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Self Governance on a Commuter Train?

We’ve all been there.

Trapped on a commuter train, or in a restaurant, or at a park, or on a bus when suddenly someone right next to you begins a loud conversation on their mobile phone. I’m not sure exactly what it is about this particular type of noise that is so grating when there are innumerable other sources of disruption all around us, but as these conversations drone on and on, our blood pressure rises and we become increasingly agitated.

Or we find ourselves sitting next to someone who is listening to music at such a level that the songs are literally screaming out of their ear-buds. Again, incredibly irritating.

Recently, the Long Island Railroad, a branch of the Metropolitan Transit Authority here in the New York area, instituted a new “quiet car policy”.

Simply stated, the front car of every rush hour train is designated as a “quiet car” where cell phone conversations, loud talking, loud music and other disruptive behavior is “banned”. This is, as you might imagine, a welcome development for all those commuters who wish to sleep a little or quietly read on the way to work, or unwind after a stressful day in the office.

But here’s the rub: the railroad clearly states that they do not intend to, and will not, enforce this policy. Commuters themselves, as the railroad says, will police this policy.

So, how is this working?

In the one week since this was instituted, I have witnessed two separate occasions where this form of “self-governance” was called into play.

During the evening trip home on the first day of the new “policy”, a woman began to have a very loud conversation on her cell phone. As is typical in these situations, passengers began to sigh heavily, and roll their eyes, and express frustration through their body language. Some began to haltingly shout out “No cell phones!”

But then one passenger stood up and asked the others “What should we do?” And a few others chimed in:

“We should talk to her … now.”

So three passengers got up and interrupted the woman’s conversation and told her emphatically, but respectfully, that cell phones were not permitted in that car. The woman was clearly embarrassed, expressed that she was unaware of the policy, and immediately ended her conversation.

Two days later, also on the evening ride home, a middle aged man began arguing with a younger man about the volume of the music he was listening to. Although he was wearing ear-buds, the music was evident to all around him. But the argument that ensued was even more disruptive!

Again, after listening to this for several minutes, two commuters got up and told both of them to keep it quiet in the quiet car…and silence ensued.

So what is the point of this blog? Simply to highlight that self-governance can and does work in so many ways and in so many settings. The railroad instituted a policy to meet the consumer’s needs (a quiet environment on the train) but was able to avoid the costly role of also being the enforcer of this policy. Conductors on trains have many other duties and engaging in disputes with passengers over noise disruption would only slow them down. By leaving it to the passengers themselves to govern the situation, the manner and method for enforcing the policy can be determined by the commuters themselves. It’s a win-win for all parties: The commuters now know they can stand up and defend their right to silence, the trains offer a quiet sanctuary for those who desire it and the railroad is not saddled with extra costs to enforce the policy.

And now, I’ll be quiet…

Topics: Self Governance