Personal space is tough to find in the Shanghai Metro during rush hour. (Photo by flickr user Marc van der Chijs)
I am perennially about a week behind when it comes to reading the New Yorker. They arrive in my mailbox too frequently, and there’s always too much to read. So this afternoon on the way home from work, I wrapped up Nick Paumgarten’s technically adept look at elevators.
The piece spends a lot of time looking at the science and technology behind elevators while focusing on Nicholas White’s harrowing tale. White was, in 1999, stuck for 41 hours in an elevator in the McGraw-Hill building, and he’s never been the same. (On YouTube, you can find the rather harrowing security camera footage from White’s ordeal.) During the course of the technical details about the elevators, Paumgarten dropped in an interesting passage about how the folks behind our urban conveniences figure out how much space is enough space. It, of course, relates to the subway:
If you draw a tight oval around this figure, with a little bit of slack to account for body sway, clothing, and squeamishness, you get an area of 2.3 square feet, the body space that was used to determine the capacity of New York City subway cars and U.S. Army vehicles. Fruin defines an area of three square feet or less as the “touch zone”; seven square feet as the “no-touch zone”; and ten square feet as the “personal-comfort zone.” Edward Hall, who pioneered the study of proxemics, called the smallest range—less than eighteen inches between people—“intimate distance,” the point at which you can sense another person’s odor and temperature. As Fruin wrote, “Involuntary confrontation and contact at this distance is psychologically disturbing for many persons.”
Moving beyond the technical — I would love to meet a proxemics expert — this brief passages lets us in to a dreadfully obvious secret about the subway: Packed train cars are psychologically taxing on the vast majority of people because there just isn’t enough space. Worse still is the fact that schizophrenic people prefer fifteen times more space that non-schizophrenics. No wonder the subways seem packed with crazy people sometimes; we’re in their space.
Day in and day out, New Yorkers choose to subject themselves to the psychologically taxing demands of a subway ride. We cram ourselves into cars that are too hot or too cold, cars that have annoyingly whiny PA systems (the old R40 Slants on the B line come to mind), cars without enough space to move without jostling or, worse yet, smelling the person who’s just too close to us.
Even in subway cars with space, we still feel the encroaching others in our personal space. Everyone knows that familiar feeling of resentment when a passenger stands just a step or two too close to you in a half-empty car. That’s your touch zone coming under attack. Tell them to back it up to the persona-comfort zone.
This psychological disturbances are why people in the New York City subway systems seem generally unfriendly. It’s why people won’t make eye contact with each other and why two people attracted to each other won’t attempt to strike up a conversation. It’s also why subway riders get a rush of calmness and serenity upon leaving a crowded train and finding their ways aboveground at rush hour. There’s just not enough space.