Take a seat

26 May 2007
8:00 AM

Crowds waiting to board subway train
Hoards of people wait to board the subway at Vicente Valdes, the first station on the green line of the Santiago subway. Imagine what it’s like at the subsequent stations.

Have you ever seen six-year-olds play soccer? If so, then you have some idea of what Chilean lines can look like. If not, I’ll describe both simultaneously: people clumped together in groups, running around, trying to get something with little regard for planning, and crammed together on the same physical point in a way that defies certain laws of physics. When it comes to complaining about line chaos in Chile, been there, done that. The subway in Santiago, however, has lifted the hilarity of lines to a new level.

The city recently debuted a new integrated transit system, Transantiago, which has been called optimistically Transanfiasco. It does little the old system didn’t while adding new hassles. To make the massively overcrowded subway less unpleasant, the company that operates it has undertaken a cultural education campaign to teach metro manners. To that end, there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of this photogenic finger-pointer giving tips about using the subway. He is the director of customer relations, and he relates the following message: This is very important. Next comes one of three options: (1) don’t cross the yellow line, (2) don’t interfere with the closing doors, or (3) let others off before you board.

Really, they should have skipped the first two and focused on the third. People already know not to jump in front of moving trains, and they’re going to cram between closing doors unless you line them with razor blades. We need to put our energy where it might effect change. My recent experience tells me that people are getting better about letting others off before boarding. There are still plenty of thrown elbows and mosh-pit-like entrances onto the trains. The other day I saw one guy pull some running, flying, WWF elbow-drop on this grandma, though it turned out he was just trying to get on during rush hour. But at least people are waiting and letting others off before they pull their tricks. One part that needs clarification is where people should wait while other people disembark. I recommend changing the message to, “Let others off before you board, remembering that people can’t pass through your body like they did in that movie Ghost, so you’re going to have to wait at the sides of the doors instead of directly in front of them.” It’s wordy, but these aren’t things we can take for granted.

Check-out lanes for pregnant, elderly
Special privileges for the expecting and elderly extend beyond the transit system. At the grocery store there are check-out lanes reserved for expecting mothers and members of the “third age,” the polite term for elderly here.

I digress. Although the state of lines in Chile in particular and public manners in general are still lamentable, my main point in writing today is to mention a peculiar exception. People may shove like there’s no tomorrow, but they are aggressively polite when it comes to the elderly, handicapped, and pregnant/child-carrying women. Especially the women. Someone who falls into any of these categories can except to sit down within 30 seconds of boarding even the most crowded car. The other day I was packed into a subway sardine tin when one woman shouted to a mother down the car holding a baby on her hip, “Hey, woman with the baby, take a seat here!” (I don’t want you to think I’m playing fast and loose with the translation, so check this transcript for yourself: “Oiga, señora con la guaguita, tome asiento acá.”) The mother gracefully declined, indicating that she was getting off at the next stop. On other occasions, I have taken part in a courteous version of musical chairs to rearrange seat space for a mother and children.

Sometimes these musical chair seat swaps add a bit of humanity to the cold world of city transit. Strangers are quick to help blind people using the subway. A person who can’t see have to wait mere moments before a passerby will ask where he is going, orient him, escort him onto the train, or get him a seat. Two weeks ago Caitlin saw a man offer his seat to an elderly man who had just boarded the subway car. At the next stop, an expecting woman stepped aboard. The elderly man vacated his just-acquired seat and gave it to her.

While more general courtesy would be nice, I suppose the system works out. Those of us who can fight the wild lines and crowds do, while those who could use some help get it. If we ever run into each other on the Santiago Metro, and you look like you could use some help, you can have my seat. Otherwise, prepare yourself because I throw a mean elbow.