Deciding to exit a train between stations in the subway. Rocking a parked train car back and forth in hopes of freeing a man who'd fallen and gotten his leg stuck between the car and the platform.
These are just a couple of recent examples of CTA passengers taking matters into their own hands.
And it got me thinking, "Why?" Why were these riders taking such quick initiative to solve a problem when it could put themselves and others at risk of harm? So I turned to the experts for insight.
“In a social world where many people have become accustomed to accessing and receiving information quickly, lack of information during times of a 'perceived' emergency may shape certain levels of anxiousness or impatience,” said Gwendolyn Purifoye, assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University.
The first incident occurred on Feb. 19 during the 5 p.m. rush hour on a CTA Blue Line train that was stopped in a tunnel because of weather delays. Some CTA passengers were fed up with waiting, so they decided to pull the emergency exit handle, get off the train and walk down the tracks to the nearest platform—an illegal and dangerous thing to do, according to CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman.
“Use of the door pull in a non-emergency situation is not only illegal but also dangerous to the offender and customers aboard the train,” Tolman said. “The tracks should always be assumed to be live and electrified.”
Tolman said power was cut to the trains and tracks once the emergency handle was pulled to help ensure the safety of the passengers.
Purifoye pointed out that it’s hard to determine motivation; we can only analyze patterns of behavior, she said. In the case of passengers leaving the train, there could have been the mentality, "If everyone else is leaving, I don’t want to be left behind," among a number of other reasons.
“When people are in confined spaces, they begin to have conversations with each other,” Purifoye said. “They may have [seen] evacuation as the viable option and didn’t think about the repercussions.”
The second incident occurred Wednesday morning around 7:15 a.m. at the Damen Blue Line station. A man got his leg stuck between the train and the platform. While waiting for the Chicago Fire Department, some passengers attempted to rock the rail car to try and help free the man, according to multiple witnesses. Tolman said CTA officials would have likely stopped them.
Jim Magas is a 49-year-old Portage Park resident who witnessed the incident and did his best to assist in resolving the problem.
“People started rocking the train, so I yelled, ‘STOP ROCKING THE CAR!’" Magas said. “If you push in one direction, it comes back in the opposite direction, and I don’t think they thought of that.”
J. Talmadge Wright, associate professor of sociology at Loyola University Chicago, said he thinks that much of our culture has a frustration and distrust that authorities are not acting quickly enough, so they feel the need to take matters into their own hands.
“There’s a concern among the population that the people running things don’t have it all together, so we step in and do it for them,” Wright said. “I believe people have this perception that unless they do something, nothing will change or happen.”
“There’s also been an increase in sensitivity and empathy that was not as easily visible before social media and cellphones,” Wright added. “Those feelings may drive people to want to do something or help based on the pain they see around them. It may not be the most rational thing, but I understand it.”
Purifoye also mentioned that access to social media and cellphones can change the way people act in certain situations.
“Undoubtedly, people were on their phones or social media possibly talking about the situation, and this brought in more options and added people, albeit virtually, to the space,” Purifoye said. “Those not living in the moment often have different perspectives that may have influence on those who are there in the physical world.”
It's a good reminder that sometimes patience is a virtue. Even though our choices may come with the best intentions, sometimes a lack of logical thinking can put the safety of ourselves and others at risk. In the CTA instances, best practice is to alert or communicate with the operator about the problem and let them take it from there.