Fanning Responsibly: A rough guide to enjoying the hobby trouble-free

Houston TX

Carlton partaking in “fanning” activities.  (c) 2014 WordPress user “chickenscratchh”

Railfanning and busfanning are great hobbies, can be enjoyed by everyone, and can entertain for hours, days, months, and even years.  The only way, though, to really enjoy the hobby in this day and age is responsibly.  Too many times have I seen instances of railfans and busfans being harassed by law enforcement for taking pictures in certain areas or having the cops called for being too rowdy on trips.  It gives us a bad name and can often tarnish the experience that many older fans have come to appreciate.  We can change that; all it takes is some education and feedback.

This whole entire series was designed to give an insider perspective to a world unbeknownst to the outside world that we live in.  It’s a way to help people understand what we do and why we do it.  Railfanning is just as much of a hobby as auto racing or fly fishing; the fact that it involves public transit vehicles doesn’t make it any different.  This hobby has its ups and downs, its good guys and bad guys, its historians and its apprentices.  With that said, here are some things to understand and keep in mind when we are going out there enjoying our hobby.

We aren’t all transit professionals.  Many of us transit enthusiasts work in the industry as bus operators, conductors, dispatchers, maintainers and even upper level management.  We take pride in what we do as transit industry professionals, yet we also enjoy working in an environment where it doesn’t always feel like work.  However, not all of us into the hobby are transit professionals, nor do they intend to be.  Many of us that walk around spitting information like rolling transit encyclopedias are just your average teenager or young adult with access to information from websites and transit professionals who are also enthusiasts.  There are several groups of fans, whether on Facebook or off, and they share information with one another, some of it from websites and internal transit publications and some from insiders who are fans.  Let’s not ignore the fact that some of these guys are rather intelligent and have done extensive research either via the internet or first-hand accounts from professionals; anyone can easily mistake them for industry professionals or family of professionals.  We also have retirees from the industry as well who are willing to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of transit fans and professionals alike.  They can relate to what’s going on with transit authorities in comparison to when they were working.  The point is, just because they talk the talk, doesn’t mean they walk the walk.  Though, they can be quite convincing.

We have quite a few young transit fans out there, some as young as 13 years old who show the same enthusiasm for the hobby as some of the older fans.  Most of these young kids are rather intelligent, in school and in the hobby, doing things such as shooting near-professional quality pictures, editing videos, creating transit websites, and even custom-building model buses and railroad layouts.  For most of them, these activities don’t take from their school work, and for those whose transit fanning does distract them, there are often older fans to mentor the younger fans and steer them in the right direction.

Not all transit professionals are fans.  Now, I know it sounds like a dumb observation or comment, but there are some transit fans that go around asking train operators or bus operators their opinions about certain buses or rail cars as if they are comparing supermodels.  If they do indulge, it’s usually working knowledge of the equipment as opposed to what looks prettier or whether they have interesting sound effects.  So what if a train goes “choo-choo-choo” instead of “hee-hahhh-harrr?”  What does it matter that a bus has a Detroit Diesel series 50 or a Cummins L10G?  Unless it relates to making a schedule better with a Cummins-powered bus versus a Detroit-powered bus, to a non-fan, it’s just work.  Nothing irritates non-fan transit workers more than a fan who wants to overindulge themselves into conversations about transit that don’t relate to work.  There are two things most transit workers don’t like:

  1. talking about transit while at work as if it’s a pasttime
  2. talking about anything even remotely related to transit when off-duty

Most transit fans make trains and buses a major part of their spare time, almost to a point where they live, eat, and breathe transit.  Unfortunately, for most rank-and-file members, transit is a paycheck every two weeks, a way to keep themselves busy, and a way to get away from their wives (or husbands) and children for 8 hours a day.  They could care less about trains other than working the hell out of them so that they can get home and relax after a hard day’s work.  Don’t catch them on their last trip or “go-home” trip, that’s when they are more focused on getting the train or bus to the end of the line.  That is, unless they want the overtime, but that’s the only reason they stay later.

Carry yourself as an “enthusiast” and not a “foamer.”  Allow me to explain the difference:  one takes a serious interest in the hobby, while the other obsesses over it.  It’s perfectly fine to ride a bus or train to the end of the line to get some great pictures and some rare or artsy photo opportunities; what isn’t perfectly fine is treating the bus or train like you are paparazzi with no regard for the operator responsible for it.  Even if you really like something, which isn’t a problem, there is such a thing as taking it overboard.  We are members of the riding public just like any ordinary person who pays their fare to use the system, and we should conduct ourselves accordingly.  The only difference is that we love transit more than the average rider, but it doesn’t need to be broadcast for the world to see with discerning eyes.  I do understand that it’s more fun to fan with friends since there is more entertainment, but we don’t have to obsess over trains to a point where people look at us like we have two heads or that someone forgot to admit us into Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation.  There is no reason to heckle passengers that get left by buses or trains whose doors have closed on them and wind up missing their bus or train.  There is no reason to take pictures of anything in tunnels or low light conditions with the flash on, potentially distracting or blinding the operator, all because you had to get the photo.   There is absolutely no reason to ride on the outside of a train, hop the turnstiles, steal transit property while on transit property regardless of who gives you permission to be in unauthorized areas, or ride behind the back of a bus, risking your safety or your own life, so you can get brownie points with other fans.  There is no reason at all to act stupid or do stupid.

If you want to be taken seriously by the “outside world,” you have to carry yourself like the outside world.  Yes, we like transit and buses, but we are also music lovers, sports fans, computer techies, and foodies.  For most of us, transit is our first love, and everything else we love comes second.  Even though we can tell you almost anything and everything transit, we still have very much in common with regular people.  We should act like it when we are out enjoying what we do.  I can’t tell you how many times I have gone places across North America to photograph and experience transportation and have been welcomed with open arms by transit professionals including those who aren’t even into transit.  This is especially the case being that I boast living in New York and have worked for transit agencies on BOTH sides of the Hudson.  Often, I start my journey riding around and figuring out the system and eventually finding my favorite spots to watch trains go by (or buses if there are no trains).  As I am snapping away, some people go about their business while others might stop and engage in small conversation.  That small conversation can lead to greater conversation and even perks like garage tours, transit goodies like pins and souvenirs, and even contact information which could lead to lasting friendships.

Photograph at large, shoot with care.  This is ever so important, especially during times like these when everyone is on edge after 9/11 and especially when everyone has a smartphone to catch people in the act and report them online.  This is not to say that you should be afraid to do what you love to do, but just be mindful of how and where you shoot.  If you are on a public street, most subjects should be fair game since the public has free access.  Be mindful, though, that even though you are shooting buses and trains from a public area, some people may not want to be photographed for one reason or another.  The last thing a transit fan needs while shooting around, especially in a brand new city for them, is to be hassled by a driver who doesn’t want his picture to be taken.  You could be on the corner of Broadway and 168th Street taking a picture of a brand new hybrid bus on the M2 prior to its next trip and a bus driver seeing someone taking a picture of his/her bus can easily get upset because s/he thinks you’re taking a picture of him.  Often, some drivers don’t like their picture taken (again, thinking that you are taking a picture of him/her) because they are often under the microscope, either in general due to increased disciplinary warnings or because they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.  There are ways to get around the issue, either by waiting for another location or opportunity to shoot the same bus or by just confronting the individual and explaining that it’s not you, it’s the bus.  That may not always work, but when it does, it can clear up a lot of confusion…if you know how to play the part.

Now, the rules slightly change once you enter a transit center or terminal facility.  Most transit systems don’t have a policy regarding photography, but the security firms that are contracted to patrol these facilities commonly give transit photographers a hard time being that they are taking photos of transit vehicles rather than actually riding these vehicles, not using the facility for its designed purpose.  Sometimes, law enforcement patrols transit centers, from city municipal forces to state troopers, sheriff departments, and even constables.  Do understand that they are only there to enforce the rules set forth by the transit system.  If photography is in fact prohibited publicly, you may wish to contact the transit system and ask if they is some special permission needed to take pictures in the area of the transit center.  Or, just take your photos elsewhere, where it’s free and public.  If photography isn’t explicitly illegal but you are given a hard time, either file a complaint with the transit system or police department or simply leave and find another location to shoot.  Ride a few buses or a train to another location and scout alternate places to photograph.  Believe me when I tell you, transit centers are centers of transit activity but are in no way the only places to snap bus pictures.

Be willing to explore and reach outside of your comfort zone.  So what if you have lived in New York all of your life and all you know is the Metrocard?  New York City may have tons of transportation including 300-400 bus routes, 24 subway lines, 15 different commuter rail lines, and access to a huge bus terminal, several major train stations and three major area airports.  Though this is all true, there is a world of transit outside of New York to explore…though you’re going to need much more than a Metrocard, if that, to really discover what other places have in store for you.  The idea of a “bus book” is mainly a West Coast thing, as I haven’t seen any transit system east of the Mississippi River that places all of their system map and schedule information in convenient book format.  Every major city and most transit systems outside of the Greater New York area have bike racks on the front of every bus for the convenience of bike riders who need transit to take them the extra mile to their destination.  There is an increasing number of transit systems that are using smart card technology for fare payment, with options such as offering unlimited-ride fare products, online card refilling, and near-instant lost card replacement for people who need a replacement card with the original value to avoid paying more money for a new card.  But you wouldn’t know about any of this unless you explored outside of your surroundings.  Think outside the (fare)box, for once.  Do not be afraid to visit new places and grab schedules and system maps to navigate and understand the system.  Be prepared to shell out some money for rides in certain places (such as New Jersey or Marin and Sonoma Counties in the Bay Area) that might charge zone fares; that really good ride on a bus model you’ve been eager to ride might require a maximum zone fare.

Co-operate with law enforcement, but don’t be confrontational.  I can’t stress this enough, we want to be on the right side of the law but only if we co-operate with law enforcement, whether municipal or transit.  Knowing when and whether you are in the right is very important as if could prevent embarrassment, arguments, or worse, getting locked up.  If you are on a public street and you are confronted by law enforcement, do not be so quick to defend yourself as the officer(s) might have simply been called to check out “suspicious behavior” nearby.   If you are on transit property like a transit center or any pavement adjacent to a transit garage, then someone who works there or is security for the place may be inclined to ask you to refrain from picture-taking or anything else up to and including for you to leave the property.  You may have been doing absolutely nothing wrong, but they may confront you if you are there for relatively long periods of time, almost to the point of “loitering.”  You may not be loitering or doing anything mischievous, but you don’t want to leave the impression that you are going to be someone to watch or monitor closely.  Here are some suggestions for when you are out there and might get confronted by officers:

  1. Stay calm and just answer their questions honestly.  Tell them why you are there but don’t appear startled while doing so.  You are into buses or trains and you wanted to take a few quick shots.
  2. Kindly remind them that you are only shooting pictures from a public street and not transit property.  They might be overstepping their boundaries, but you don’t want to stick it to them that you know they are being too aggressive.
  3. Offer to show your work, but do not allow your camera to be handled.  Sometimes, they may not fully believe your story or think that you are doing something different that what you are telling them.  You can offer to show some of your work but don’t let them hold your camera.  You don’t want law enforcement or transit officials deleting your pictures without your consent.
  4. Carry a form of ID around your neck.  Whether it’s a transit ID, transit pass, student ID, work ID, or a driver’s license, carry it around your neck to identify yourself as a regular law-abiding citizen that is only there to get bus and train footage.  You stand less of a chance of increased scrutiny or interrogation than if you just had your camera and equipment.
  5. Jot down badge numbers or important contact information.  Unless the officer finished questioning you and gives you a quick talk, don’t just walk away and keep taking pictures or even stop taking pictures completely.  Make sure you have pertinent information and file a complaint with the authorities so that the issue can reach the proper channels and can be rectified.  You don’t want repeat incidents, especially not for your fellow fans.

Speak Up, File complaints, and Know before you go.  No matter what, your conduct before being confronted and while being confronted can make the difference between a relatively quick, painless process and a rather unnerving ordeal.  Too many times have I heard stories, especially after 9/11, of transit fans have been called in by bus drivers or harassed by cops for taking pictures of transit vehicles in seemingly public places.  No one will deny that the events of 9/11 have cause law enforcement officials to be much more vigilant in fighting crime and terrorism; what isn’t called for are innocent people being targeted for taking innocent pictures in places fully accessible to the general public.  At the same token, the “long arm of the law” doesn’t make it excusable for transit fans who love what they do to stay silent on this issue in fear of arrest or imprisonment for taking pictures.  Unless you are on private property and it explicitly says that photography is prohibited, do not be intimidated by officers or transit officials who think they can tell you that you can’t take any pictures of their property.

The harassment has calmed down significantly over the last several years, but that doesn’t mean the battle is over.  Just a few years ago, the harassment stopped for a while, but then just this year, I heard a report about someone who was consistently harassed for looking “suspicious” with a large camera.  There was another report about someone who had been approached by bus drivers, in a number of instances.  Sometimes, I wonder if these confrontations are pure coincidence or if they are signs of fans not knowing how to behave themselves or just plain sticking out like sore thumbs.  Nevertheless, if you get confronted by police or security or held for detailed questioning (causing you to miss your bus or making you feel humiliated), tell someone about it.  Don’t just stop taking pictures or go on Facebook complaining to fellow fans who will only echo your sentiments, because that will only cause other fans to either avoid those areas or have the same problems with law enforcement.  You can file civil complaints against officers, provided you have significant details about your confrontation (such as badge number, exact location, time and date, and what exactly you were doing that isn’t against the law).  You can also reach out to organizations or legal groups to help you understand your rights in such situations.  Also, knowing the right to photograph before you go is very helpful.  Fanning in Boston was next to impossible prior to 2010 when taking pictures of anything MBTA, even if you were on a public street, required a photo permit from their headquarters.  PATH doesn’t allow any photography anywhere in their system unless written consent is sent to their offices far in advance, and then only during certain hours of the day.  Most other transit systems don’t really care too much, only that it doesn’t impede traffic flow and the photos aren’t being used for commercial purposes without their consent.

Whatever you do, keep going out there and grabbing the best photographs you can get, but do know your limits, take photographs responsibly, and stay on the right side of law enforcement, for your sake and for the sake of every transit fan/photographer out there.  This is ever so important for minorities who take part in this hobby as well.  First, because prior to, say, the 1970s, there were hardly any railfans or busfans of color or other minority group, possibly because most fans and their families had other things to worry about in that time period.  Second, statistically speaking, there are more minorities being arrested and thrown in jail than ever before, and we don’t want to add to that statistic all because we were found taking an innocent picture of a bus.  Third, for those who enjoy multiple facets of the hobby, such as taking pictures, recording videos, creating websites, owning a fleet of vintage buses, and catalogueing old transit records for a hobbyist group, it’s far more important to keep doing what you love best, especially if you also hold a job in the transit industry.  When you go to work doing what you love, it’s almost like not going to work at all, keeping a relatively positive attitude, and holding your own when other people want to doubt you or take everything away from you.  In order to live responsibly, you have to play responsibly, and in order to play responsibly, you have to work responsibly.  No one is telling you to live a boring life, but it’s up to you as a fan to make it interesting but also keep out of trouble.

Fan responsibly.

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2 Responses to Fanning Responsibly: A rough guide to enjoying the hobby trouble-free

  1. ajedrez says:

    Actually, Miami-Dade Transit and I believe Orlando as well have all of their maps/schedules available in one big book.

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