The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 21 Dec 2017

Philadelphians, move to the back of the bus!

I have lived in Philadelphia almost 28 years, and I like it very much. I grew up in New York, and I have some of the typical New Yorker snobbery about the rest of the world, a sort of patronizing “oh, isn't that cute, at least you tried” attitude. This is not a good thing, and I have tried to get rid of it, with only partial success. Philadelphia is not New York and it is never going to be New York, and I am okay with that. When I first got here I was more doubtful, but I made an effort to find and appreciate things about Philadelphia that were better than in New York. There are many, but it took me a while to start noticing them.

In 1992 I wrote an article that began:

Someone asked me once what Philadelphia has that New York doesn't. I couldn't come up with anything good.

But the article explained explained that since then, I had found an excellent answer. I wrote about how I loved the Schuylkill river and how New York had nothing like the it. In Philadelphia you are always going back and forth across the Schuylkill river, sometimes in cars or buses or trains, sometimes on a bike, sometimes on foot. It is not a mighty river like the Hudson. (The Delaware fills that role for us.) The Schuylkill is smaller, but still important. The 1992 article said:

It makes what might otherwise be a static and monolithic entity into a dynamic and variable one. Manhattan is monolithic, like a giant baked potato. Philadelphia is complex inside, with structure and sub-organs, like your heart.

New York has rivers you can cross, but, like much of New York, they are not to human scale. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge or the George Washington Bridge on foot are fun things to do, once in a while. But they are big productions, a thing you might want to plan ahead, as a special event. Crossing the Schuylkill on foot is something you do all the time. In 1993 I commuted across the Schuylkill on foot twice a day and it was lovely. I took a photograph of it each time, and enjoyed comparing the many looks of the Schuylkill.

Once I found that point of attachment, I started to find many more things about Philadelphia that are better than in New York. Just a few that come to mind:

  • In New York, if you run into someone you know but had not planned to see, or meet a stranger with whom you have a common acquaintance, you are stunned. It is an epic coincidence, not quite a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, but maybe not a once-a-year thing either. In Philadelphia it is still unusual enough to be an interesting and happy surprise but not so rare as to make you wonder if you are being pranked.

  • In Philadelphia, if you are walking down the street, and say hello to a stranger sitting on their stoop, they will say hello back to you. In New York they will stare at you as though you had just come from the moon, perhaps wondering what your angle is.

  • If you live in New York, it is preferable to spend all of August in your vacation home, even if it is located on the shore of the lake of boiling pitch in the eighth circle of Hell. The weather is more pleasant in the eighth circle than it is in New York in August, and the air is cleaner. Never in 28 years in Philadelphia have I endured weather that is as bad as New York in August.

This is only a partial list. Philadelphia is superior to New York in many ways, and I left out the most important ones. I am very fond of Philadelphia, which is why I have lived here for 28 years. I can appreciate its good points, and when I encounter its bad points I no longer snarl and say “In New York we knew how to do this right.” Usually.


One thing about Philadelphia is seriously broken. Philadelphians do not know how to get on a bus.

Every culture has its own customs. Growing up as a New Yorker, I learned early and deeply a cardinal part of New York's protocol: Get out of the way. Seriously, if you visit New York and you can't get anything else right, at least get out of the way. Here is advice from Nathan Pyle's etiquette guide for newcomers to New York:

animated gif depicting 'ideal New York walking formation': slower
people in two columns, so the faster people can flow around them

Insofar as I still have any authority to speak for New Yorkers, I endorse the advice in this book on their behalf. Quite a lot of it consists of special cases of “get out of the way”. Tip #41 says so in so many words: “Basically anything goes as long as you stay out of the way.” Tip #31 says to take your luggage off the subway seat next to you, and put it on your lap. Tip #65 depicts the correct way of stopping on the sidewalk to enjoy a slice of pizza: immediately adjacent to a piece of street furniture that the foot traffic would have had to have gone around anyway.

Suppose you get on the bus in New York. You will find that the back of the bus is full, and the front is much less so. You are at the front. What do you do now? You move as far back as is reasonably possible — up to the beginning of the full section — so that the next person to get in can do the same. This is (obviously, if you are a New Yorker) the only way to make efficient use of the space and fill up the bus.

In Philadelphia, people do not do this. People get on the bus, move as far back as is easy and convenient, perhaps halfway, or perhaps only a few feet, and then stop, as the mood takes them. And so it often happens that when the bus arrives the new passengers will have to stand in the stepwell, or can't get on at all — even though the bus is only half full. Not only is there standing room in the back, but there are usually seats in the back. The bus abandons people at the stop, because there is no room for them to get on, because there is someone standing halfway down blocking the aisle, and the person just in front of them doesn't want to push past them, and those two people block everyone else.

In New York, the passengers in front would brusquely push their way past these people and perhaps rebuke them. New Yorkers are great snarlers, but Philadelphians seem to be too polite to snarl at strangers. Nobody in Philadelphia says anything, and the space is wasted. People with kids and packages are standing up because people behind them can't be bothered to sit down.

I don't know what the problem is with these people. Wouldn't it easier to move to the back of the bus and to sit down in the empty seats than it is to stand up and block the aisle? I have tried for a quarter of a century to let go of the idea that people in New York are smarter and better and people elsewhere are slow-witted rubes, and I have mostly succeeded. But where Philadelphians are concerned, this bus behavior is a major sticking point.

In New York we knew how to do this right.

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