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Tone Deafness in Appeals for Minor Social Change

The anti-manspreading campaign misses the point about public spaces.

There are appeals for great change, like reforming the role of police or shifting how we generate energy. And then there are appeals for minor change, like those seeking to combat men sitting on subways with their legs spread apart.

In both cases there is a certain need to make different appeals at different times. In broaching the issue generally it is alright to be more callous. To paint the offenders as inciters and troublemakers. But once the issue achieves broad awareness, it makes much more sense to change tacks.

Consider the manspread issue. Painted as one of male privilege—of men taking more than their fair share of public space on a crowded subway car. The suggestions don’t stop at merely folding the legs together, but appeals often go further, calling for men to stand up on trains.

The problem of comfort in public is an important one, but too often it is a zero-sum problem. Smokers got shoved out in the cold. Manspreaders take all the heat. The scapegoat gets punished, everyone else continues to march on in a suboptimal space putting up with a hundred other problems that haven’t risen to the level of minor outrage.

Point is, rather than scapegoating or inventing “As Seen on TV” gadgets for dealing with space issues on airplanes, the public should be demanding improved spaces (accepting that they may result in higher fiscal costs). Who wouldn’t want all airplanes to give more space? Or all subway cars? But who wants to pay more?

So the problem, at its heart, is not one of privilege or fairness. It’s one of frugality. We don’t want to pay more for the extra space. We want to pay less, generally. And so, we are offended by those who encroach on our already-skimped-upon space.

Let us then consider technological and economic solutions. For those offended by manspreaders, finding yourself next to a manspreader, would your opinion of the situation change if you knew the offender paid more for the seat for the privilege of manspreading? Or would that conspicuous consumption only make the situation worse? Would the manspreader now feel entitled to do the splits?

I’m not opposed to social etiquette or having men behave (along with everyone else) in public spaces. I’m not even very sure how seriously the anti-manspreading campaign is (but as it keeps coming up, I assume it is not in fact an instance of ongoing satire). But I am opposed to missing opportunities to improve public spaces to the detriment of everyone simply to make everyone equally uncomfortable.

What if the manspreader paid your fare on the subway? That is, if the manspreader paid double, and whoever sat next to him got their ride comped? Would that change the perception of manspreaders?

Again, the ideal solution is that public spaces become more accommodating to all comers (including breastfeeding women, people with children, people with pets, people who are having a bad day and would like not to put up with bullshit, etc.). Anti-manspreading seems to ignore that goal in favor of shaming people who feel more comfortable sitting with their legs apart. I think we can do better.

The Change of Trains: Train-Car Mutability

Intriguing design: single-occupant spaces in a train. Just one more reason why trains rock.

Avoid Interaction With Other Humans in New Train Design displays a novel design idea for a train: single-occupant and four-person lounge ‘spaces.’

I happen to think this is a great idea and that you can run through many similar ideas on trains which is part of why they are such a great mode of transport.  Instead of being stuck with a single type of car there can be many different car-types on a single train and thus the pricing structures and types of transportation become much more complex and desirable.

The biggest bonus is that trains could roll out experimental cars from time to time and see how people liked them while not losing that much if they didn’t turn a profit.

Get with it America.

Rail and the Election

A few links about the candidates’ stances on mass transit circa summer 2008.

Progress Illinois had a brief piece about the differences between Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama when it comes to mass transit. They also tap a DCist piece from earlier in June that’s worth a read about Obama’s history of supporting mass transit. [Read: Obama vs. McCain on High-Speed Rail – June 17, 2008]

The Boston Globe has an article from the beginning of July on Sen. McCain’s long track-record of anti-Amtrak votes and sentiments. [Read: McCain’s agenda on Amtrak]

For all he does, though, I don’t believe that Obama makes it as central to the campaign as it should be. Look at Europe and Asia and how much they are doing and have done with trains. Imagine how much gas we could save and how much better our lives could be. It should be Obama standing up in front of the tens of thousands proclaiming, “We’ll choose to go at excess of 300 km/h not because it is easy, but because it’s awesome.”

And given that his wife seems to think everyone should just fly around whenever and wherever they need to go, Sen. McCain’s stance is not really surprising. For whatever reason the massive economic boon that a comprehensive system of rail technologies could bring to every region of this country isn’t important to him or the so-called pro-market party.