merges actually increases throughput because the action that you're taking is unambiguous.

Your point stands, of course.

Bob Giloth said...

I would love to see the article -- optimism based upon the invisible hand of throughputs. My own experience is that when truckers block the third merging lane, with a little help from cars, things move faster. But maybe that is illusory