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illustration of a person in colour on a subway car filled with people in black and white
Uniba Shaikh/the eyeopener
All Fun & Satire

The Eye’s guide to transit etiquette

By Anastasia Blosser

For first-time commuters or experienced travellers, returning to public transit at the start of every semester is a necessary transition. If you’ve taken the train, subway, bus or streetcar, it may seem hard to adapt to social customs that have changed in the last few years. Before you return to commuting, identify the environment you’re stepping onto. The sticky floors and carpeted seats foster a delicate habitat for these seven archetypal passengers. 

Here is a guide on how to become one of them:

The small talker

At its core, public transit is a way for the community to come together. It pulls people away from their phones and into awkward conversations. Avoid starting conversations with questions that can be answered in one or two words, such as “do you know what stop comes next?” or anything about the weather. Instead, try asking more personal questions, like the street they grew up on or their mother’s maiden name. If all else fails, try improvising a monologue to see if anyone else will join in. 


This role is typically reserved for friend groups travelling in packs of four or more. Rather than sitting in a row, it is customary for half of the passengers to stand in front of the seated ones to form an inclusive conversation circle. Standing members should remember to keep their bags large and on their shoulder while in the aisle space to increase the social territory of the group. 

The phone talker

Spending hours on transit can be a disheartening experience. To boost morale at the end of a long day, talk loudly on the phone about wildly inappropriate topics. Your performance will give other passengers a reason to make subtle eye contact with each other and giggle over your personal life. Common topics can include family drama, medical history or a passive aggressive argument with your roommate. Don’t worry if you’re underground—if the conversation is enthralling enough, no one will stop to wonder how you got cell service on the subway.

Main character

Hold on, we can’t all be the cool, mysterious figure in the subway car. 

The DJ

Sometimes what a traffic-trapped streetcar needs is the right original soundtrack to reduce tensions. Whether or not you have a Bluetooth speaker stylishly attached to your backpack, play something out loud for everyone to enjoy. It can be a poorly curated Spotify playlist or a collection of unskippable YouTube ads. We all deserve to feel like the star of a music video. 

The surfer

Understandably, commuting with hundreds of strangers can be stressful in terms of personal hygiene. If you’d like to avoid touching anything, keep your hands in your pockets, bend your knees slightly and let the rhythm of the bus guide you as you stumble into fellow passengers, their bags and the hand railings. To avoid any germ-infected collisions, it’s best to step away from the aisles and situate yourself in front of the doors for at least eight stops before you’re supposed to get off. 

The NPCs

These are the most common types of travellers—the non-player-character. These background characters leave no lasting impression on the commuting experience but fill the seats up at 2 p.m. on a Thursday somehow. Easily identified by their blank stares and lack of enthusiasm, sometimes you don’t realize you’re in the role until it’s too late. There is no shame, as these individuals are the backbone of any transit system. 

Commuter roles will change from ride to ride but it is crucial to follow the natural order of public transportation. These journeys are a performative art that every passenger simultaneously partakes in. 

As both the actor and the audience, remember to appreciate the displays others are putting on around you while putting on your best performance. Snoop over people’s shoulders to try to decode their text messages and see if they’re listening to the Mamma Mia soundtrack ironically. Scan the covers of books thoughtfully curated for the morning train ride and nod approvingly, regardless of your personal opinions on Colleen Hoover. Maybe even cringe whenever they pen in a crossword answer.

Refusal to comply with any of the seven personas will undoubtedly disrupt the transit ecosystem and create a tense journey for everyone involved. Show some respect and play your role because if we’re going to be stuck together at least ten times a week, it may as well be tolerable.

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