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
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.)
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 …’