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7 tips to using your phone on public transportation without being that jerk everyone hates

Please don't be that person.


S.E. Smith


Posted on Jan 20, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 5:47 pm CDT

Los Angeles’ meagre subway system is about to get Wi-Fi and extended cellular service, which basically means the end is nigh. As we know, humans are incapable of using their phones in public in ways that aren’t horribly obnoxious, which is why companies like Amtrak have quiet cars and why 1,400 people flooded the FCC with negative comments on in-flight cellular service; one congressman even proposed a peremptory ban. It’s also why scores of transit agencies are begging their customers to use cell phones thoughtfully. 

Since people can’t seem to use their phone responsibly in public places without guidance, we have some tips for the commuters of Los Angeles on how to use their phones without infuriating everyone else around them.

1) The power of silence

All phones have an option for silent mode, and it’s incredibly useful while on public transit, as no one really wants to hear a cacophony of ringtones. If you’re worried about missing a text or call, set your phone to vibrate. Please do not be that person who turns your phone up to avoid missing a call. Even if you do miss a call, so what? Unless you’re a doctor and it’s the operating room calling so you can come save a baby, you can call back when you reach your destination.

Listening to music or playing a game where sound is an important component? That’s why Nathaniel Baldwin invented headphones. A word of advice, though: you may want to leave one ear exposed or keep the volume low because thieves love distracted passengers.  

2) Pay attention

Don’t be among the hordes of people hunched over their phones, willfully oblivious to their surroundings. When people board, scoot over if you took the outside seat so people have room to sit. Get up if there’s no seating available and elderly, pregnant, or physically disabled people get on board so they can sit. If someone asks you to yield a seat, don’t make assumptions about ability status on the basis of appearance, as conditions like chronic fatigue and neurological impairments may not be immediately evident.  

Pay attention to stops so that you don’t leap out of your seat at the last minute, fight your way through the crowd, and then lunge out the doors. When boarding or getting off the train, put your phone down for a second, keep right (left as regionally applicable), and be aware of other people.

3) No porn, please

No seriously. Don’t watch porn on public transit. It’s just awkward for everyone.

4) Don’t bump me, bro

Phone users seem to have a poor sense of spatial awareness, perhaps because they’re so absorbed that they’re not aware of what’s going on outside of their tiny screens. As you board, exit, or shift positions, try not bumping people with your body parts/bag/heavy box of stuff you picked up at Pottery Barn. Consider the fact that other people may be wanting to use public transit for much the same reasons you are—to get somewhere—and that they may appreciate being given equal space rather than being repeatedly jostled by other people. Also, you never know who might push back.

5) Try texting!

If you’re about to put your finger on that virtual dial, reconsider. Can you text instead? It’s way less disruptive to everyone else, and thus way less likely to get everyone in the car to fix you with a frosty glare, silently wishing that you would fall into a subway grating and die. Conversations that are annoying and could be replaced with texting: updates on your location within the subway system, news that you’re running a little late, your personal medical information (see: “awkward” above), coordinating dinner plans, and pretty much anything else, honestly.

If a conversation is that important, maybe wait until the end of the ride so you can conduct it in an environment where you can clearly hear each other and speak freely. As for pretentious people who like to pretend they’re important by having fictional conversations on public transit, I hope you left your phone silenced or that has the potential to be highly embarrassing.

6) Clear the platform

Waiting for a train? Great! So are the rest of us! So don’t take up the entire platform with your last-minute conversation or Candy Crush or whatever you’re doing. Wait against the wall or on benches like other people, and pay attention to which trains are coming so you can move forward to board when it’s appropriate—hey, though, remember to leave clearance for people getting off the train.

In rush hour, it’s particularly annoying to have cell users clogging the platform with their huge personal bubbles, making an already crowded, hot, and unpleasant train platform even more so. This doesn’t mean you can’t use your phone—it just means that you need to be more aware. Also, the bonus of paying attention to the platform is that you won’t drop your phone on the tracks and/or fall onto the tracks yourself, which nobody really wants.

P.S. If you drop your phone on the tracks, please for the love of subway drivers everywhere do not clamber down to get it. Killing someone while driving a train is unbelievably traumatic.

7) For advanced pros only

Once you’ve mastered the art of using a cell phone on public transit with grace and discretion, you can start exploring advanced skills like, for example, using your phone while standing. If you live in an area with a crowded commute, you may already be adept at standing on a packed train, but using a phone can add an element of risk—whether that be stepping on someone else’s feet or collapsing in an awkward potential domino effect on other passengers at an unexpected stop. Make sure to rock with the rhythm of the train like a finelytuned dancing machine so you don’t end up looking like a fool, and keep a good grip on that phone and your bag, because if you’re distracted by keeping your balance, it makes you an easy target.

Opening trains to Wi-Fi and phone service doesn’t have to be a disaster, unless people make it one—and while humanity appears to struggle with basic concepts like being aware of the needs of others, perhaps it’s possible to build a better cell phone use culture. Mobile devices certainly aren’t going to vanish, and people are definitely going to get more testy about them unless we can reform the way we approach our interactions with them. It’s not too late for people to learn some manners.

Photo via Doc Searls/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 20, 2015, 11:00 am CST