Monday, February 07, 2011

The ruthless Darwinian struggle for existence and the question of seating on trains

Turning now to the ruthless Darwinian struggle for existence, I was on the train today. (And, if I can just observe, less stories begin that way than you might think).

The ruthless Darwinian struggle for existence in kinder, gentler times.

Seats on the typical Melbourne train, as you might be aware, face one another in rows of two, and sometimes three, chairs per side. There is so little space between the two facing rows that the legs of one typical Melbourne train traveller on one seat will quickly become entangled with the legs of another typical Melbourne train traveller on the facing seat. (And, if these typical travellers are anything like some of the typical travellers I've known, perhaps that's not the only thing that's going to become entangled. Typical.) This is clearly because, over time, the people who manage the trains want to weed out the milksop train travellers of today, and breed a new superior race of Melbournian train travellers far, far titchier than we have ever seen before - it all goes back to the ruthless Darwinian struggle for existence, you see.

So, anyway. Me. On the train. Since I was only getting off two stops later, I made for an empty set of three-seaters facing one another, and plonked myself down on the outer seat, facing forward. And who should get on but another passenger - Passenger B, let's call them - who seated herself ON THE INNER SEAT ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE.

Now typically, you see, passengers on trains - or trams - will arrange themselves in diagonal lines upon the seating so as to optimise their own personal space, and to decorously avoid getting their limbs entangled with the limbs of the person who faces them (unless, of course, they are one of those typically typical passengers that I mentioned before). So, for instance, a typical facing set of three seats with three people will see the people arrange themselves in a V, one person at each extremity of the letter. However, Passenger B had already violated this simple, strategic arrangement in the seating code, for a V was no longer possible. A passenger getting on could either

a) work their way into the seats and sit down facing her, thus getting into entanglement-of-limbs issues as mentioned before.
b) Sit down next to her, thus violating her personal space
c) Sit down next to me, see above.
d) Sit down opposite me, thus getting into entanglement-of-limbs issues, again.

And d), as it turned out, is exactly what happened. Another passenger - Passenger N - got on, and headed for the (still fairly empty) set of seats. She quickly surveyed her options - Passenger B, I saw, had meanwhile placed her bags on the seat next to her, shrewdly heading off option b) - and headed for the seat opposite mine. (Option d)).

You win this round, Passenger B, I thought, as I angled my legs crankily outwards, and Passenger N apologetically angled her legs inwards, and the train rattled round the corner and into Spencer Street Station.

A helpful diagram

It has occasionally occurred to me that there is a need for a simple guidebook, full of elegant propositions and rules, entitled 'Body Language in Public Transport', or something like that, analysing and quantifying the various postures and positions it is possible to take on a train or tram in any given circumstance. This guide would provide simple rules and strategies for a number of different situations. (You are on a train packed full, but there are two seats left at opposite ends: what do you do? Where do you sit to optimise leg stretching possibilities? What do you do when you are sitting on an outside seat and a person comes along and meaningfully glares at you - do you move to the inside seat, possibly getting into an entanglement issue, or do you swing out, thus creating a kind of 'door' for this Person Of The Meaningful Glare to go in and get entangled with the other passenger themselves? etc) I can see the potential for such a guidebook to become indispensable for all passengers on the public transport, voyages on which could quickly become as tactical as a fine game of chess amongst grandmasters.

If I had a copy I would definitely give one to Passenger B. As it was, though, I just got off at North Melbourne Station and went to work. Funny, that...


Carolyn Cordon said...

I've written a poem about this kind of thing, it's filed in that place that poems go to for many years, to be found eventually, perhaps, to show you were a good poet back then, or you wrote trash back then.
Anyway, my poem talks of having your place on the train and it gets metaphorical about a dog pack hierarchy.
It was truly brilliant, as I sort of remember it.

TimT said...

It's surely a subject of universal interest. Unless I suppose you're one of those weird people who drive (seats on cars are even more claustrophobic than those on trains!) I'm sure the poem was brill.


Though I wonder if the right person to be writing about seating on trains isn't a mathematician - if I were a maths whizz, I expect I could enter onto the train and assess my options and immediately decide which was the optimum seating arrangement given the configuration of bodies.

brokenbiro said...

When I was travelling alone in Italy in my twenties I had a complex series of matrices relating to the relative danger to a lone woman from dodgy Italian blokes in train carriages - whereby the number of potentially perilous encounters were inversely proportional to the number of nuns on the train.. and, of course, where they were likely to get off.

You may find that placing items on all the seats and then feigning sleep may fend off early forays into your space.

TimT said...

You could call them 'The Nun Theorems'. They sound promising, not enough nuns here in Melbourne to speak of though. Almost none, in fact.

brokenbiro said...

No, I'm sure it's a peculiarly Italian thing - their nun ratio is very high and their carriage size very small (the trains - not the nuns... although who am I to say?)

The Nun Theorems eh? Hmmm. I like it.

TimT said...

Nun is a very mathematical concept after all...

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