The bottom line

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 December, 2004, 12:00am

Every day, the ritual is the same. I wait at the far end of the platform in the hope of getting one of the final few seats in one of the least-crowded carriages of the New York subway train that takes me to work.

But often I face a tough choice. Do I lean uncomfortably against a door or pole for 45 minutes, losing all ability to control the morning newspaper in the process, and arriving at my office in a far from relaxed state? Do I sit next to the character who mutters obscenities to himself and anyone in close proximity (yes - my train often has the crazy guy), or do I wedge my modest-sized bottom between two large people who either need all three seats, or have a real attitude about anyone squeezing into their cosy arrangement?

But the very fact that I am asking these questions shows how much New York has changed in the past 15 years. Now, there is as much discussion about simple discomforts and etiquette as there is about violent crime on the subway system. Once, the discussion was about how to avoid getting mugged or murdered underground. But now, with the city's murder rate close to its lowest in more than 40 years, the focus is on how to wear a micro skirt while riding the subway, avoid catching the flu from a spluttering fellow passenger, or tips on who you should give up your seat for.

Transit officials are playing their part. The Mass Transit Authority has, for a long time, had rules forbidding the drinking of alcohol, smoking, begging, littering and graffiti. Now it has just issued proposed changes to its rules of conduct that sound like they came from a stern parent. Under the proposed revisions, people will be barred from occupying more than one seat on a train or from putting their feet up on a neighbouring seat. People are also warned that they cannot lie on the floor, platform, stairway, landing or conveyance, and as for straddling a bicycle while the train is moving, that is also out.

The penalties for any of these crimes are vague, although violations could lead to a summons, a fine - or even a jail sentence. The enforcers can be either police officers or transit workers.

Of course some of this is baloney. The rules are frequently broken. On the day I wrote this, beggars worked their way through a train I was on. The crazy guy burbled on, and two people sat with their legs wide open to prevent me from taking the middle seat.

These are mild irritations, though. And with mobile phones beginning to work on the subway (threatening major noise pollution) and iPod snatching becoming a new pastime for subway thieves, there will be plenty of chances for new rule-making.