This might sound like a small thing, but it’s really not. Wait a minute – my mistake – yes, it is a small thing. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a satisfying and worthwhile positive constraint.
My case study concerns the London Overground network, but this little behavioural change is applicable to any mode of busy public transportation where you have to press a button to operate the doors.
The Overground Buttons
If you use an Overground train in London, you will observe a strange confluence of panic around the door when the train arrives at a station. This is because, unlike on the London Underground, the Overground train doors don’t open automatically at every station; you have to press a button.
As a consequence, when my bit of the network started running in 2010, I needed to learn quickly, or risk being left stranded on the platform or trapped on a runaway train.
You still sometimes see bemused and bewildered travellers, who have been patiently waiting for the doors to open, suddenly start impotently flapping and flagging as their train sallies on without them.
Or you might spot the occassional traveller who’s managed to get onto the train thanks to the button-pushing skills of another, but has not learnt the technique themselves and thus can never disembark, standing at the doors in horror as stations come and go, from here to West Croydon.
On the Button Competition
There are three buttons to operate the doors: two on the inside and one on the outside. I can guarantee you that, ninety-nine percent of the time during peak hours, all three buttons will be pressed, almost simultaneously, by three different commuters. To leave one of the buttons unpressed is mildly scandalous behaviour.
I used to be one of the button-pushers, of course. I used to feel total disdain for the other chumps who tried to press my door’s buttons. Idiots! I’m the fastest draw in the East.
The train slows, I take up my position at the door, shoulder to shoulder with my hapless adversary. The brakes jolt, a warning beep, a light goes on and our fingers jab down on the buttons. Triumph!
A moment’s hesitation, though, and my finger hits a button whose door has already started to open. The humiliation of defeat is total. I can only avenge myself by beating him to the stairs.
What I want to know is why we do this. It only takes one person to open the door. It shows a distinct lack of awareness, surely, to fail to see that there are three other people who’ve had their fingers poised over the buttons ever since we left Wapping.
Do these people (myself included) think the others are such inept button-pushers that they might cause a delay of up to twenty milliseconds in the time taken to step down from the train and join the crush for the escalators?
Or perhaps they suspect that the other three buttons are mysteriously out of order and only theirs will have the magical Open Sesame effect?
Whatever the reason, this button-psychology is a remarkable example of how individual members of a crowd can be relied upon to act as if they were completely alone. And that kind of thoughtlessness is exactly what we can attack with a positive constraint.
Feel Like Transport Royalty
Now almost everyone knows the idiosyncratic ways of the Overground. Now there are so many newbies eager to prove themselves that it’s no longer a matter of life-and-commuter-death to be a button-pusher.
So, while the four self-elected button-pushers take up their posts, I prefer to wait for the chosen one to open the doors for me. I do still feel an urge to press the button myself, but delight in not obeying that urge.
Instead of behaving like I’m the only person on the train, or the only person who can use his digits to operate machinery, I am conscious of my fellow travellers and know they’ve got me covered.
It’s like someone politely holding the door for you: it feels nice, like I’m a bit special. It doesn’t matter that these people don’t realise they’re doing me a favour, but maybe I should start saying thank you.
Advantages of No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transport:
- You can relax, free of the anxiety to press the button first. Travelling on public transport is stressful at the best of times, why contribute a mote more?
- You’re giving others the childish pleasure of operating a machine. I call this the Science Museum Effect. Kids love pressing buttons.
- Not touching the buttons means you have slightly less exposure to the myriad bacterial and viral contaminations that thrive on public transportation.
- You feel vaguely royal, travelling with your own personal doorman, your majesty.
- You can position yourself directly in front of the double doors, with your doormen flanking you. Because the doors open from the middle outwards, you will be first off the train, and straight onto the red carpet, presumably.
- If you are alone, you should ignore this positive constraint and just press the button. I don’t want to be responsible for you missing your stop.