Herd Mentality? The Freakonomics of Boarding a Bus

A few days a week, I bring my daughter to nursery school on the East Side of Manhattan. (On the other days, I bring my son to kindergarten; next year, they will blessedly attend the same school.) We live on the West Side, and usually take the bus across town. It is a busy time of day. At the bus stop closest to our apartment (we’ll call this Point A), there are often 40 or 50 people waiting for the bus. This is largely because there is a subway stop right there; a lot of people take the train from uptown or downtown, then go aboveground to catch the crosstown bus.

I don’t like crowds much in general (I know: what am I doing living in New York?), and I especially don’t like fighting a crowd when I’m trying to cram onto a bus with my five-year-old daughter. Because there are so many people waiting for a bus at Point A, we have perhaps a 30% chance of getting aboard the first bus that stops there, and probably an 80% chance of getting aboard one of the first two buses that stop at Point A. (The first bus to come along after a very crowded bus is usually less crowded, but not always.)

As for getting a seat on the bus, I’d say we have perhaps a 10% chance of sitting down on either of the first two buses at Point A. It’s not such a long ride across town, maybe 15 minutes, but standing on a crowded bus in winter gear, my daughter’s lunch getting smushed in her backpack, isn’t the ideal way to start the day. Point A is so crowded that when eastbound passengers get off the bus at Point A, using the bus’s back door, a surge of people rush onto the bus via the back door, which means that a) they don’t pay, since the paybox is up front and b) they take room away from the people who are legitimately waiting at the head of the crowd to get on the bus.

So a while ago, we started walking a block west to catch the bus at what we’ll call Point B. Point B is perhaps 250 yards west of — that is, further from our East Side destination — than Point A. But at Point B, the lines are considerably shorter, and the buses arrive less crowded. At Point B, we have a 90% chance of getting aboard the first bus that arrives, and perhaps a 40% chance of getting a seat. To me, this seems well worth the effort and time of walking 250 yards.

Once we hit upon this solution, we haven’t boarded a single bus at Point A. We get to sit; we get to listen to the iPod together (we both love Lily Allen, and I don’t worry so much about the fresh parts since Lily’s British accent renders them nearly indecipherable for Anya); we don’t arrive with a smushed lunch.

But what I can’t figure out is why no other bus passengers at Point A do what we do. To anyone standing at Point A morning after morning, the conditions there are plainly bad. The conditions at Point B are clearly better since a) Point B is close enough to see with the naked eye and b) the buses that arrive at Point A from Point B often have room on them, although only for the first 10 or 20 passengers trying to board at Point A.

Personally, I am happy that more people at Point A don’t go to Point B (which would make me have to consider boarding at Point C), but I don’t understand why this is so. Here are a few possibilities:

1. Walking 250 yards doesn’t seem like a worthwhile investment to improve a short, if miserable, experience.

2. Having just gotten off the subway, the Point A passengers are already broken in spirit and can’t muster the energy to improve their commuting lot.

3. Perhaps some Point A passengers simply never think about the existence of a Point B, or at least the conditions thereof.

4. There is a herd at Point A; people may not like being part of a herd, but psychologically they are somehow comforted by it; they succumb to “herd mentality” and unthinkingly tag along — because if everyone else is doing it, it must be the thing to do.

Personally, I am persuaded that all four points may be valid in varying measures, and there are undoubtedly additional points to be made. But if I had to pick an outright winner, I’d say No. 4: the herd mentality.

What do you think? And what are some other examples of herd mentality that you have encountered?


I have not the foggiest idea why you have blundered on to a better way, but I do know this. Publish a book and you will sell thousands!

Seriously, this is just like those people that publish books about what road in what neighborhood in Houston to cut through to bypass the 410 on the way to work. This happens all over the country. I saw a book like that Atlanta.

So you and Anya could do the research. What a great father/daughter project.

But just don't publish your favorite routes if you want to get to school on time!


A possible reason could also be the fear that people might miss the bus by being in the middle of the route between Point A and B when the bus leaves from Point B.


Another example of herd mentality that I see CONSTANTLY is in grocery store checkout lines. People seem to fear short or nonexistent lines, and queue up in one of the lines that has "enough" people, if not the most people.

Perhaps people fear that the short lines are short for a REASON- the clerk is closing the lane and just hasn't turned off the "open lane" light yet? Perhaps (in the case of empty lanes), the lane isn't REALLY open, and the clerk is attending to other business at the register?

I've been heading to the shortest or nonexistent lined-lane my whole grocery shopping life, and only once or twice in that many-year period, was there something "wrong" with the lane.

I've saved up so much time doing this, I can now write long-winded comments in all my favourite blogs, and still come out ahead. Ca-ching!


There's the obvious advantage of perhaps not having to pay at Point A.


I've noticed that the same sort of thing happens when I'm shopping at large stores(grocery stores, Target, etc.) -- There will be surges of people going to the check stands, much like the herd is drawing them there. When I find myself walking with the surge, I will often so and browse in a nearby section for a few minutes and let the lines die down. It's a fascinating thing to see - I don't know if people are somehow subconsciously drawn to the competition of getting in line first or are comforted in being part of the crowd.


Your utility for getting a seat is much higher when traveling with a small child (and their lunch). A business person with a briefcase can stand up and still listen to their iPod.

Also, agent.bauer's concern about missing the bus is right on.


I do a similar thing when I catch the bus from my apartment to the Metro station here in Fairfax, VA. My stop is consistently crowded and you don't always get a seat. The stop before mine is never very crowded and it is within a block of my stop. So I will just walk to the other stop so I can always be guaranteed a seat.


It's always the same on a busy day at Barnes & Noble. There can be 15 people lined up in the front of the store waiting to check out, and thirty yards away in the record department there's no one, even though they'll sell any merchandise at their register. Sometimes the manager will announce that they can check out back there without a wait - any nobody moves! I think it's inertia.


An interesting idea, a corollary to one I've noticed over the years – when coming to a toll-booth, why do people queue in the “exact change” lines, when the “change provided” lines are often shorter? I prefer the manned booths anyway, just in case my coins aren't counted when I toss them in. Maybe we're not as experienced with toll roads in the south – the one I'm referring to is in Atlanta, and was the first ever in the metro area. Or as you say, maybe it's a case of herd mentality (coupled with “obey the rules”) issues going on.

But in your case, I wouldn't make a deal out of it, for fear that the other commuters might wake up. Sooner or later someone's going to notice you and your daughter, and figure out what you're doing!

Indigo Starblaster

Now I feel like an idiot. If I don't see the bus coming, I'll often walk along the road, towards my destination, and end up catching the bus at a later stop. But it would never occur to me to walk in the opposite direction, away from my destination.

It isn't necessarily the fear of missing the bus that deters me, since I can miss it walking towards my destination, too. I guess it's just that I feel I'm "making progress" with the one, but not with the other.


pee wee soccer, the magnetism is generated by the ball as opposed to the comfort of peer proximity, but a herd nonetheless.


Another prime example happens in all office buildings. Two examples:

1) When going through turnstile doors people usually flow to one door if it's closer rather than walking 10 extra feet to a less used door.

2) When riding an elevator you can often wait for a busy elevator to go. Then ride up by yourself getting to your floor rather than getting on with the herd ASAP.


I agree with all 4 points, but I would add another.

5. Walking 250 yards increases the expectation value of the time you will arrive at your distination. There is a probability you will miss a bus while walking towards point B. Consequently, people who value time over comfort will logically wait at point A.

Ian Ferrel

Entering or leaving performance venues, I regularly see masses of people lined up to go through a single open door in a set of double doors. It amazes me every time that, out of the hundreds of people, I'm the only one who thinks to walk past the line, open the other door, and walk through it.


I would suspect a combination of 2 and 4, along with comment #6 above.

People transferring from the subway to the bus are following a defined itinerary, that has been laid out before them, and don't stray from it. You are starting from a place of control.

I think once people initially surrender control by stepping on a bus or train, they don't make the switch to seize it back, and then switch again to surrending control when they get back on the bus. They essentailly turn off their brains and leave them off.

There may also be a perception that walking down the block is "cheating," but you anecdote of people entering through the exit door diminishes this as a possible motive.


You know what this is going to lead to right? People love to pay a premium to avoid waiting - EZ Pass cards in the cars to avoid slowing down, special rates to avoid waiting in lines at Disney World, etc.

You'll see people with special cards to swipe on the buses to get reserved seating.


Cute analysis.

Why not use the 5th reason and say people are stupid and often do not think rationally in cold weather :P



To see herd mentality in action just go the the LIRR tracks at Penn Station any workday afternoon. As most trains use the same tracks each day, regular riders begin congregating on the platforms long in advance of the trains' arrivals. Most stand in semicircular clusters around the spots where the train doors will be, clusters that I call "cows-at-the-slaughterhouse-chute half-moons." It's particularly amusing when people trying to board a train have to push through the clusters of people waiting for the next train scheduled to use that platform! As you might expect, when the train actually arrives there's invariably a big mob of people pushing and shoving onboard in the hopes of getting seats. Trains on the Ronkonkoma line are the best examples of this herd - or stampede - mentality in action, being hopelessly overcrowded.


Similar thing on my afternoon commute via subway in Baltimore. At the final stop westbound (one of the most popular with 9-5 commuters) you walk down steps from the platform to exit the station. The car with the set of doors that is right next to the steps is always extremely crowded in comparison to the rest of the train. And, since these are all people hoping to be the first down the steps and to the parking lot, they all stand next to the doors. But, since this is the last stop, you never know on which side the doors will open. Thus, half of those people who crowd onto the car that stops right at the steps end up behind those of us who get in the next car, sit comfortably for most of the ride and can wait to see on which side we are approaching the platform before staking out claim to the exit. I'm not complaining since I'm always among the first few down the steps, but it is certainly disingenious for EVERYONE who wants to get off first to get in the same car and attempt to use the same doors.



I live in the suburbs. Every once in a while, I fantasize about living in Manhattan. Thank you for the dose of reality. I'll stay where I am.