Subway etiquette in three easy parts


A 2010 stunt from Jason Shellowitz failed to bring courteous behavior underground. (Courtesy of Animal New York)

On a multiple occasions at random times of the day in recent weeks, I’ve found myself on a few different trains with bench seating. When I ride those lines, I try to be mindful of the space between me and others next to me. I prefer not to sit on top of my neighbors when train cars are half empty, but I also like to make sure I’m not hogging more than my fair share of the space. If there’s room, someone should be able to sit next to me.

What really grinds my gears, though, is when the person sitting down doesn’t take the same precaution. Recently, I’ve had people stumble over me, bumping into me and then sitting on top of me as they’ve attempted to take a seat on the train. Only after I glance, glare or raise an eyebrow at them do they mutter a half-hearted apology or finally utter excuse me. In any other setting — a movie theater, a sports stadium, an airplane — this behavior would be considered rude, but on the subways, it seems to be de rigueur as straphangers do everything humanly possible to avoid interacting with their fellow subway riders.

In the grand scheme of the way we ride, these seat-bumpers are but a minor inconvenience. They pale in comparison with the pole-huggers, door-blockers and iPod headphone abusers, but they’re still a part of the great dance of the subway system. They set the tone for the way we view people sitting next to us and for the way we all interact during our short or not-so-short subway rides.

Before the long weekend, Jen Doll at The Village Voice’s website offered up a primer on subway etiquette. Over the years, I’ve covered various approaches to politeness underground. Some have come in the form of a laundry list of dos and don’ts. Other pieces have examined single-issues topics (including the ever-controversial pregnant lady conundrum). Doll’s list though is short, sweet and to the point.

Picking up from a video of people doing something in the subway that isn’t normally done in the subway — for instance, yoga — Doll distills subway etiquette into three simple points: 1. Pay attention to yourself, and to other people; 2. The subway is for getting you to where you want to go; and point three, which I’ll quote at length:

?3. Get on the subway train of your choice. Sit down or stand up in an area that seems convenient, and is not massively in the way of or on top of other people. Stay there until you reach your stop, reading, listening to music, staring into the ether, counting the minutes until you’ve arrived. Get off the subway. Carry on.

In other words, be a good person and don’t use the subway for things that would annoy you if someone else did it or aren’t appropriate for the subway. Don’t eat; don’t fight; don’t host dinner parties; don’t take up more than your own seat. It’s all common sense to me, but when I watch the way we ride, I’m always shocked by how many New Yorkers can’t seem to grasp these simple concepts. The Golden Rule doesn’t always exist underground, but if it did, the subways would be a far more pleasant place for a commute.

13 Responses to “Subway etiquette in three easy parts”

  1. Miles Bader says:

    It is sort of absurd the way people seem to simply not realize what seems crazily obvious.

    For instance, waiting for people to exit before you try to get on — to do otherwise simply doesn’t make any sense (just waiting a bit will make things much easier for you as well as those exiting) and yet vast numbers of people try to force their way on past the exiting mass regardless. Another super-idiotic-but-common behavior is to stop dead as soon as you’re in the door, despite the fact that there are dozens of people behind you also trying to get on, whose way you are now blocking — it’s simply dumb but people keep on doing it…

    Are these people stupid? Willfully delusional? So focused on themselves that they don’t even notice anybody else?!

    • SEAN says:

      I’ll answer in three words…I’m too importent. That should explane it in a nutshell.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I’ve thought about this before. The only nice answer I can come up with is they never learned how to behave in a big city. Look at an area like Williamsburg that must have seen hundreds of thousands of outsiders from everywhere but New York who are suddenly transit-dependent; these people are cliquey, class-conscious, and often insecure in their surroundings. This, in turn, means they don’t associate with the very people who could act as role models for learning the ropes, and indeed are even pushing them out of their old neighborhoods (“gentrification”).

      Unfortunately, my guess is Sean is closer to the real answer: even if the above is true, it’s largely because of narcissism. Not surprising either, given how they probably spent their entire lives in suburbs where they didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s needs.

      As for boarding, the first person to cheat gets a reward – a seat, or at least gratification at getting one. At that point, the people behind see someone running at scarce seats and make a run too.

  2. Phil says:

    When I used to take an early train to Atlantic Ave every morning when I got on the 2/3 sometimes there was this old asian lady waiting to get on. As soon as the door opened she would just rush right into the subway regardless of who was coming out. I don’t think she thought she was to important, I just think she had no idea what was going on around her.

    Although people do things that defy common logic you must realize we live in a city with so many people, you are bound to run into a few that are just not that smart.

    • Christopher says:

      I think that might be a cultural difference. We used to joke in SF about the old Chinese ladies that would rush into the buses before anyone had exited. Or the old Chinese ladies in the grocery stores in Chinatown that would just push through you. No dawdling! You did not want to mess with them.

    • Bolwerk says:

      If she’s old, I don’t necessary blame her for cutting to try to get a seat. It’s sad that people aren’t more willing to give up seats for the elderly.

      • Andrew says:

        But she isn’t just cutting the line of people waiting to board. She’s pushing people who want to get off further into the train. That’s counterproductive for everyone.

        I see it all the time, and it’s usually easy to predict. I just shove them out of the way.

  3. Hank says:

    MOVE YOUR ASS OUT OF THE DOOR! You’re slowing everyone’s trip by needlessly complicating loading and unloading so you can be a door gorilla. (fumes, seethes, etc)

  4. Spencer K says:


    You give people too little credit. The Golden Rule always exists underground, but it’s subjective. I truly believe that what people are doing on the subway, they have little problem doing anywhere else. In other words, if you’ve been raised to be polite, you’re going to be polite pretty much everywhere. If you’ve been raised in a barn, then crapping on the floor in public isn’t really out of the norm, is it?

  5. Andrew says:

    Some more courtesy items, in no particular order:

    1. Avoid standing in the doorway unless you’re getting off at the next stop. But if you are in the doorway, there’s a very good chance that you will be blocking people at the next stop. So, as soon as the doors open, step off the train and out of the way so that they can get off. Then step on and away from the doors.

    2. Unless there are lots of empty seats, one seat per person, please. If you can’t fit in one seat, stand.

    3. No leaning on the poles. Other people need to use the same pole as you.

    4. Don’t block the turnstiles while hunting for your MetroCard.

    5. On a rainy day like today, don’t open your umbrella until you’re off the narrow staircase. You won’t drown if a few drops hit you. Similarly, take your eyes (and fingers) off your smartphone or MP3 player while you’re climbing the stairs – if you’re not watching where you’re going, you walk slowly, and you delay everybody behind you. More generally, be aware of your surroundings and don’t delay people who may be in more of a hurry than you are.

    6. Nobody but you should hear your music. Keep the volume down. Your ears will thank you.

    7. Don’t engage in loud conversation if the rest of the car is quiet.

    8. Don’t give money to panhandlers, on-train “performers,” etc. There’s a reason those activities are illegal, and the rest of us don’t want you to encourage them.

    9. Fold your stroller, especially during rush hours. If your stroller doesn’t fold, then it doesn’t belong on the subway.

    10. Don’t make a mess. Sunflower seed shells, chicken bones, and fingernails don’t belong on the subway floor.

  6. SG says:

    With all due respect, nearly every “subway etiquette” piece I’ve read by male writers fails to mention sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact.

    I’m not talking about a simple bump in a crowded rush hour 6 being misconstrued as assault. I’m talking about all of the times women have been targeted by men exposing their genitals, masturbating, or non-consensually rubbing their bodies in a lewd and sexual manner.

    It is far more common than anyone with the privilege of living life outside of a female body can imagine.

    Please draw more attention to this phenomenon. It’s not enough that the MTA plays its recorded announcements about “unwanted touch”. Clearly, from the several stories I’m about to link you to, which all took place within the past summer, neither station agents nor the NYPD takes subway sexual harassment seriously.

    The following stories are from, an organization dedicated to stopping street harassment:












    Thank you for your consideration. I trust you’ll do the right thing and help publicly address this phenomenon in an appropriate manner, and whenever the topic of subway etiquette comes up.


  1. […] Rules to Live By on the Subway (VV via 2nd Ave Sagas) Categories: Streetsblog, Today's Headlines Back to Top Prev Share or […]

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