Selfishness on Crowded Buses

This happens almost every day; you see the bus coming toward you and you can tell by the way that people are standing in both of the doors that it’s standing-room-only. You sigh and brace yourself for the pressing, the squeezing, and the discomfort. You step up and, shifting your backpack to one shoulder to slide between people easier, you worm your way in. You look through the tangle of heads and hands and see, there in the middle of the bus, blessed space. The problem is that two overweight people are pressed together blocking your path. Why won’t the people in the middle move closer together? Can’t they see that you’re just trying to get somewhere and that everyone else is suffering because of their selfishness? What the hell???

It is the scourge of bus fare collectors everywhere in this country because people are incredibly unhelpful when it comes to efficiently filling up the bus with people. The ‘cobradores,’ as they’re called, have to jump up to the windows on the outside of the bus and shout at people in the middle to move closer together. I have heard them almost literally threaten to ‘pull this bus over to the side of the road’ if people don’t cooperate and move together. For a long time this frustrated me to no end. Why were people being so selfish? Don’t they care about all the other people trying to get home or to work? I felt bad for the bus workers for having to deal with the situation. Over time, however, I have begun to understand why this happens. I think it has to do with misaligned incentives.

Official capacity: 60. Actual passengers: 121

If you are a Nicaraguan, or anyone, really, who has spent a significant portion of your life on crowded buses in this country, then you know that if you do as the cobrador wants and relinquish your personal space in the middle of the bus, you will be rewarded with a less comfortable ride and the space that you free up will not be distributed among all the other people on the bus. Instead the result will be that the cobrador will try to pack MORE people on the bus. Why would you want to free up more space just so that the bus people can make more money out of your discomfort? Look, we feel bad that some people might get left behind, but this is Nicaragua! First come first seated is a law of the land. If we don’t band together and demand some semblance of comfort and space on the buses, then we’ll continue to get treated like sardines. I’ve seen this situation really get tense when you throw in some serious righteous indignation, like a pregnant woman whose friend demands space and flatly denounces as abuse any attempt by the bus personnel or waiting passengers to fill the space.

I think this phenomenon is perfectly understandable as a result of self-interest and the realization that selfless behavior will go punished rather than rewarded. Nobody is saying ‘thanks’ for your sacrifice of comfort. In fact, everyone may get more uncomfortable if you don’t hold out. From the cobrador’s perspective, he’s only offering to get you from one place to another, so by reducing his ability to make money and denying others the opportunity to board you’re a menace to society. It’s a fascinating conflict and I don’t see any easy way to resolve it. The epic struggle between the middle passengers and the bus workers must continue.


3 responses to this post.

  1. That’s a very interesting analysis of a phenomenon I’ve noticed on the buses here in NYC as well. The bus driver will come over the PA system encouraging people to “move on back,” but most people don’t move, even though there is plenty of space in the middle/back. So then the people who are trying to do the right thing and make space have to push their way through in order to reach the open space.


  2. Posted by Nick Dmytrenko on February 14, 2012 at 5:04 am

    If buses here are full, people just climb on top. Problem solved.


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