7 Basic Lessons in Public Transportation Etiquette

Public transportation is increasingly becoming the most common mode of transportation while traveling. Gone are the days when travelers were limited to exploration without the handicap of a cab, private car or tour. More and more travelers are taking on public transit in foreign cities.

I enjoy traveling by train both for business and pleasure frequently. Most cities I travel to have great transit systems and I find navigating a train map a fun challenge. I am sympathetic to those who do not travel often and might not have a masters in public transportation protocol. Though, I do feel that there is a certain level of etiquette that all travelers should adhere to.

Chicago El Train

Cross-culturally there are some shades of grey, however I do believe that there are still some universal truths. The more I travel and observe those around me, I find myself wondering if we are so completely self-absorbed that we’ve become increasing less interested in our surroundings. We are all just trying to get from point A to point B, but do we owe any sort of respect to our peers while doing so?

I had a recent unique train experience while traveling back to Philadelphia from a work conference. At 7:00 PM I carefully selected my seat on Amtrak train number 90 and began to drift away into my book. I kept to myself, occasionally looking out the window and around the train car. As the trip continued on, I began to notice the distracting behaviors of those around me. Initially, I thought I was easily irritated having worked for five days in client meetings. As the behaviors continued on throughout the duration of the trip, I channeled my inner Taylor Swift and was able to shake it off. However, the experience prompted me to round-up a few do’s and don’ts of public transportation etiquette.

Traveling with children

Let’s get one thing clear: having children does not limit a parent’s ability or freedom to travel the world. Be patient with families traveling with young children. While some consider it a nightmare when they see a toddler aboard a six-hour flight, it is important to be mindful that the parent is doing the best they can.

If you want to make light of the situation as a parent, consider giving your seat mates headphones as a peace offering. Most airlines give them out for free anyway. As a passenger, be patient and remember that you were probably the reason your mother received a few snarky looks at some point as a child.

Being sick

We as humans are unable to deny illness. That is, unless you are a super hero or sold your soul to the devil. Until science can change that, we have no control.  It is Murphy’s Law that states anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. I find this especially true when you really can’t afford to get sick.

Of course, at the most inconvenient times your immune system goes on vacation and you are left curled up in a ball in the airport terminal waiting to board your flight. If you are stuck traveling with a nasty chest cold or stomach virus, be mindful of the space around you. Come prepared with copious amounts of antibacterial soap and wipes, tissues, and before exiting at your destination, remember to clean up your area.

For those passengers who are irritated that you are stuck next to someone sick, try to show some empathy and remember you’ve probably been in their place before. I once sat next to a female who was vomiting the entire trip. And while it was not pleasant, we’ve all been there. Offer compassion and try to help without putting yourself in danger of also getting sick.

Electronic Devices

Electronic devices are a way of life. Modern conveniences allow me the opportunity to check my iPhone while working on my laptop, while listening to music on my tablet while reading a book on my Kindle. The beauty of these luxuries is that most electronic devices come equipped with headphones! The magic of headphones is multi-beneficial. It cancels out the noise on the listeners end and lets other passengers travel in peace.

While I love Netflix as much as the next person, I am not interested in listening to reruns of Scandal blasting on your tablet speakers (great choice of show though). Furthermore, speaker phone and/or Facetime have no business being utilized on a train car, air plane, bus, or ferry. Find a private area and excuse yourself to converse.

Respect the silent car

I agree, sometimes the silent car is not as clearly marked on trains as it should be. Often times, some travelers do not even realize they’ve sat down in the silent car. Before getting settled in your seat, take a moment to look around the car and see if you are traveling in the silent car. If you plan to take telephone calls or to chat with your fellow passengers, consider a different seat.

Let passengers exit

I was once waiting to board an Amtrak train when a lady in front of me was so annoyed that two parents traveling with their two young children, two large roller bags and a stroller took “too long to exit.” While huffing and puffing, she turned around rolling her eyes murmuring “slow people, I can’t stand them.” The desire to be first is an innate quality we humans desire. When traveling via public transportation, be mindful of passengers exiting. In order to make space for more passengers to board, passengers need room to exit first. Make sure to also be attentive and considerate of those with wheelchairs, strollers, elderly or young children. It might take them a bit longer to exit.

Give your seat up to those who really need it

Basic human compassion 101: If you see a family or group who is struggling to sit together, consider giving up or trading your seat. Moreover, you might receive good karma from an airline if you are willing to relocate to help a family out. Or perhaps the bus is full, offer up your seat to the elderly and pregnant women who clearly need it more.

Stand right, walk left

This was not something I was fully aware of until I first traveled abroad. Once in Denmark I was actually pushed out of the way on an escalator. I was standing on the left with my luggage to the right. Initially I was annoyed until I learned that this was basically a universal understanding and I was in the wrong. This transfers over from the same rules of the road. Standing on the right allows other passengers who are moving quicker to pass and carry on their way without disrupting others around them. While this is not necessarily universally practiced, it is something to be cognizant of.

NOTE: If you are in the UK, Australia or other countries where they drive on the left side of the road, this advice should be switched. Stand left, walk right. 

Chicago El Train

Photo of Chicago El Train/ ShutterStock.com

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5 thoughts on “7 Basic Lessons in Public Transportation Etiquette”

  1. Mom

    Love every one of Laura’s posts! Glad to see her back and thanks for this timeless advice.

  2. Jade

    Great tips although the last one is a bit misleading – it really does depend on the road rules. Here in Australia you stand left and walk on the right (drive on the left side of the road). If you stood on the right side you may receive dirty looks and requests to move (hopefully politely).

    1. Keryn Means

      Very good point Jade! I’ll add a note into the post to clear up the confusion. Thank you so much!

      1. Tara Marlow

        Great article Keryn. If I may add to the stand left, walk right (or vice versa – I’m in Australia as well) section: If you have a bag, keep it on the step up ahead of you or behind you, but not beside you. So many people get on escalators and feel they need to keep their bag on the same step. To keep the flow of the faster traffic, it’s best to roll it on first and then step on.

        May I also add that if you have kids on public transport, especially trains, remember that it’s not a playground. Kids should not be running up and down in the aisles or be using the the midway section their personal playground. Travelling with kids is great fun and it’s a great way to teach them how to be respectful of other’s in public places. The best thing I saw on a commuter train was a Dad playing a ‘spot the…’ game out the window with his son. Makes your kids a lot more aware of what’s around them too. =)

  3. Damon

    In the UK it’s stand right, walk left. Course now they are trying both stand as it clears more people out of the tube.

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