Commuting isn't for the faint of heart.
I went to graduate school in New York City, but I lived and worked in New Jersey. This meant that for a few years I found myself part of the bridge and tunnel commuter shuffle. My route involved taking a bus to Port Authority and then riding the subway to school (first day of school I got on the wrong subway and happily traveled several blocks in the wrong direction before realizing anything was wrong). I learned that there was an art and science to commuting--what kind of seat to look for on the bus, how to ignore the person next to you, and most importantly, the fastest and best routes from the bus gate to the subway platform. This was of utmost importance to me--most days I had morning classes that got out at 1:00 and I had to be at work at 4:00. If I made it onto the 1:30 bus, I could stop at home first and get a few desperately needed moments of privacy, quiet or sleep. If I missed the 1:30, though, I had to wait until the 2:30 bus and that meant that I would have to go straight to work, and that was just miserable. I remember more than a few times making it to the bus gate one or two minutes too late and bursting into tears on the spot.
So I studied how much time it took me to get from the subway to the bus. I figured out how often the subways came to the stop near school, and I left classes without looking back, even if the teacher was still rambling on. I knew not to carry too much with me at any time in case I had to run the distance from the subway to the bus. I also learned that sometimes no matter how much you planned and tried, things just went wrong. There's a problem with the trains, and you're stuck helplessly at 96th Street with the minutes ticking away; you're in the Lincoln Tunnel and traffic is backed up and you have no hope of getting home in time for anything. And when that happened, I learned to just give in, and think, "I have done all I have done. There is nothing I can do."
What fascinated me about this commuting wisdom is that I was not the only one who had acquired it. Sometimes you walk onto a subway platform and see what looks like thousands of people standing there, the obvious sign that something is wrong with the train. Or in those days when I relied on the bus, there would be times when I'd bound up the last flight of stairs to the the fourth floof of the bus terminal and see lines snaking from my gate all the way back to the escalator. Again, something had gone wrong and we were all left to wait. And the astonishing thing was that I never saw crowds in these situations go mad. You would think there would be people screaming, swarming, pounding on the glassed in booth of the subway workers, grabbing the bus employees and swearing at them. But no, nothing--maybe some more sighing and annoyed voices than usual, but hardly the behavior you would expect from a giant crowd of people who are suddenly finding out that they can't get where they're trying to go. Where's the anger, the chaos? I always marvel at this.
So a few weeks ago, when the US Airways plane crash-landed in the Hudson River and word came out that the evacuation had been fairly orderly (though as it turned out later, not as calm and orderly as first reported), I wasn't surprised. For some reason, crowds often behave better than you would think, and I had no idea why. When I read one of the articles about the crash and rescue, though, I found some quotes from Amanda Ripley, who had just written a book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, that covered, amongst other things, how crowds behave during disasters. It took me no time to put that one on reserve and then rush down to get it.