Behavior in the “Commons”

Miles, a regular reader and frequent commenter here, recently posted his experience feeling threatened on MAX on his own blog, documented life.

This has gotten me thinking about how we as members of society interact with each other when we meet in our “commons”, the spaces that we share public ownership and use of. The examples that come to mind are not reassuring:

– Harassment and poor hygiene on public transportation

– Aggressive panhandling on our sidewalks

– Road rage on our streets and highways

Shouldn’t we expect more of each other, and offer more to each other? Is this degradation of public behavior a function of the increasing gap between rich and poor? A sign of a breakdown in our public safety and/or mental health systems? Something else?

How do we restore some civility to our interactions in the “commons”?

26 responses to “Behavior in the “Commons””

  1. People who bitch about “poor hygeine” and “aggressive panhandling” in public spaces need to go spend a month penniless, sleeping outdoors, and then reassess. Homeless people aren’t trying to be filthy out of disrespect for the public, they just don’t have fucking bathrooms, and that’s usually the least of their problems. And if they’re hungry and need help and you won’t give it to them, pardon them for being slightly miffed.

  2. I’m glad I refuse to ride MAX after 7 PM or so.
    Just one more aspect of MAX being a big white
    elephant. Maybe they will end up shutting in
    down in the evening after most of the riders
    have been driven away–the buses can handle the
    load at those hours.

  3. Hmmm, a post about civility brings about two angry commenters. Funny how that goes.

    After I got over the visceral upset of being verbally assaulted on the Max I didn’t swear up and down at public transt, and I sure as hell don’t advocate sympathy for the kind of public sadism/exhibitionism of our obscene tormenter.

    I just look at it as an economic problem.

    Security in public spaces requires various kinds of investments.

    Functioning schools and jobs and thriving healthy communities are the best assurance that punks won’t harrass people, but we’re pretty far from assuring that.

    Given our shortcomings in that area, there is a need for security… cops on the beat.

    TriMet will only provide policing if it actually wants to increase ridership…. does it? I hear they are approaching Light Rail’s capacity. Maybe they don’t care at all.

    Just a more aggresive ticket checking regime would probably help a lot.

    I think TriMet has been getting a free ride living off the stored reserves of social capital from another era and skimping on security. Maintaining a functioning system going forward is going to have to pay the price for our growing social capital (education, communities, jobs) investment deficit.

    Force based solutions are never to be preferred, but they are essential when the better solutions are neglected, ignored and denied to us.

    One of the advantages of cars is that they wall us off from people. One of the realities of public transit is that they bring us in touch with other people. The question of how we pay for the costs of living in a society with other people (as opposed to the walled off approach of car life) is fundamental….

    I’d prefer to invest in the kind of society that didn’t produce 17 year old antisocial musical sadists… but until I persuade more of my fellow citizens to make the investments that yield that outcome, I reluctantly vote for the tried and true principle of cops on the beat. The need for that is just a basic cost of life in walking face-to-face noncar oriented society.

  4. I am sorry to hear about the bad experience Miles had, on a Max train, sure, but in general too; and let’s face it, it could have happened anywhere. Our society seems to be losing its ability to ‘police’ itself, meaning using some level of social disapproval to curb behavior that is harmful to the society as a whole. I see disturbing cell phone usage as a frequent, if seemingly mild and harmless, example of this that we all experience everyday, and no one does anything to stop it. Sure, we find it annoying to listen to that girl on the bus gabbing away about her hot date last night, but we find it perfectly normal, too. And, of course, the punks on the Max were more obviously disfunctional socially, but they were *trying* to be, too. And yet, no one stepped in to stop them, either.
    No, we can’t blame this on modern technology (cell phones, computers, etc.) or overly dense situations causing us to loose our social skills – Japan has one of the highest densities in the world, and it is also one of the safest societies in the world. So, what can we blame it on? Perhaps our ‘go it alone’ attitude that is so rampant in our government, and in our society (cars, hmmm).
    What I do know is that more cops on Tri Met will only get us so far. We need to look beyond our own skins, and start (again? for the first time?) seeing ourselves as part of a community, as part of a society, that relies on the whole to function.
    Kids on the train acting out – which as far as I am concerned is what this was, no matter how dangerous it was – is perhaps one small part of a normal society, but if no one is willing to put the brakes on when it gets dangerous (parents, other train riders, schools, cops, whatever) it will eventually become ‘normal’, and we end up with a society where no one can trust anyone else. An awful thought.
    As for Tri Met, as I said, more cops and ticket takers can only get them so far – and I truly doubt that that do not care about safety on their vehicles, even if only to cut down on lawsuits. Personally, I think what we need in this town is a fully functioning, active Guardian Angels cell. We had them in Chicago, and I always felt much safer when they were on the train. I know there is a small one here in Portland, and we as transit users should fully support their efforts.

  5. Yes, it was interesting that this was happening in a crowded train… full, lots of standing around the doors… but of course EVERYONE was intimidated. And who wouldn’t be? Nobody wants to get involved…. everyone hopes that the punks won’t notice them. People were scared, if not indifferent.

    Several people have written me to say “don’t ride the trains at night… take the busses… they are safer.” OK, good advice. TriMet, is that what you want people to do? Abandon the trains at night to punks?

    For some reason, I’ve observed that there is worse behavior in the second car than the first.

    This event occurred in the farthest back part of the second car, on a low floor train…

    Something tells me that the punks self sort to the back of the train… furthest from the driver perhaps? For whatever reason, I would tend to choose the front car.

    TriMet is that what you want? Scared people in the first car, punks in the back car?

    I could be wrong about the pattern, but it feels like what I’ve observed over time.


    As for cell phones, an entirely different subject, but highly annoying, I think Tri-Met should post friendly smiling posters with slogans like:

    “In consideration of others, please keep cell phone conversations short and quiet.”

    Or a cartoon of someone gabbing away, and three people rolling their eyes, and a caption like “do you really want to tell the whole train about your date last night?” or something like that, devised by people cleverer than me, and executed with humor and style.

    It won’t influence the worst… but it could help set a norm of respectful cell phone use on the trains.

  6. Seattle does not operate its bus subway after
    7 PM; everthing runs upstairs in the streets–why can’t Trimet do the same and save some money? As I said before, buses can handle the load at that hour and are “safer.”

    In New York City, with its massive ridership,
    they can afford to put a cop on every train 24/7,
    but a one or two car MAX train would not be
    worth the cost to do this.

  7. Nick,
    Everything already does “run upstairs on the streets” in Portland, not only after 7 PM but at all hours. As far as operating costs go, the main cost is the driver, and a bus driver–like a light rail operator–must still be paid.

    The assumption that buses are “‘safer’” is questionable. I presume this conclusion is derived largely from the lack of separation between the driver and passengers.

    I have long believed that the walls behind the operator’s cabin on MAX should be translucent (plexi)glass. Not only would this make passengers more comfortable by giving the operator a visual presence in the vehicle like on the bus, but it would be enjoyable for riders as well to have a front-end view, rather than the absurd purple wall they face now. Perhaps after a certain hour (7 is too early; it would have to be later) single-car trains could be operated, thereby having the entire train under operator supervision via the glass wall. If people feel threatened, they can push the operator call button and he can turn his head immediately to observe the situation.

    Finally, living in Philadelphia and visiting New York frequently, I can assure you that there is not a “cop on every train 24/7” up there. Not even close. There is, however, a conductor stationed in the fifth car of each 10-car train (with the exception of the G, L, and S trains), but with trains that long that still averages out to a greater average distance between each passenger and an employee (in other words, in the 10th car of a 10 car train you’re still 5 cars from human supervision).

  8. This one is going to get a lot longer of a post from me later. But for starters…

    Portland is totally passive in general, the general populace lets this trash push them around.

    Second problem is a huge issue of attitude, it is very clear in Portland, there is a problem and the problem is acceptance. People “accept” people as is. No one has standards for this ratty trashy folk anymore and they just let them be.

    To be a bum used to mean you where harrassed, prodded, treated like crap, pushed around by the police, and generally forced or kept from the greater part of society until you bettered yourself and improved your lot in life (Which in the past HAS been possible).

    Now people have almost no motivation whatsoever to do anything, no one is goading them, pushing them along, it is just accepted.

    Simply put, it’s pathetic. Go to a small town, see what happens to a bum/trashy/nasty person there.

  9. Go to a small town, see what happens to a bum/trashy/nasty person there.

    And you will find that they choose their victims carefully, just as they do in Portland. They don’t do this to people they know or people who have “friends”. They only do it to people that no one will defend. Just like the folks who yell stuff at panhandlers downtown.

  10. I should have been more precise: Shut MAX after
    7 PM and let buses handle the business. Trimet
    won’t have to pay many more drivers as the buses
    are usually not crowded at the hour. They will
    end up saving money.

    I definitely feel safer sitting towards the
    front in a bus than in MAX; I discovered this
    during my first year in Portland and I boycott
    MAX at night.

    As for cops on trains 24/7, New York did this
    since the ’60s when there were crime scares, and
    of course, after 9/11, crime is WAY DOWN
    because of added security.

    As an aside, I lived in New York for over a
    half century and rode subways at night all the
    time, of course practicing appropriate strategy.
    But MAX is another story. It’s sad.

  11. Nick,
    I understood you the first time. I still don’t see how running buses instead of trains after 7 would realize any meaningful cost savings.

    Also, crime is way down on the NYC subway largely because it’s way down in New York as a whole. Once again, there is not a cop on every train. There isn’t even a Transit Police department any more; the transit beat was turned over to NYPD. You see cops on the trains sometimes, but not ALL the time.

  12. I find it very interesting that some people will ride Max but never go on a bus. Somehow they think it’s more “middle class” or something. But they obviously don’t ride a lot, especially at later hours!

    Anyway, my main point is that Max is a lot more expensive way to go for public transit. It’s probably too late to back off on the existing Max lines, but I really don’t want to see them push the Max from Union Station to PSU. It would be a lot cheaper to just run fareless shuttle busses with less isolated drivers. And from what I understand, the current plan will cause real delays if a car, bus, or train happens to break down and block one of the lanes. The Tribune has been great in covering the plans, which don’t seem to have had much public exposure before being finalized. Perhaps it’s not too late to register concerns with Tri-Met. Busses are easier to read on too without the constant announcements and facing seating arrangements

  13. If Trimet has to pay for security as well as
    train operators, then I think it would pay to
    shut MAX after 7 PM. Especially on the east side,
    as the existing bus service could handle the
    extra business and run times at night are comparable.

    I would really like to hear from the pro-MAX
    people and see what they propose as a solution
    to this problem.

  14. see what they propose as a solution
    to this problem.

    To what problem? Teenagers who act out in public places? I think better parenting is the answer. To people feeling insecure on Max, I think those people have a terrible problem assessing risk. What should we do about the people who run red lights in downtown Portland, or anywhere on the east side of the river, because they are afraid they will be carjacked. Take away their television sets I suppose. The fact is there is not a serious security problem on Max.

  15. While there may not be much physical danger,
    the experiences of very unpleasant rides and
    the perception of danger will drive passengers
    away in droves. A problem definitely exists,
    as I have read in papers, including several
    letters to the editor.

    Over four years ago, I was riding MAX from the
    Rose Garden to Gateway when I witnessed
    harassment, although it did not involve me.
    Since that time, I will not ride MAX in the
    evening, period, and I bet there are other
    people just like me.

    I’m telling you, ridership on the MAX at night
    does not justify paying for extra security
    measures. The buses can well handle the loads
    at that hour, especially east of the river.

  16. The best security is more riders, just as the best way to get parks or any other public place to feel safe is to make them busy.
    My only nasty experience on transit was on a 77 crossing the Steel Bridge in the middle of the day when to guys were going at it pretty intensely from both ends of the bus. The operator kept their head down, but several of us started to speak up in a firm, assertive manner, saying “Get off the bus!” Got a good adrenalin rush out it after the jerks de-boarded.
    No matter the public space…the presence of more people makes all the difference. Then, you got to defend your turf.

  17. I fall closer to Lenny in this debate, but I think we do need some new cultural norms before many people will feel comfortable being as assertive as Lenny was ont he 77.

  18. I’ve had several experiences, some positive, some negative, one very negative while trying to be constructively assertive on MAX. I’m a big supporter of MAX, but I think a big part of the security problem (or perception problem) is that within Fareless Square, there is less incentive for TriMet to devote security resources, as there is no possibility of catching fare violators.

    I’ve calculated it before, but all it would take are two full-time positions (one for early morning, one for evening) for a greeter/security person who gets on at one end of fareless square, makes their presence known (engages in friendly conversation, “Hi, how are you?” with passengers, etc.) and increases visibility.

    This one staffer would actually hit a significant percentage of trains. Even though it wouldn’t be more than 1 in 10 trains through downtown, this kind of visibility would be way higher than currently, and would increase passenger confidence and discourage bad behavior. Right now, the people engaging in bad behavior do so because they have complete confidence that nothing will happen to them.

    As to Nick’s suggestion of replacing evening/night MAX service with buses, this would provide for a dramatically slower, bumpier, and noisier service, which may discourage more riders than the security/perception improvement would gain.

    A blue line replacement, for example, would have to get off of I-84 at 39th and pull into Hollywood Transit Center (3 traffic lights), get back onto the freeway (3 more traffic lights), get off at 58th and stop on 60th (2 more traffic lights), get back on the freeway, get off at 82nd (1 traffic light), get back on the freeway (2 traffic lights), etc… adding many minutes and many turns to what is now a smooth, fast journey.

    Inbound would be even more of a problem, as there is no ramp from I-84 westbound to 60th, so the bus would have to take Halsey, duplicating an existing service, hitting several lights and running at a much slower top speed.

    – Bob R.

  19. There are already buses on Halsey, Glisan, and
    Burnside/Stark with comparable nighttime running
    times. I have lived east of the river, and have
    ridden these lines in the evening; there is
    much less traffic at 7 PM. And sometimes more convenience too–no climbing out of an isolated station in the middle of a freeway (which I hate

    I’m a big supporter of rail service where justified, but certainly not in a mid-sized metropolis like Portland. If you love trains, go ride the “L” in Chicago, where it also serves a very useful purpose besides providing spectacular views.

  20. From what I have read, the problems on MAX exist well beyond the scope of fareless square, which
    should be abolished anyway.

  21. There are already buses on Halsey, Glisan, and Burnside/Stark with comparable nighttime running times.

    After 8pm trip times, from TriMet schedules, from last Downtown stop to Gateway area:

    MAX Blue Line:

    Old Town to Hollywood: 11 minutes
    Old Town to 60th: 14 minutes
    Old Town to 82nd: 17 minutes
    Old Town to Gateway: 19 minutes

    Bus #77 – Halsey:

    NW Everett & 2nd to Hollywood: 15 minutes
    NW Everett & 2nd to 60th: 20 minutes
    NW Everett & 2nd to 82nd: 25 minutes
    NW Everett & 2nd to Gateway: 30 minutes (102nd & Halsey)

    Bus #19 – Glisan:

    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to Glisan & 39th: 11 minutes
    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to 60th: 14 minutes
    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to 82nd: 18 minutes
    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to Gateway: 22 minutes

    Bus #20 – Burnside:

    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to Burnside & 39th: 10 minutes
    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to 60th: 13 minutes
    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to 82nd: 16 minutes
    W. Burnside & SW 2nd to 102nd: 19 minutes

    Of those, the #19 and #20 are time-competitive with MAX, but do not run to the exact same locations. The #77 most closely parallels MAX, but takes 11 minutes longer.

    It should be noted, however, that the reason these night-time buses have such quick runs (they are much slower during the day) is because they have very few passengers and thus very few stops. If everyone who now rides MAX in the evening suddenly started riding buses, the buses would stop more often and take longer at each stop, adding up to 30 seconds per additional stop.

    And, if you are coming from or going to anywhere west of downtown, such as Beaverton TC, MAX is even more competitive.

    – Bob R.

  22. 1) The #77’s route would have to be tweaked–
    have it run from downtown, not NW Portland, and
    more direct. And don’t forget the time lost
    climbing out of the ditch (of the Banfield).
    The Glisan bus runs close enough, in my opinion.

    2) The West hills MAX tunnel is a magnificent
    resource–as a dual purpose rail and busway, à la Pittsburgh’s South Hills tunnel. Buy hybrid buses
    and close the stupid zoo stop. This way you
    could have direct service to Portland for routes
    like #57 and #76/78. The conversation should
    definitely be started on this one (I know excuses
    will come from predictible sources as why this
    can’t be done).

    Anyway, it will be interesting to see if Trimet
    veers in the direction of replacing night MAX
    trains with buses; didn’t they kill the last
    runs a while back and add 1:30 AM buses to
    certain lines. Also, late night Sunday MAX was
    cut back because of low ridership.

  23. Nick –

    #1 – The #77 would not improve in the above timings if its west-side route portion were changed… In the timing examples above, the last possible downtown stops were used. As for the Glisan bus running “close enough” (#19), it does not if you are going to Hollywood TC.

    #2 – I thought the original point of your suggestion was to save money (by eliminating theoretical light rail security positions) by running buses instead of light rail. Now you are suggesting paving 6 lane-miles of tunnel?

    – Bob R.

  24. The Sandy Blvd. bus runs close to Hollywood TC.

    Paving the West Hills tunnel would be a general
    solution for the west side transit problem, not
    applicable only for night time replacement. In my
    opinion, this would be the best transit investment
    investment that could be made at this date.

    Anyway, it will be interesting to see what Trimet
    does regarding trimming lightly used services
    on the next service adjustment date–September,
    I would presume.

  25. The Sandy Blvd. bus runs close to Hollywood TC.

    Yes, but it does not go to NE 60th (near Glisan) or Gateway or anywhere east that the Blue Line serves.

    Which is part of my point: If regular MAX riders have to memorize several separate bus routes in order to receive night time service, some will stop riding. If a bus service is implemented separately, parallel to MAX service, there will be little or no cost savings and there will be an inherent increase in travel time, which means a loss of a few more riders. I just don’t see the advantage to dropping MAX night service, cost-wise or ridership-wise.

    – Bob R.

  26. “If regular MAX riders have to memorize several separate bus routes in order to receive night time service, some will stop riding.”

    And if regular MAX riders have to put up with
    unpleasant conditions, a lot of them will stop
    riding (if they haven’t already). And there is always the transit planner to find out bus routings. It shouldn’t be too difficult to plan
    a routine.

    Like I said before, I’m waiting for September
    too see what Trimet cuts–it will be very

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *