Debates and discussions over how New Yorkers choose to ride the subway could fill endless hours of debate and countless volumes of psychological journals. Where do we sit? Why do we decide to sit next to someone, if we do? Why do we choose to stand when seats may be available? And what’s the best way to configure seating in a subway car? Recently, a group of officials at Metro-North and New York City Transit have tried to study the issue with some obvious results and some surprising findings.
As we all know, New York City subway cars feature a wide array of seating choices. The bucket seats on the R68s and the R62s always seem far too narrow for comfort, and the eight-bucket benches on the R62s rarely fill up with eight people. Meanwhile, on the R68s, the forward-facing seats clash with the center-facing seats, leaving little leg room for those sitting in the window seats. On newer rolling stock, the bucket seats have given way to flat benches, but those often do not fill up efficiently either. Meanwhile, the various cars all have poles — or stanchions — in a variety of locations, sometimes in front of the door, sometimes not. There is no uniformity and no right way to go about it.
But learning how New Yorkers opt to sit and stand can help transit planners develop a better subway car. Should subway cars feature more seats and less room to stand — as is in the case with Washington’s Metro — or should the cars have fewer seats and more standing room as is seemingly the case in New York? I prefer the latter as it makes peak-hour rides more tolerable and exiting and entering a crowded car smoother. Still, New Yorkers have their preferences, and those preferences often involve standing in the way of everyone else.
According to the study, available here as a PDF, straphangers strongly prefer not to sit next to anyone, and they’d rather stand than squeeze into a space that may not seem wide enough. Seats next to the doors, with the buffer of a railing on one side and empty space on the other, fill up first, and similarly, on cars with forward-facing seats, the window seats fill up quicker than the aisle seats. That could be attributable to etiquette or the desire to avoid getting bumped by people standing in the empty space between seating benches.
(As a brief aside, my favorite note in the report concerns strategic seat choice: “Customers do change seats as seats become available due to passengers disembarking, but seat change maneuvers incur utility costs (movement effort, and risk of desired seat becoming occupied mid-maneuver); to find desirable seats often requires customers to relinquish their current less-desirable seats in advance of busy stops, and position themselves strategically close to where seat-turnover seem likely.” Strategic seat positioning is my, uh, favorite subway pastime during crowded morning commutes.)
Meanwhile, subway riders are happy to stand if as few as 70 percent of a car’s seats are taken. In fact, seating capacity doesn’t reach 90 percent until the total car load is at 120 percent of its capacity. In other words, some seats will remain empty even as standing room grows scarce. But why?
The answer lies somewhere between habit and design cues. Sometimes, we stand because of space concerns. It’s uncomfortable for three people if I choose to shimmy into a space not quite wide enough for me, but it’s only inconvenient for me if I choose to stand. Perhaps we stand because of the physical stigma attached to too much sitting these days. I often eschew a seat on short-haul subway rides due to the myriad studies alleging the long-term ills of constant sitting. Whatever the case, standing room begins to fill up long before all of the seating space is taken.
Design, though, plays a role as well in the choice between sitting and standing. According to the study, subway riders like to stand exactly where they shouldn’t. That is, straphangers don’t like to hang on those straps; rather, they prefer the so-called “doorway zone.” Why? The report’s authors explain: “Besides having multiple poles, “doorway zone” has other desirable features that attract standees: ease of ingress and egress, partitions to lean against, and avoidance of sometimes-uncomfortable feeling of accidentally making eye contact with seated passengers.” As they write, though, standing in the doorways increases subway dwell times and causes issues with standees blocking passengers who wish to enter or exit the train.
As for the design element, symmetrical subway cars — those with the same door alignment on both sides — encourage more standing in the doorway zone. “Visually, asymmetrical arrangements make car interiors look a little more open, and perhaps more inviting—hence luring passengers away from doors with potential dwell time, loading, and capacity utilization benefits,” the study notes. Which, of course, leads us to the ultimate question: What’s the best design for a subway car?
The recommendations do not unleash the perfect subway car. Such a design is based on a variety of constraints, but the research offer up some guidelines:
- Avoid symmetrical door layouts.
- Install stanchions between seating areas, rather than between doors.
- Where safe to do so, avoid installing poles or partitions in seats adjacent to doors; instead, install them in the middle of bench seats.
Other observations, involving some data from outside of the city, encourage a variety of best practices. These include eschewing center-facing seats as to avoid the aisle/window seat dichotomy; ditch the concept of a middle seat, especially on commuter rail lines; and use a combination of vertical and branching poles to encourage standees to move throughout a car. Anything to avoid subtle cues that lead to standees taking up shop in the doorway would be a welcome development.
Finally, the report concludes with the idea for a perfect subway car. Off-set doors and stanchions toward the middle would better distribute passengers while forward-facing seats at the ends of the car could be used for long-distance riders while bench seats would serve as sitting spots for short-haul trips. As a visual, take a look at choice C in the image atop this post. I don’t think we’ll see that layout come to New York City’s subway cars any time soon, but it’s certainly interesting to delve into the various factors that determine how we board and fill up a subway car.