Courtesy Counts: Do Subway Posters Make a Better Ride?

By Teis Jorgensen (ideas42)

In January, the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) introduced a new ad campaign in the New York City Subway aimed at curbing bad subway behavior.  Eight months later, I decided to hit the streets of New York, chasing commuters in the Financial District with my notebook and subway poster print-outs to get their thoughts on subway etiquette and understand whether the campaign worked.

The slogan of the campaign is “Courtesy Counts - Manners make a better ride. Be someone who makes it a better ride for everyone.” Accompanying these ads are a series of cartoons depicting the do’s and don’ts of subway behavior. Below are a few of my personal favorites:

As a New York commuter, I have spent a lot of time looking at these ads (what else am I to do as I listen to music and actively ignore the people around me?); as someone interested in behavioral science, I’ve spent some time trying to figure out whether this campaign qualifies as a “behavioral intervention.” Sure, the campaign is trying to change people’s behavior, but does it effectively use insights from behavioral science to do so?

Unfortunately, fixing subway etiquette seems to be an uphill battle. In fact, as MTA spokesperson Adam Linsberg said in an interview with The Gothamist in October (ironically, just two months before the Courtesy Counts campaign launched in January): “You can go back in history and see old examples of etiquette posters here and elsewhere. People literally never learn. If systems all over the world have been trying and failing to curb bad behavior for decades, why do we think we would suddenly discover the magic bullet to get people to change?" And he’s right. There are public transit campaigns in most major cities of the world (many of which are much more humorous than Courtesy Counts):

Example etiquette posters urging riders not to litter in  London , hold the doors in  Tokyo , and take up too much space in  Paris .

Example etiquette posters urging riders not to litter in London, hold the doors in Tokyo, and take up too much space in Paris.

Etiquette campaigns have even been tried here in NYC, too; just take a look at these classic Subway Sun posters from the 1940s and 50s:

One of the more famous NYC etiquette campaigns, these Oppy  posters  appeared in subways in the 1940s.

One of the more famous NYC etiquette campaigns, these Oppy posters appeared in subways in the 1940s.

Given the number of times these campaigns have been tried, apparently without success, it’s easy to see why the MTA remains skeptical of finding the “magic bullet” to promoting courteous subway behavior. And it seems that New Yorkers share this skepticism.

In general, New Yorkers know that there is a problem with bad subway behavior. Everyone I talked to had a subway pet peeve (usually expressed through a lengthy rant). My personal hell is people blasting music over speakers at 3AM while stepping on my toes, but I digress.

Everyone also knows that it’s other people’s fault. “I wish people had more manners, but most New Yorkers just don’t [care]”, one woman told me. Another agreed: “It’s New York. People will be rude. They just do what they want.” People are extremely quick to condemn their fellow passengers; everyone I interviewed expressed the idea that some people are rude and their behavior will never be changed.

Behavioral science suggests a clear explanation for this rather defeatist attitude: the fundamental attribution error. This theory suggests that when judging the behaviors of others we are more likely to blame the person than the situation. So, if you bump into me, my immediate thought is that you are both a careless and inconsiderate person. On the other hand, when judging our own actions, we are much more likely to consider the influence of the situation. So, if I bump into you, you might think I’m rude, but I will know that I am not: I’m just having a bad day, the train is too crowded, my mind was temporarily distracted by the commotion around me, etc. Thus, it’s unsurprising that when asked why the “Courtesy Counts” campaign is necessary, New Yorkers blame other New Yorkers.

Given the magnitude of the problem and the universal bias toward seeing character flaws in those around us, it’s unsurprising that progress toward a more courteous subway seems impossible. In fact, the idea that you could be forever changed by brief interactions with etiquette posters is somewhat absurd. If the MTA is trying to change the spirit of New Yorkers, the Courtesy Counts campaign is doomed from the start.

However, there is an alternative way of framing the goal of an etiquette campaign: to change the context of the subway car. After all, the situation is much easier to change than the person, and each of us already recognizes that our own behavior is extremely contextual (I’m not a bad person—this situation just sucks).

Maybe that’s the “magic bullet” the MTA has been looking for: give up on changing people and focus instead on changing the subway itself. Maybe we’re just a few nudges away from “a better ride for everyone.” But could a poster really be that nudge?

Courtesy Counts will continue next week.