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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?