Tuesday, July 20, 2010

WaPo's Front Pager on Metro "Seat Hogs" Short on Actual News

I had high hopes for an interesting article when I saw "As 'seat hogs' take up space on Metro, civility is pushed aside" on the front page of Monday's Washington Post. By the time I had finished, I had learned nearly nothing new, and just wondered why this got precious front-page real estate.

The matter of people taking up multiple seats on the Metro seems like an issue important enough for some reporting, perhaps even if there isn't a peg. Is there any evidence the problem is getting worse? What, if anything, is Metro doing about it? Have there been any physical confrontations over it? Is it worse on one line than another?

The article, by Metro beat writer Ann Scott Tyson, didn't help much with most of these questions.

The piece gives an anecdote and then tries to make a case for itself in paragraph 4:
As Washington's public transit network grows more congested, with Metro projecting "unmanageable" levels of saturation on its rail system by 2020, the phenomenon of people taking up more than their share of space is becoming increasingly touchy.
Increasingly touchy! (how do we know this?). But the issue of growing peak ridership does sound relevant. More on that later.

The article soon tells us about seathogs.com, a site that is fairly NYC-focused.

Then comes the obligatory quote from an expert, which is set up like this:
Industry experts are hard-pressed to explain the psychology of people who are greedy with space -- blocking off seats, standing in doorways or obstructing aisles.
But we're going to hear from an expert anyway! Ugh.
"It puzzles me," said Norman Rhodes, senior vice president of transportation for the New York consulting firm Hatch Mott MacDonald. "I suppose people don't want to give up their private space."
I mean, really, stop the presses.

Next we get the comparison-with-another-city:
In New York, subway authorities have banned selfishness with seats. A rider who occupies more than one seat, places a foot on a seat, lies on the floor or blocks movement on a train risks being cited for "disorderly conduct" and charged a $50 fine.

"The police . . . enforce it," said Deirdre Parker, spokeswoman for New York City Transit.

Oh do they? We don't find out any enforcement numbers, just a claim. We don't find out if the reporter asked for the numbers and wasn't given them, or why they weren't findable. Either way, we're given an assertion that deserves some very, very basic journalistic skepticism, but doesn't get it.

And wait, the person claiming that the police enforce it... isn't even with the police! She's with NYC Transit, which is part of the MTA. The New York City Transit Police are part of NYPD. We don't even have the NYPD on the record here at all.

The article soon gets back to an earlier idea, that this is all important today because ridership is going to go up in the future:
By 2020, Metro projects that the Red, Blue and Yellow lines will be "highly congested," with 100 to 120 people per car, and that the Orange Line will be "unmanageable," with more than 120 riders per car.
That does sound important and relevant. But then there's this:
Anecdotal evidence suggests that during the morning and afternoon crushes, only the most brazen will attempt to monopolize space on subway cars. Instead, seat hogs tend to inhabit the fringes of rush hour, victimizing less-assertive commuters, Metro riders say.
I think this is correct. Problem is, that makes the whole rush-hour-ridership-is-going-up argument go to irrelevance for this article. Peak hour overcrowding on the orange line is a problem now, and it looks to be a huge problem on the orange/silver in the future, but it's a separate issue from seat hogs.

The article ends with real stories of seat hogs and people who stood because of them. But no real news.

Look, transit stories certainly belong on page one sometimes, even clever ones that aren't hard news developments. But they ought to be real good and give the reader something original.

Think, for example, of spunky pieces the NYTimes has fronted. There was the article on Metro North trains departing one minute late. Or the extensive investigation of Mayor Bloomberg's subway commute. Jim Dwyer's 2009 piece on how the new 2/4/5 trains make the sound from West Side Story's "Somewhere" was perhaps a bit of a stretch for A1, considering the Times had reported on it seven years earlier, but it was a beautiful column, not pretending to have more news than it did, and it even had a quote from Leonard Bernstein's son.

The Post's article Monday added very little new. As it ended up, it certainly did not belong on page one.

Update: Thank you GGW for the link.


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