Thoughts on the way we spend our subway time


Every day, Monday through Friday, I spend around 50-60 minutes on the subway, and I’m not alone. According to the Citizens Budget Commission, our commute times place us behind nearly every competitor city in the country and could be improved with a stronger commitment to transit investment. That we already know, but we’re stuck. I have no other choice each day I go to work.

Those 60 minutes a day is not my most restful hour. On Monday, for instance, my 2 train was packed and stiflingly hot. After a weekend of snow, no one expected temperatures in the mid 40s, and the heat was up for too high in my subway car. Meanwhile, one bench had five seats taken up by straphangers uninterested in making room for anyone else, and everyone was feeling that early Monday morning ride. The ride home was faster.

So what do we do with those 60 minutes? I’ve slipped into a regular routine over the past few years. I read the paper in the morning — sitting or not — and then read something else on the way home. Sometimes, it’s a magazine; sometimes, it’s a book. I don’t use headphones because, even as I know the subways are safer, I still like to be more aware of my surroundings while I ride home. I find the reading is a nice way to detach from the work day or the to-do list that awaits me when I get home. I can’t always accomplish much else on the subway, but I can get in some good reading time.

But what about the rest of my fellow riders? Even a small glimpse around one subway car can reveal the diverse interests of New Yorkers. Outside of reading a daily paper, I’d say the Bible appears most often, but a lot of people spend their time reading. Many others are listening to music — often at volumes far louder than necessary, and some sleep. Another large group is just, well, zoning out. I’ve never been quite sure how people can sit on a subway car for so long without a distraction, but I guess sometimes a brain needs a break.

I’m not alone in noticing the diversity of activity on a subway car. In a special issue on Straphangers, City Limits examined the way we spend time on trains. New Yorkers spend around 200 hours a year on the subway, and somehow, we have to fill that time. So how do we do it? Jordan Davidson and Alex Eidman offered up this take:

On a recent weekday, smartphones and tablets were popular choices of ways to spend time on rides, especially since most of the J line runs above ground, which allows for Wi-Fi access. However, some passengers pointed out they still prefer simpler pleasures.

“I definitely read books more than I look at my phone,” said Brandi Kutuchief, a guidance counselor who has a lengthy morning commute from Bushwick to East New York.”It’s really the only time I get a chance to do that.”

Meanwhile, a morning A Train was packed and quiet. Passengers wore ear buds, played video games or read. Riding the city’s longest subway line provides commuters with ample personal time. “Maybe we all choose distractions so we don’t have to think about terrorism and what’s in someone’s backpack and how to escape a fire,” said Mark Hayman, a commuter traveling from 207th Street to Columbus Circle. Hayman said he likes to read travelogues from the 1920s and ’30s.

Hayman’s take is a bit too paranoid for me. The subways, while porous, are protected by the country’s anti-terrorism forces which are hard at work. For me, it’s a time for something else. There are no cell distractions, no emails, no phone calls. There’s nothing I need to attend to other than waiting out my stop, and in a way, despite the headaches and frustrations, it’s almost a peaceful hour of the day, every week, every month. And it sure beats sitting in traffic.

20 Responses to “Thoughts on the way we spend our subway time”

  1. Brian says:

    When I was in High School, I would do homework while taking the train, I took the R so a seat was basically guaranteed which made HW a lot easier to do. Since I graduated 2 years ago I find myself either reading a book or listening to music. (at reasonable volumes with quality headphones that dont leak, leaking music is probably my biggest subway pet peeve)

  2. BBnet3000 says:

    Im actually more aware of my surroundings wearing headphones. Even with an interesting/funny podcast, the ride is a lot longer because I’m watching every stop. With reading I can completely lose sense of where I am until nearly at my stop (which also means im rarely looking at my surroundings).

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    You’ve got a short commute. When I take the subway, it’s 45 to 50 minutes each way.

    And there isn’t much chance to do something, because there isn’t one solid stretch. It’s walk, wait, train, walk. For most of my career it was walk, wait, train, wait, train, walk. Your best option is to daydream.

    That’s why the bike is better. You can look around the city.

    But when I do take the train, even though I could now take a single train to the vicinity of my destination, I change trains a time or two, just to take other lines and go to other parts of the system. And break up he boredom.

  4. John T says:

    I was noticing how few people read the NY Times on the train these days, or even the Post or the News. But this NY commute is still a better use of time than driving, unlike most other cities.

    My Dad would insist that when a train was outdoors, such as on the Brighton line, I should look at the scenery and the view rather than read (same for riding in an auto). I always remember that and try to appreciate riding outdoors when I can.

    By the way, I don’t see how travelling from Bushwick to East NY is a lengthy commute.

    • alen says:

      i used to read the NY Times years ago on the train but never liked it. the paper was always snobby and the writers were too elite.

      once smartphones and tablets came out it was a no brainer to use the money for something better

    • I’ve noticed a lot of people reading The Times on iPhones and iPads. The app’s really solid, and it’s easier than trying to fold a broadsheet on a crowded train.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Do they charge for the app?

        On a PC, if you disable JavaScript (say, with the Firefox NoScript plugin), you can evade their paywall. Which I find amusing.

        • The app itself is free but access to all articles require some level of subscription. For many people I know, it’s a parents’ account. We get just the Sunday paper delivered, and that comes with free digital access for the other six days.

        • John says:

          You can also disable the paywall without disabling JavaScript. Just click the stop ‘X’ that’s next to the home, back and forward buttons before the page manages to load the paywall. Then the entire article is there, but the paywall isn’t.

          • Bolwerk says:

            I’m usually not that quick. Besides, I prefer to just keep JavaScript off unless I explicitly allow it, which I do on a per-page basis using NoScript. Honestly, along with AdBlock, it prevents so much other trouble I don’t see why everyone doesn’t do it.

            Admittedly, it’s caused a social faux pas or three in the past. I’ve forwarded URLs to people that turned out to be riddled with pr0n ads I didn’t see.

            • Someone says:

              Is there a Chrome equivalent to NoScript?

              • Bolwerk says:

                Short answer: maybe sorta. Something called NotScript seems to be a partial alternative. Google it.

                Long answer:

                Kassner: You have to be inundated with requests to port NoScript to the Chrome web browser. During one of our conversations, you mentioned that it would require Google to make some changes. What would it take for you to create NoScript for Chrome?

                Maone: Chromium developers — who want to see this happen — have removed some technical obstacles. But, other issues still remain; such as the strictly asynchronous inter-process communication design which prevents security policies from being reliably enforced.

                Nevertheless, I’m going to develop NoScript for Chrome, eventually. I’m just afraid it will not be on par with NoScript for Firefox. The flexibility of the Mozilla extension platform is unbeatable, allowing speedy design and prototyping of experimental countermeasures for emerging threats — the mission and trademark of NoScript.

                But if you’re using Chrome because you’re stuck on Android, apparently you can use FireFox/NoScript on Android now.

          • Miles Bader says:

            It’s easy to get past the paywall:

            Just edit the URL in the address box, remove everything after the first “?”, and replace it with “?_r=1”.

            [IIRC, this is the way that links from google news, etc, avoid the paywall.]

            The only annoyance is that you’ll have to do the same thing for every new story you click to. Still, it’s easy enough…

    • Someone says:

      The Times is kinda bulky, don’t you think?

  5. Someone says:

    Sometimes, when I don’t have a book or a smartphone, I just stare out the subway car’s window to pass the time. Time does go fast when one is looking out a window.

  6. Vicki says:

    I took the subway to high school, which was enough reading time that I didn’t even think about how much reading we were assigned. Then I went away to college, living on campus with a two-minute walk to English class, and suddenly being expected to read a book a week for English class required significant time budgeting. (I would expect the assignments to take more time in college, but it doesn’t magically take longer to read the Iliad or a Shakespeare play because you’re a college freshman instead of a high school senior.)

    Now, I mostly read or do crosswords or sudokus, sometimes update my journal (on paper), and once in a while talk to a companion.

  7. petey says:

    i always carry earplugs, to dampen, if not silence, the invariably inane conversation of other commuters. i’ve discovered that plugging one ear is a tad more effective than plugging both; i’m guessing the disparity of noise volume entering the two ears confuses the brain a bit.

  8. D in B says:

    People watching is infinitely interesting (usually) and sunglasses makes that easier. But wearing sunglasses is a bit weird underground and rather suspect when it’s dark out. Chatting with a friend makes the same trip fly by.
    I’ve been to a lot of US cities and New Yorkers are the friendliest by far. My theory is that’s because the subway which requires some interaction unlike with most Americans who are isolated in their cars and suburban houses. They only have to experience their coworkers and families and strangers become scary or menacing.

    • Simon says:

      Agreed–places with no public realm are really strange. Hard to believe that’s most of the country, but it explains why so many visitors don’t seem to know how to behave in public.

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