For the past two years, New York City’s subway riders have been treated to an advertising campaign admonishing them to be courteous to one other. An innocuous message, it would seem. Yet in fact, these calls for civic-mindedness serve to divert attention from the true cause of the myriad distresses subway riders face: class inequality.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) “Courtesy Counts” ads show faceless figures in scenes depicting lack of subway etiquette, accompanied by messages enjoining riders to avoid particular kinds of improper behavior. The most common figure is someone I like to call the Tie Guy — a nondescript male wearing a tie and a suit.
This archetype’s inclusion should immediately elicit curiosity: tie-wearers are quite rare on the subway nowadays. The white-collar workers who use the subway overwhelmingly favor business casual attire, and thus have no need for neckwear. These days, the accouterments of the business suit are instead markers of the executive class — who in New York City prefer to be chauffeured or even choppered to work.
Why, then, is a figure that uses the subway infrequently so ubiquitous in the MTA’s campaign?
Even stranger, why is the Tie Guy invariably the one victimized by the discourteous acts of others, rather than the perpetrator of them?
For example, he’s the one forced to suffer through the careless primping and nail clipping of nearby passengers.
He’s the one inconvenienced by shopping bags . . .
. . . and trash . . .
. . . and backpacks.
And he’s forced to endure the entertainment of the subway’s aspiring dancers and rappers.
As for manspreading, it isn’t just the scourge of women — it forces the Tie Guy to stand as well.
Common decency eludes the Tie Guy even when it comes to giving up a seat for the pregnant, elderly, or disabled. He is too important to sacrifice his place.
What is going on here? I would begin by invoking the concept of moral sentimentalism, or the tendency to manipulate matters of politeness and morality in ways that obscure more important ethical and political concerns.
Here, the elevation of politeness to a moral principle covers up the underlying dynamics of the situation. Far from being the victim of inconsiderate riders, the Tie Guy is the bane of the mass commuter — the cause of such conduct, personified.
Consider why the impugned behavior takes place in the first place. Why, for example, would people primp, clip nails, or eat during their commute instead of at home? Out of sheer rudeness? Or might it be that the lack of affordable housing has pushed workers so far away from their jobs in the city center that they’re crunched for time?
Why do people lug around an assortment of bags on the subway, to the consternation of Tie Guy? Perhaps because they don’t have enough money to take a taxi, or the fortune to hire a car and driver.
And why are there so many performers on the subway, doing bits for spare change? Maybe because it’s one way they can make a buck in a society that enriches the Tie Guy at their expense.
Consider as well the chronic underfunding of the MTA, and the stress placed on its riders. The MTA is currently $34.1 billion in debt, faces projected deficits in the hundreds of millions in the coming years, and spends a whopping $2.2 billion annually (out of an operating budget of $15 billion) just to pay interest on its debt.
About half of the MTA’s funding comes from ever-increasing rider fares and commuter tolls. (Government subsidies and dedicated taxes on payroll, real estate transactions, and other business activities make up most of the rest.)
What riders get in return is perpetual overcrowding, regular outages, and frequent delays. The MTA, to its credit, realizes the lackluster service it’s providing and has crafted a five-year, $29 billion capital plan to expand services and upgrade subway cars.
But it simply doesn’t have the funds to transform the New York City subway into a world-class transit system. The plan is $3 billion less than what the MTA originally desired — a reduction brought about due to derisory funding commitments from the federal, state and city government — and the transit authority still has to cover more than a third of the total.
That’s a difficult task for an agency whose purpose is to keep transit costs low, for the good of the whole city — not just generate revenue. As the MTA explains, “The transit system creates huge benefits for many who do not use it. New York City could not exist in its current form without a healthy mass transit system, which supports the density and urban life that attract global businesses and a skilled workforce.”
And yet it’s those who use the subway regularly and those directly invested in it who provide the lion’s share of the MTA’s budget — not the wealthy elite who, while not regular subway users, benefit from the surplus value it creates.
So the cash-strapped subway continues to function horribly, creating a riding environment that breeds the bad behavior the “Courtesy Counts” ads pillory. People crowd the doors less because they’re inconsiderate than because the trains are packed to the brim. Riders “hog” the pole, hugging it tightly, more out of fear of falling on jerky rides than a disdain for their fellow straphangers.
And where does the Tie Guy come in? Well, we know he doesn’t ride the subway, so he doesn’t help fund it with fares (which function as a kind of a regressive flat tax, since everyone pays the same rate). The Tie Guy is better off, however, when his employees can use the subway to get to work, generating the profits that enable him to be who he is.
The Tie Guy endures none of the inconveniences mentioned in the ads, yet benefits from the economic underpinnings of mass transit without shouldering any of the cost. In short, the Tie Guy is capitalism — supposedly threatened by the behavior of workers, but in fact exploiting them to the verge of frayed feelings and anger.
“Courtesy Counts” does not just mislead about the sources of impolite behavior — it pushes ordinary commuters to blame themselves, highlighting the personal and effacing the structural. The principal causes of impolite behavior are the massively unequal divide between the average rider and the tie-wearing elite, and the unwillingness of the latter to pay their share for the public goods that undergird their wealth and status.
So suppose you happen to have the rare fortune of running into the Tie Guy in the subway. What should you do? By all means, clip your nails next to him, pile your bags against his legs, twirl around the pole in front of him, and spread your legs to prevent him from sitting down. It may not be common courtesy — but what courtesy do we have in common with him?