Survey the seats.
Maybe you’re some kind of superhero and don’t mind standing for extended periods of time. Or maybe you’re lazy like me and want to slump over in a chair any time one’s available. Picking a seat on public transit can be tricky–there are a lot of people vying for only a few spots. No one likes the stealth and/or aggressive seat-grabber, so be courteous but assertive.
On a bus, the front provides a better view of what streets are coming up, as well as access to the driver, while the seat with the wheel-hump is often available if you can deal with minimal leg room (taking the seat NEXT to the wheel-hump is your best bet if you want to discourage someone else from sitting next to you, but there are no guarantees). On a train, the front and back cars are usually more empty, but keep an eye out for space while you’re waiting for it to pull into the station. Avoid standing in a spot with a big crowd. Pick the compartment with a conductor if you have are nervous or have any questions or concerns.
Should you get stuck standing but want to sit, anticipate the movement of other passengers. If someone is gathering their things or otherwise stirring, move in that direction and get ready to plunk down. And no matter where you end up, don’t sprawl out, put your feet up, or take up extra room with a bag. You know you’d resent it if another passenger did that.
Seat-dancing to Beyoncé or relaxing with a magazine is nice, but it’s not worth missing your stop or being unable to notice what’s going on around you. Taking a nap can be dangerous (yet so tempting!). If you feel yourself fading, try setting an alarm on your phone so it rings every few minutes.
While public transit makes the (totally necessary) existence of a designated driver irrelevant, a late-night ride carries its own risks. Always hold your bag tight, and don’t flaunt cellphones, iPads, or expensive gadgetry. Granted, these devices are ESSENTIAL in these times of transit, but with so many people coming and going, they’re also easy to snatch, especially if you’re sitting by a door that provides a fast getaway.
None of which is to say you can’t have fun while passing the time! Try making playlists that fit perfectly within the time of your journey—I recommend starting with something inspiring, like Florence and the Machine or “Edge of Seventeen,” and ending on a triumphant note, with something by Bruce Springsteen or Prince. Books on tape or podcasts like Radiolab also make commutes go by faster.
Embrace the weirdos (to a point).
In the perfect Seinfeld episode “The Subway,” Jerry, Elaine, and George take separate trains for various wacky reasons, and while they don’t exactly reach their destinations easily, they do encounter a lively bunch of subway-types, including a nudist, an undercover cop posing as a blind violinist, and a con woman (oh George). It’s not exactly an exaggeration; in fact, it’s part of the fun. The guy who puts his pet rat in his mouth is legendary in New York, as are certain break-dancers, opera singers, and Improv Everywhere’s no-pants subway ride. I’ve seen people eat full meals, clip their fingernails, and make out like they were home alone on their couch.
But there are also the bad kinds of weirdos. Don’t put up with them! There’s no telling who’s going to cross the line, so keep an eye on other passengers and trust your instincts. If a fellow rider appears aggressive or drunk or makes you uncomfortable in any way, it’s your right to move seats, switch cars, alert a conductor, or get off entirely.
A lot of people will be crammed into small spaces, and there is going to be some accidental bumping, but if you feel like your personal space is being violated or someone is taking advantage of the forced closeness, do your best to get away. Go ahead and yell if anyone touches you inappropriately. Shout loud, humiliate them, swing your bag, and go find help.
Take a joyride.
Traveling doesn’t have to be practical. Like hopping in the car just to get some space, boarding a train or bus without a destination is a great way to relax and see places that you might’ve missed in your structured daily life. In the corny-but-sorta-lovable movie 40 Days and 40 Nights, Josh Hartnett’s character takes his date on an all-day bus ride. Look, I’m just saying.
People use public transportation to get places, possibly in a hurry. Keep in mind some basic manners, like standing to one side on an escalator so that other people can walk if they choose to. Don’t pause on the steps or entrance to the station to look at a map or chat or text–move out of the way so people who know where they are going can pass. And not that you would EVER, but don’t hog the pole, block the doors, blast your music (even on headphones), have a loud phone chat, or eat smelly food. Give up your seat for elderly people, people using crutches or canes, pregnant people, and anybody else who might need it more than you. Tip the girl with the ukulele, if you can. (Buskers and other entertainers will be plentiful, and sometimes unwelcome and discouraged, but if one happens to move you, let them know.) Leave your personal bubble every now and then to smile at a fellow passenger, maybe someone you see every day on your route, just to increase the positive vibes. Take your trash with you. And thank your driver for getting you there, wherever that is. ♦