Jessica Gross

Stop Requested

In musings, people watching on March 6, 2009 at 5:33 pm

If you’ve never ridden a New York City bus, let me induct you into our elite circle with some info about protocol. Unlike our underground friend, the subway, the bus does not pull over at every stop along its route. No siree! If there are people at the bus stop, yeah, it’ll let them on. But if no one is waiting, something special has to happen.

Are you on the edge of your seat? I present you with the magic formula: to ensure that the bus will let you off, you’ve got to press the tape.

Huh? What’s the tape? Oh, silly you. Along the walls of the bus, at two-seat intervals, are sensor-filled strips, colored yellow or black. When you push on these pieces of “tape,” the bus driver is alerted that you’d like to get off at the next stop. That way, if no one’s waiting and no one needs to get off, the bus can sail right by the stop without wasting time.

It’s a brilliant system. As I mused about it today on the M79, something odd struck me: people usually don’t wait until the last minute to press the tape, hoping that someone will do it before them. With regularity, passengers request each stop way before the bus has reached it.

Why did this surprise me? For one, I’m not one of the responsible passengers: I often do wait for someone else to push the tape. And, whenever I wait, someone else takes action.

For another, this makes no sense from a psychological standpoint. According to the bystander effect, the more people are present, the less likely each one of them is to offer help in an emergency. One explanation is that everyone perceives responsibility as spread over the entire crowd — so each person, as a single member, can leave the gallantry to everyone else.

Granted, pushing the tape is not the same as coming to the rescue in an emergency. But the basics — that something must be done, and someone has to man or woman up and do it — are the same. Why do people so readily push the tape? Is it because the procedure becomes so habitual that there isn’t a thought process involved anymore? Or (my personal theory) is it because people just think pushing the tape is fun?

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  1. a delightful read, as i am a bus rider regular.

  2. i do enjoy pushing the tape, but then there’s the hygienic consideration of “who else has touched this tape?” as i recall your boogers-on-the-subway post, this makes me slightly uneasy.

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