My Daily Collective Action Problem

I am somewhat infatuated with Quito’s bus system.  Perhaps it is a product of growing up in the mass-transit-is-for-wimps-and-commies American west, but I think I am peculiarly appreciative of the fact that, for $.25, I can traverse the entire length of Quito relatively swiftly while leaving it to someone else to deal with this country’s insane, horn-happy drivers.

Of course, observing 112 people crammed into an area the size of my dining room is also bound to spawn some interesting questions.  For example, how loudly can the teenagers play reggaeton through their cell-phones before the abuelitas start giving them dirty looks?  In how few syllables can the driver provide all the information he or she is required to give (current stop – watch your step – doors closing – next stop)?  And, while it’s totally clear than men always give up their seats for women and able-bodied women always give up their seats for disabled-women, who has to stand when it comes to a pregnant woman versus a woman with an infant versus an old woman with a cane? (It’s a bit like trying to figure out the rules to ‘rock-paper-scissors’ when playing with my brother, who generally chooses ‘gun’).

Lest I wax whimsically, once again, about ‘informal regulation’ and other sociological nonsense, I should add that Quito’s buses are also unbridled chaos.  The problem stems from the fact that the bus stops at a given station for—at maximum—15 seconds.  Given how crammed the buses are at rush hour (seriously, the green line in Manhattan has nothing on EcoVilla), this means that your only hope to get off the bus at the proper stop is to constantly fight your way towards the door, irrespective of where your stop actually is and how many people are trying to get on.  The result is somewhat comical, at least when you’re not getting crushed.  Around the door, it’s impossible to breathe, but in the aisles five feet away, there’s ample space (I literally saw a woman standing up and knitting).

It’s really a pretty classic prisoner’s dilemma.  If everyone just stepped away from the door, we could all ride in (relative) comfort.  But the best situation is if you stand by the door and everyone else stands back.  Knowing this, of course, everyone crowds the exit.

I am really quite certain that if I could convince everyone to stand in the aisle until their stop, I could save the world.

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3 thoughts on “My Daily Collective Action Problem

  1. Ha! After spending time in Cuba and Bolivia this year, I can definitely relate to your anecdotes about overcrowded buses and funny mass transit systems in Latin America. Good post.

  2. I am currently living in Ecuador, 4 years after your post, and I have yet to have n Ecuadorian male give up his seat for me. The ecovilla is CRAZY!

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