Home View from Underground Subway Etiquette: The problem with stairs

Subway Etiquette: The problem with stairs

by Benjamin Kabak

An appealingly empty staircase awaits a crush of commuters. (Photo by flickr user Thomas Hawk)

Whenever I visit Washington, D.C., or London, I’m always struck by behavior on those two cities’ subway systems. Due to the deep depths of the stations, Riders exiting Metro or the Tubes often do so on escalators, and Washingtonians and Londoners seem to grasp that the right is for standing while the left is for walking. Those unfortunate souls who do not pick up on this fact often find themselves chided by those who wish to pass.

On staircases in those cities, behavior is respectful as well. People manage to stay to the right on two-way stairwells, and everyone gets along fine. There are seemingly fewer incidents of stair rage as harried subway riders don’t have to push through the streaming crowd to get to their trains. In New York, though, staircases are anything but organized.

On a daily basis, I travel through the Times Square subway station, and it is, for lack of a better word, a mess. The stairs leading up from the IRT platforms have no order, and straphangers stop at the top to get their bearings. A recently-arrived Shuttle means wave after wave of people assaulting the staircase, and fighting through that crowd can be nigh impossible. To reach the street, some people walk up the right and others the left while those hoping to descend are left waiting, impatiently tapping their feet at the odd behavior.

Today, New York 1’s Tina Redwine tackle the staircase problem. “How many people have raced for the train and missed it because a wall of riders coming up the subway stairs blocks them from getting down?” she asks. “The answer is most.”

New Yorkers drive on the right, walk down the street on the right and the MTA encourages them to keep to the right when walking up or down subway stairs. And many riders seem to want to oblige. But the temptation of saving a few seconds can be too great. Someone dashes to the left and the crowds often follow. “It is like a stampede of animals going up and down the stairs. It is very dangerous, people are very rude. We just need some type of organization,” says a rider.

Some riders want the MTA to hire staff to enforce the common courtesy of staying to the right. “Have signs,” one says. “Just direct people the right way because it is frustrating.”

In fact, the MTA does have signs at Borough Hall and Court Street from a pilot project a few years back. But it didn’t work well enough for them to implement system-wide. So some riders hope for kindly conductors who wait, while other riders fight back and push. “My attitude is if they don’t get out of the way than sorry, I am not responsible. They’ve got to stay in their lane,” says a straphanger.

No one really knows why New Yorkers act like this. One person offered up this nugget to NY1: “It’s New York. Anything goes.”

There is no good solution to this. Some people shove their ways down stairs with well-placed shoulders. Others wait for the crowds to subside, missing their trains in the process. It won’t get better without a concerted effort from everyone, and that effort likely isn’t coming any time soon. The maddening crowd goes on.

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boerumhillscott August 7, 2012 - 3:15 pm

The only times I have major stair issues are in tourist places like Times Square, or when it is raining and everyone tries to go up and down with their umbrellas open.

I also find that the long escalators on the PATH have a very strong “Stand Right, Walk Left” standard.

Tower18 August 7, 2012 - 3:56 pm

The long escalators at 53rd/Lex seem to be more or less orderly, though it does take forever to get out of that station.

The problem is that we New Yorkers have convinced ourselves that this culture of lawlessness is a virtue. It seems to be generally agreed that the only rules or laws that exist are the ones you get caught breaking. Anything else, well, as you said, anything goes.

– Littering, with the “who cares?” attitude
– Nonsensical and dangerous jaywalking (not just crossing on a red, but just waltzing out into traffic mid-block, holding your hand out for cars to stop, and not hurrying)
– Rampant red-light running and serious speeding (ie. 45-50mph or more on side streets)

This city has a weird dichotomy of caring more about each other collectively in some ways, and being one of the most antisocial places on earth in other ways.

Hank August 7, 2012 - 4:49 pm

Generally agreed, but look at the chaos next door at 51 and Lex when a 6 train arrives, particularly during the AM rush. The stairwells are overwhelmed and simply unable to accomodate the flow of people going in one direction, let alone two.

MarkL August 7, 2012 - 4:00 pm

I wish people would stop walking on the escalators. My station – Roosevelt Island – is rather deep and the escalators make it far more tolerable. Several of the maintenance people there, however, have noted that most of the failures (and there’s always at least one broken escalator) is due to wear caused by the bouncing of people walking on them.

Escalators are not stairs (even when broken). If you want stairs, use the adjacent staircase.

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/do.....pter10.pdf – 1003.7 Elevators, escalators and moving walks shall not be used as a component of a required means of egress from any other part of the building.

http://www.cbs.state.or.us/bcd.....airway.pdf – Due to the incongruities between the requirements for stairs and escalators, an escalator shall not be used as a substitute for a stairway.

http://www.eesf.org/education/.....lator.html – Escalator steps are not the correct height for normal walking and should not be used in that manner. The risk of tripping and falling is increased.

Spendmore Wastemore August 7, 2012 - 8:57 pm

Oy. Try the Bart. The convention there is (or at least was)
Stand to the right
Walk to the left, at a purposeful stride.
The latter saves precious minutes and gives a little bit of much needed office worker exercise.

Plus the disembodied voice floating up, urging the workerbots into an orderly pattern of motion is reminiscent of THX-1138, which was filmed in the Bart tunnels.


Alex August 7, 2012 - 4:00 pm

I had a teen make a snide remark at me for being in a hurry after I politely said “excuse me” so I could walk past him on an escalator coming out of the Columbus Circle station. Better than that though was many years ago when a woman yelled at me for not moving over TO THE LEFT so she could shove her way down the crowded stairs to the 1/2/3 platform at Times Square.

TP August 7, 2012 - 4:29 pm

Doesn’t it make sense to let the crowd getting off the train have more of the right-of-way? I’m not sure I agree that 50% of the stairways should be reserved for each direction all the time. From the perspective of reducing crowds on the platforms, I’d think you’d want to give departing passengers priority. Disregarding other issues like crowds transferring from other trains, one would assume that the trickle of passengers descending the stairs onto the platform is fairly even. The load of passengers ascending the stairs however is really uneven. When a train arrives in the station, a ton of people get off and all go to the stairs. Otherwise, practically nobody is going up.

So doesn’t it make sense for the small stream of passengers going down to yield more room to the mass going up? The people going down can wait for the platform to clear of exiting passengers before they go down. I don’t see how they can blame the ascending passengers for missing their train. If the crowd of passengers in their way are people getting off of the train they were trying to get on? They probably wouldn’t have made it anyway.

nyland8 August 7, 2012 - 5:07 pm

Agreed. By the time the hoard is ascending the stairs, you’ve already missed your train. And if they’re still coming through the turnstiles, and they often are during the rush hours, you’re not getting to the platform in time anyway. Take a breath and let it go.

It’s not the fault of anyone exiting the station that you didn’t leave 2 minutes earlier. When I get to the top of the stairs and I see a mass of people coming up at me, I step aside and resolve to wait for the next train.

bgriff August 7, 2012 - 4:33 pm

So 100 people need to get up the stairs out of the station and 1 person needs to get down to the platform. If those 100 people climb 4 abreast, they can get out much faster than if the 1 person pushes their way down and everyone else has to go up 3 abreast (or everyone sticks strictly to the right and goes up 2 abreast). Yes that 1 person missed their train, but do they get to slow down a few dozen people because they’re in such a hurry?

As for other cities, good luck finding someone climbing stairs in DC. The escalator etiquette is imposed by martial law because otherwise everyone would go insane.

In London (and Paris), many stations are one-way, with some stairs labeled “do not enter” as they are used for traffic in the other direction. We could do this in New York, but our system is generally much more straightforward than the Tube or Metro; you can usually see the platform you’re coming from or heading toward when you embark on a staircase in New York, whereas in those other cities you rely on signage to a much greater degree as street-platform or platform-platform journeys are often much longer.

In the few places where this kind of order adds value, it is imposed in New York or comes about on its own — people almost always stay to the right in the 7th/8th Avenue passageway under 41st Street, with the center line shifting back and forth with demand; likewise people are well-behaved in the hall between the 6 and E/M at Lex/51/53, there with a metal barrier enforcing the difference.

Bruce M August 8, 2012 - 2:35 am

When I was six years old, my parents & I visited Paris. I vaguely remember that there were automatic doors at the bottom of the stairs to the platform which wouldn’t let you through until the train had arrived in the station. The stairway was split and arriving passengers went up the other side. I don’t remember if anyone “cheated” and went down the up staircase to avoid the door. But on a more recent visit these doors seem to have been elminated. Guess it did’t work so well over time.

John-2 August 7, 2012 - 5:35 pm

I suppose they could go back to the narrow, single-file escalators the IND put in at Herald Square back in 1940. The wooden originals are long gone, but their replacements are still only wide enough for one person to fit across at a time. Not great if you’re trying to get to the street or to the BMT transfer in a hurry, but it is more orderly.

R. Graham August 7, 2012 - 6:08 pm

I’m 6’3″ 260lbs. It’s safe to say I don’t have much of a problem with people realizing they have to move. 86th on the Lex is madness when both trains arrive on both levels. The train that lets off first usually has the crowd that will devour both sides of the steps. Not to mention the usual problem of some very older passenger who make sure they get on the train at the door that will open at the stairs and want to be the first to head up but are usually the slowest of them all.

Either way like I said when I encounter that crowd on my way down. I put one hand in the air. Look up as you walk towards me or your going right back downstairs.

The Cobalt Devil August 7, 2012 - 9:50 pm

Meh. I moved to LA and ride the Red Line subway. Hardly anyone on the stairs or escalators, like i have a whole system to myself. Doesn’t smell like piss either! Suckers!

Bruce M August 8, 2012 - 2:37 am

I would prefer more effort in “educating” passengers to let people out of the train first before trying to squeeze in!

Al D August 8, 2012 - 9:56 am

You should try the corridor and 4 5 6 entry (42 St side) at GCT some time.

Ed August 8, 2012 - 1:10 pm

The stairs at the Lexington Avenue/ 59th Street station may be the worst in the system because they are simply way to narrow for the crowds that use them.

When going from the BMT station (the N/R/Q) to the express IRT station (4,5) underneath, when I see the inevitable wave of people ascending the stairs from the IRT line I’ve learned to stand back and wait until it clears, even though there is a recently arrived train waiting underneath. At least the 4 and 5 usually comes regularly enough so just waiting until the wave clears and descending is not that bad, and the countdown clocks seem to help psychologically.

But the long stairwell connecting the local IRT tracks and the express IRT tracks is something of a nightmare to navigate, especially as there is almost always someone not quite in physical condition to use the stairs trying to use the stairs and holding up the other foot traffic. Really if the MTA can’t put in an elevator they might try to post signs cluing people in on the technique of just taking the 6 to Grand Central or 86th Street and just transferring to the express there, where there are no stairs or the stairs are easier to advocate (this is actually what I normally do and I am relatively able bodied).

On the other hand, there is a place in the stairwell between the IRT local station and the BMT station where you can stand and see whether the 6 or the N-R-Q comes in first, which is handy going downtown since both lines converge at Union Square about the same time and then run parallel as far as Canal Street, so there are alot of instances where you are indifferent as to which one you take. Actually I probably shouldn’t be posting this because that stairwell can’t handle the crowds of people trying this if this tactic became widespread. If we could get countdown clocks showing when the trains are coming in on all tracks of a big joint transfer station the tactic of course would be pointless.

UESider August 15, 2012 - 4:02 pm

Times Square at rush hour is the embodiment of NYC, though… 1. It’s Darwinian and mass usually wins out, whether it’s a mass of people going up or down or a massive person against a smaller foe – so swim with the fishes

2. The point above is spot on – 100 people should not be slowed down so 1 person can run and get on a train via his personal staircase

3. Allocation of resources in tight step with #2 – just makes sense to leave it to natural selection and let the masses win when they have the numbers – it always seems to work just fine, even if some people are slightly inconvenienced – and it’s the best way to move the most people

4. Safety – that one person really shouldn’t be given an opportunity to go running down stairs only to pound through closing subway doors at the last second – that’s a disaster waiting to happen on the stairs, at the bottom of the stairs or just inside the subway car

I’ve seen near fights erupt when someone pushes their way into an already overcrowded train through doors that are trying to close – gets everyone fired up

We’d better spend our efforts figuring out how to convince people to move INTO the train and Not block the doorways

If I’m going 1-2 stops, I am shameless about my own self-righteousness to take up the door spot – I got there first, anyway

But, I also go out of my way to step into the No Man’s Land of the straphanger kingdom when there are a few stops ahead – I’ll even snowplow, ahem, politely coax another rider or two in ahead of me to help make room for a few fellow NY’ers

ps as far as those corny up/down arrows at Boro Hall – it makes me embarrassed to be a Brooklynite every time a friend visits… makes us look like we’re too stupid to remember AND it’s so insulting, I’m perfectly willing to disregard it (making it counter-productive, anyway)… so just get rid of those things and let people go their way

Paul September 1, 2012 - 1:49 am

I’ve spent a few days now in DC negotiating the train system. People are good about staying right and i learned it within about 30 seconds. Simple.
Where I’m from though we all own CARS and DRIVE to work and dont have to deal with that horrid mess. I suggest you guys do the same. So much better. I leave my driveway and am sitting at work in less time than it takes most of you to get to the train and wait on it to arrive. And I’m warm and dry all the way and it doesnt stink and im not dealing with assholes. I wouldnt live in a place that made cars inconvenient. Just seems like going backwards to me, like giving up my smart phone for one that plugs into a wall.

Johnny November 29, 2016 - 9:45 am

“My attitude is if they don’t get out of the way than sorry, I am not responsible. They’ve got to stay in their lane,” This is the kind of jerk that cause problem into violence. Well guess what if you hit me? I will self-defense myself and you will be the one sorry. That’s my attitude to you. Yes, New York Metro does not have sign to point passengers to the right way, But there are many entrances or exits to station, so why not utilize all of them? A two way staircase will most likely be crowded during rush hour. My suggestion to those frustrated passenger having hard time to get into station is take other entrance/s.


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