Test your Kiwi bus savvy

Dunedin bus drivers (click for image credit)

Dunedin bus drivers (click for image credit)

Certain rules for riding on a bus are drummed into us, but others are unspoken – mysterious to the uninitiated. If you’re a regular bus user, you almost certainly know them; you’ve figured them out, or simply absorbed them.

But if you’re not?

Here’s a tale of a hapless bus-virgin by the name of Barry. How many faux pas can he fit into one bus ride? And how many can you, Dear Reader, spot?

Barry’s bus trip

Barry usually drives to his workplace in Island Bay, but today his car is at the garage, so he boards the no. 1 bus at Courtenay Place, and buys his ticket from the cheery driver.

Damn – no window seats left! He’ll have to sit by someone. It would be good to be near the back door, so he sits by a young woman, who shoots him a strange look and squirms.

After several stops she becomes very restless indeed. She’s rustling things, zipping things up, smoothing her hair and checking pockets. Barry wonders – what’s her problem?

The bus stops, and the back door swings open. The woman looks at Barry expectantly.

What? What does she want from him?

‘Excuse me,’ she says irritably. ‘This is my stop.’

Well, she could have told him, thinks Barry.

By the time the bus reaches the Parade, the only others on board are a sad-looking woman with five shopping bags and a father reading a picture book to his toddler. As the bus pulls in at the stop, the sad-looking woman trudges to the back door, and waits. The driver opens the front door but seemingly forgets the back.

Interesting, thinks Barry, and sits back to observe what will happen.

The sad-looking woman stands by the shut door and looks sadder. Oblivious, the bus driver shrugs, and pulls away from the curb.

The woman looks like she might cry. She lurches down the aisle, and speaks softly with the driver. He pulls in again, where he isn’t meant to, and lets her off, calling, ‘Sorry ma’am!’

Idiot, thinks Barry.

Barry’s stop is next, and it seems to be the father and child’s, too.

‘Time to push the button!’ says the dad. He holds his daughter on his knees as she stretches towards the button on the pole. She wobbles; her arms flail.

I need to help, thinks Barry. He reaches up and pushes his own button.


The child lets out an earsplitting wail, which continues after the bus stops. Her father wrangles her out the door, and somehow still manages to call, ‘Cheers, driver!’

What a fuss, thinks Barry. He hops up from his own seat and, with nothing but a sigh of relief, leaps nimbly from back door to the footpath.

Barry made at least five big blunders on his bus trip. Did you spot them all?


1. Barry sat by a female!

He should have checked to see if there were any seats beside males available first, rather than simply heading for the spot he wanted. If you sit beside someone of another gender when seats beside your own are available, people will … wonder.

2. Barry did not read the coded signals that the woman was getting off at the next stop.

Consider the intricate dance that an experienced bus-rider engages in when it’s time to disembark. If you’re sitting by the window and you’ll need to get past the person beside you, you should – at least 15 seconds in advance of your stop – begin to organise your belongings audibly and with slightly exaggerated movements. These should be visible in the peripheral vision of the person next to you.

That person should then shift a little in their own seat, and perhaps point their feet towards the aisle, to indicate to you (in your peripheral vision) that they have registered your need to disembark, and are ready to get up for you as soon as the bus stops. It’s quite possible for all this to take place with no eye contact between the two people at all.

Occasionally the person by the window won’t get the message that the person on the aisle knows they want to get off, and they may organise their belongings increasingly frantically.

In this case, the person on the aisle should reassure the person by the window, turning to them and saying, ‘Are you getting off at the next stop?’(It’s more polite than hissing, ‘Calm down! I can’t stand up YET!’)

All of this was, of course, lost on Barry.

3. When the driver didn’t open the back door for the sad woman with five bags, Barry should have called to the bus driver, ‘Back door please, driver!’

Obviously the woman was too shy, or too sad, or too new to all this New Zealand bus stuff to call down the aisle to the driver herself. Barry is not shy, and as a good bus-riding citizen, he should have helped her out.

4. Barry should not have pushed the button before the child.

Really, Barry? You thought that was helping?

Okay, maybe Barry was worried the button wouldn’t get pushed in time for the stop. But generally the parent has the situation under control. If the worst comes to the worst, they will push the button in some creative way that enables the kid to still feel like they’ve done it themself.

5. Barry didn’t thank the driver when he disembarked!

This was especially imperative as Barry is in Wellington. (Note he was catching the number 1 to Island Bay.) In Wellington it’s the done thing to call, ‘Thank you!’ or, ‘Thanks, driver!’ or, ‘Cheers!’ as you disembark.

Sure, if you get an unpleasant driver you may withhold your expression of gratitude to make a point. However, we know from paragraph one that the driver was cheery. And don’t hold it against him that he forgot to open the back door for the sad woman with five bags. He may be tired, overworked and underpaid. (And he did apologise once he realised.)

Wellington's buses then... (click for image credit)

Wellington's buses then... (click for image credit)

... and now (click for image credit)

... and now (click for image credit)

Afterword: That Wellington thank-the-driver thing

It’s true. Wellington is one of the few places in the world where thanking your bus driver as you disembark is almost expected, and it has been this way for as long as any of my friends remember (that’s back to the late 1970s).

In Wellington, thanking the driver is not just something that particularly courteous people do. It’s a proud, ubiquitous tradition, although there is some anecdotal evidence that it may be on the wane.

I’m told that thanking the driver is also highly traditional in Dunedin, but less noticeable perhaps, because fewer people use public transport there. Meanwhile in Auckland, the tradition seems to have caught on around the 1990s, and is noticeable in the inner city, but not so much in the surrounding areas.

Internationally, thanking bus drivers is particularly expected in San Francisco. (Hurrah! We Wellingtonians like comparing our city to San Francisco.)

So what’s all this about?

A few of my friends posited that – in Wellington at least – the tradition may have roots in a working-class habit of always thanking those in the service industries.

Kerry Jimson said, ‘Part of thanking someone who is in a service industry for me relates directly to my socialist upbringing. No one is a slave, therefore, even though they are being paid to do their job, they do this of their own free will. So, when someone does something for you, you thank them.‘

Kerry speculated that early Wellington was a hotbed of egalitarianism. For example, ‘There was an egalitarian ideal expressed in state schools, where the kids of criminals and labourers rubbed shoulders with the kids of judges and civil servants, which, I suspect, was particularly strong in Wellington …’

As for Dunedin, he suggested, ‘Ah, it’s those polite Scots …’

25 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Mel || May 28th, 2014

    The thanking thing – I grew up in Dunedin, and grew up thanking bus drivers and also talking to taxi drivers – I always assumed it was a NZ egalitarian thing, not a Wellington only thing. Sometimes on the bus on the way to work, there’s a very cheery driver who says good morning to everyone, and it’s really interesting to see who responds and who doesn’t – tends to be women who do, from what I see.

  2. Comment made by Johanna || May 28th, 2014

    Mel, yeah, it is pretty interesting that Wgtn and Dunedin seem to be the cities where it’s strongest. Your observation about women being more responsive to the cheery driver is intriguing too. My favourite driver is the one who announces all the stops.

  3. Comment made by Tatjna || May 29th, 2014

    We thanked the driver on school bus routes in Northland too. 😉

    I really liked this article – these little bits of culture we’re often not aware of.. it’s nice to read about them. One thing, though – ‘He sat by a female.’ Using female as a noun is kind of dehumanising, is it possible to change that?

  4. Comment made by Em || May 29th, 2014

    I wasn’t aware of the unspoken rule about men sitting next to women? I’m a train commuter and some of the same things apply like the fiddling with all your things to let someone know your stop is next. What irks me the most are commuters who put their bags on the seat beside them to stop others from sitting there especially during peak services where it is usually standing room only.

  5. Comment made by Marguerite || May 29th, 2014

    Thanks Johanna, I loved the blog!
    The “this is my stop” routine is really well observed and I experimented with it on the way to work this morning. I have noticed that iPods have changed this a bit – it’s a lot harder to rustle subtly to get attention when your seat-mate is engrossed in a podcast or music.
    I habitually say thank you to drivers, even when on the bus in other centres. It’s not very common in Auckland, but I have noticed there that if the first person off the bus says thank you, then other people getting off at that stop are more likely to.
    And, lastly – in Hamilton I used to frequent a route driven by Chris the whistling bus driver. He was chatty and cheerful and used to announce all the stops. He obviously felt his job was customer focused.

  6. Comment made by Johanna || May 29th, 2014

    Tatjna – I know what you mean. There is a slightly uncomfortable feel to the word there. When writing this post, I went to and fro on it … and finally settled on it because I wanted to express that the rule applied to both women and girls, even though in this specific case it was a woman he sat next to. I guess there are other ways I could have done this through rewording though! You’ve given me an idea for another post …

  7. Comment made by Johanna || May 29th, 2014

    Oh! and of course I was going for a slightly tongue-in-cheek anthropological tone here and there, so that was another reason I used ‘female’ …
    How I love meta! 🙂

  8. Comment made by Johanna || May 29th, 2014

    Those are really interesting observations Marguerite – about the ipods and also the follow-the-leader thing when saying thank you!

  9. Comment made by Johanna || May 29th, 2014

    Em, I get annoyed about that too! Or people who sit on the outside seat when the window seat is free. (Unless they offer the window seat to someone else getting on.) Maybe they are a bit claustrophobic though or something?

    I’ve noticed maybe that males are more likely to ignore the ‘don’t sit next to the other unless nowhere else left’ rule??

  10. Comment made by Deborah || May 29th, 2014

    Thanking the driver is very much on the rise in Christchurch too. Also I’m convinced it’s contagious: the more people hear other people say thank you/chur, the more likely they are to say it themselves. So if you’re in a place that doesn’t have the tradition, you can probably start it single-handedly.

    The same-gender rule is a definite one, but I do suspect men are less likely to know about it, probably because they don’t realise how much harassment women can be subject to. When a guy sits next to me in preference to everyone on the bus, I do honestly brace myself for him to continue to ignore my increasingly explicit “I don’t want to talk to you” signals. He may just be oblivious, or he may be intentionally targetting me where I can’t escape; either way is unpleasant.

    I would speculate that men don’t *care* in the same way if a woman sits next to them. It’s just that why would I risk them thinking I’m signalling that I want to talk to them?

  11. Comment made by Johanna || May 29th, 2014

    Completely going out on a limb here, Deborah (and anyone else), but has thanking the driver been on the rise for a long time, or more so since the earthquakes?

  12. Comment made by Johanna || May 29th, 2014

    (In Christchurch I mean.)

  13. Comment made by David || May 29th, 2014

    Thanks Johanna, great piece. I do enjoy blogs on social mores – I’m a much warier walker since Mel’s analysis of left- vs right-sided perambulation. As a mere male, I must confess I give little thought to the gender of the person I’m about to sit beside on the bus – though I will from now on!

    My decision-making process is as follows. First I (surreptitiously, I hope) scan the bus for acquaintances I either do or don’t want to talk to for the next 20 minutes. If there are no sightings, I grab the front seat if it is vacant (this has the best view, and the opportunity to catch up with the latest bus-related news and terminology via the driver’s radio).

    But there’s usually an aggressive-looking pensioner hogging the front seat, so I head down the back (where I wasn’t allowed to sit as a kid, the rear seats allegedly being dens of iniquity – my parents didn’t use public transport much). On the way I look out for someone who isn’t taking up more than their fair share of space – another faux pas that Barry (or the five-bag lady) may have committed.

    I suspect that I subconscioualy favour people relatively close to my own age. I try to avoid anyone talking to themselves, whistling, reading a Bible or using a smartphone (this can involve elbowing me in the ribs). Unfortunately body odour usually only becomes noticeable after I’ve sat down. (Which brings up another potential Barryism – changing seats while in transit.)

    I’d add to the coded signals of imminent departure, ‘ostentatious display of Snapper card’. Having tried out various exit strategies, I now thank the driver if I’m alighting via the front door, and wave in an understated manly fashion if I’m exiting at the back. Unless, of course, the driver has seriously pissed me off…

  14. Comment made by Johanna || May 29th, 2014

    Ha, David, yes, I still get a strange frisson from sitting way down at the disreputable back of the bus!

    You have added lots of interesting stuff here. And when about to get off the bus, of course the most obvious thing you can do, if no one has done it first, is push the button. (Except … if it’s one of those little ones on the wall, you have to do it with a bit of a flourish … It’s a much better signal if you have to reach across the person beside you to press a button on the pole.)

    Funny, I don’t mind people taking up lots of physical space. Maybe because I’ve been a five-bags-plus-baby person in my time …

  15. Comment made by Mel || May 29th, 2014

    One of the things that Marguerite mentioned – about ipods changing things – I’ve noticed that too – if people don’t acknowledge the driver, it often is because they’re listening to something (or trying to get their snapper to work). Do you remember this story from 2012 http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/39855/the-customer-is-not-always-right about the Wellington cafe trying to get people to take their headphones off?

  16. Comment made by Janine || May 29th, 2014

    My advice is to always wear gloves on your bus journey(maybe not such good advice in summer)and definitely don’t watch where kids put their fingers before pushing the buttons!

  17. Comment made by David || May 29th, 2014

    Gloved or gloveless, button-pushing etiquette is another fraught area. What degree of personal contact is permissible as you contort your arm and upper body to reach an inconveniently placed button? What if the button doesn’t work – anecdotal evidence suggests buttons fail on about 5% of attempts. And what if the ipod-clad youth beside you then doesn’t hear your polite request that (s)he pushes the button for you, and your stop is rapidly approaching?

  18. Comment made by Ewan || May 29th, 2014

    OK, I’m going to stick my neck out and say I don’t believe it is a generally-accepted social norm that you should sit by someone of your own gender (if possible) on buses or other public transport. I agree with the other ‘Barry blunders’, but this one just doesn’t ring true to me. Why would people ‘wonder’ just because you sit next to someone of a different gender? What about if I sit down next to a woman and (as I inevitably do) immediately pull out my book or newspaper and ignore the person sitting next to me? (Until she signals that she’s getting off at the next stop, of course!) What about if I sit next to a woman of my mother’s age – is that OK? And if so, where is the age cut-off? And why should we only ‘wonder’ when someone sits next to a person of a different gender, when a significant proportion of the population is not heterosexual? As far as I can see, the only faux pas is deliberately sitting next to someone when there are still window seats free. So, until someone can persuade me otherwise, I’m afraid I’m going to continue sitting next to men and women indiscriminately!

  19. Comment made by Deborah || May 30th, 2014

    Johanna, I think it had been on the rise before the quakes. But I also suspect my sister may have started it, so I dunno. 🙂

    Ewan, if you sit down next to me and pull out something to read and ignore me, I’ll cut you some slack. But if you’re like the guy who got on my bus this morning right behind me, walked past the seats that were completely empty, sat down next to me, and then sat with his hands between his thighs for the whole ride… Dude, I’m not just gonna be wondering, I’m going to spend the whole ride coming up with plans for what to do if this escalates even further.

    (Luckily it’s dark in the mornings so my staring-out-the-window got me a good view of his reflection and after a while it became clear that he wasn’t actually doing anything with his hands, he was just terminally clueless that this is an incredibly threatening look. Please don’t be this guy.)

  20. Comment made by Caren Wilton || May 30th, 2014

    I always make a beeline for the back of the bus, personally. You’re sitting higher up so the view is better, and also stand more of a chance of getting both seats to yourself, as people fill up the front seats first. I like to knit on my bus journey so I do like to spread out over two seats (and don’t want to risk poking a fellow passenger with a needle). But I never realised the back of the bus was a den of iniquity. That makes me like it even more.

  21. Comment made by Johanna || May 30th, 2014

    This sit-by-the-same(ish)-gender thing is really interesting.

    Deborah, I’ve always had the same thoughts about it as you expressed in your earlier comment (and I can remember a few horrible experiences on buses in Auckland like the one you just described) … But I’ve become aware from feedback on this blogpost that it is the most controversial rule! And some people who I thought would have been aware of it, aren’t …

    So what does that make it? It seems to be a rule for only some of us. This morning I had coffee with a bunch of women, where three of them recognised this as a rule, and two of them didn’t. Still, if you look at who is sitting next to who on a fairly full bus, I *think* it is mostly males sitting next to males, and females sitting next to females … If that indicates anything?

  22. Comment made by Dave || May 30th, 2014

    I always enjoyed pulling the cord and getting the ‘ding’ from a real bell, and it was never the same when it became pushing the button for a ‘buzz’. From memory the last of the bell buses in Dunedin were around the early 2000s.

  23. Comment made by Sarah || May 30th, 2014

    Thanking the driver may well be on the rise in Chch since the quakes. Im not a big bus user here, but have always thanked the driver, perhaps due to my Wgtn roots? Certainly there was a big upsurge in saying “Hello” to passersby when you were out walking, post-quake, long may that general grester sense of community continue!

  24. Comment made by Deborah || May 30th, 2014

    Interesting: this has sparked an involved discussion at my family dinner tonight about bus etiquette, and we did eventually agree that who you sit next to is subject to a very rapid weighing of multiple factors (are they intimidating, are they piled with bags, are they larger and need the extra space more than others, etc). For women, I contend that ‘are they by reason of gender statistically more likely to hit on you’ is a factor which is probably of less concern to men; but yeah, it wouldn’t be the only factor.

    We all agree that Barry’s worst sin was to press the button for the child. Even from a heartlessly practical point of view, promising the child they can press the button at the end of the trip is often the only way you can hope to persuade them not to press the button for every single stop on the way.

  25. Comment made by Helen || May 31st, 2014

    Doesn’t everyone everywhere thank the driver? I was raised to do this as a child, and still do so in Palmy when I catch the bus. (It’s not even a Kiwi thing necessarily; it was common in Adelaide when I lived there years ago too…) I’m a bit surprised that it should be considered location-specific. Good manners are, after all, carried with you wherever you go…

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