Home New York City Transit Musings on holding the doors

Musings on holding the doors

by Benjamin Kabak


Every year, New York City Transit evaluates why its trains are late, and every year, the leading cause of subway delays is generally straphanger-generated. People holding the doors and people preventing the doors from closing are the two leading culprits behind delayed trains.

To combat this epidemic of door-holding, New York City Transit has unveiled a new public-service campaign. The poster, above, now appears in 2200 subway cars throughout the system, and the message is a simple one. Don’t hold the doors. It delays this train; it delays the next one. Everyone will see — the red person — and everyone will know that you are responsible for the train delays. (In addition to the posters, a new automated announcement will debut soon as well.)

“The selfish act of holding the doors while one tries to board or exit a train can delay several trains along a line, particularly during rush hour when trains run more closely together,” Steven Feil, senior vice president of Subways for NYC Transit, said. “But aside from that aspect, you can get hurt.”

It’s a simple message, but will it resonate with New Yorkers? The question is one of subway ethics. It involves why we hold doors, why we shimmy into trains too full to fit us and why it doesn’t really matter if this train or the one right behind it is delayed. The delay, after all, is on paper only. The train isn’t delayed if everyone expects to wait at crowded stations during rush hour as people inevitably block or hold the doors.

We start the first questions: Why do we hold doors and why do we block doors? The answer to this conundrum brings us back to my on-again, off-again series of pieces about underground ethics. On the one hand are the people who block doors. These people either cram themselves into subway cars too crowded for another person or insert their arms, legs and backpacks into closing train doors. These are introverted masses. They hold the doors for themselves because they don’t want to be late and can’t deign to wait four minutes for the next train. They don’t really care about this PSA.

On the other hand are the people who hold train doors. Sometimes, these people hold train doors because they see a harried commuter rushing down the staircase, hoping the train won’t leave. Sometimes, these people hold train doors because their friends are right behind them, because the baby stroller is slowly getting on board, because the conductor can’t see the lines of people at the far end of the platform. These are the extroverted helpers, and the PSA probably won’t impact their generally altruistic behavior too much.

In the end, then, I posit that this PSA doesn’t add much to the realm of underground ethics. The subways are delayed only if New York City Transit considers them to be delayed. When I board a rush hour train in the morning or afternoon, I expect a few slow station stops. I expect people to cram into a crowded car, too impatient to wait for the next train. I expect a modicum of door-holding. I expect door-related delays to slow down my ride, and in the end, it’s not really slowing down my ride because I am expecting it.

Maybe this PSA will help. Maybe a few people won’t hold the doors, and a few more people may find themselves waiting for another train. But none of us like to wait; we all want to get to where we need to be as soon as possible. For that, straphangers will continue to hold doors.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines September 8, 2009 - 9:11 am

[…] Hard to Imagine a World Where People Don't Hold the Subway Doors (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Kid Twist September 8, 2009 - 9:16 am

I think a lot of people hold doors because they don’t believe that “there’s another train directly behind us.” Whose fault is that?

Tony September 8, 2009 - 1:42 pm

That is a ridiculous statement. People hold the doors for one reason because they don’t care about anyone or anything but themselves.

Benjamin Kabak September 8, 2009 - 2:12 pm

So someone who is holding the doors on a train at 2 a.m. for passengers running down the platform because they know the next train won’t show up for 20 minutes is being selfish? That doesn’t work.

People who block the doors are selfish. Generally, people who are holding the doors for others are doing so for non-selfish reasons. That is, at least, my take on it.

Tony September 8, 2009 - 3:51 pm

Ben you can’t have it both ways. You can’t bitch when the trains are always late but say it’s ok to hold the doors. Holding the doors makes the trains ALOT later than the TA even says because they lie about the on time performance on most lines. If they were truthful it would be a much uglier picture. Plus the train is considered on time if it is 5 minutes late.

You use a pathetic example of 2am a time of day when the doors being held is NOT a problem at all because there aren’t other trains behind that one. During the am and pm rush the problem lives.

Benjamin Kabak September 8, 2009 - 3:53 pm

I’m not “bitching” when the trains are always late. As I said, the trains are only late to those who are keeping them on a schedule. My ride generally takes the same 20-25 minutes no matter who holds the doors or how often.

The bigger problem with this PSA then is that it doesn’t distinguish between what you oh-so-politely call a “pathetic example” of 2 a.m. and the busy rush hour when it’s generally unnecessary to hold the doors.

Hillary September 8, 2009 - 9:39 am

Ben, love this piece! I think it can be difficult for the ‘extroverted holders’ to witness that frantic commuter’s crestfallen face as the door slides shut in it and they do nothing to help. Maybe they’re worried about being blamed, maybe they just have a natural instinct to do a ‘good’ deed. It’s hard to keep the ‘greater good’ in mind when you see someone you can directly help right in front of you. That’s why they always put the face of one starving child on those commercials for feeding children in poor countries, right? It’s too abstract otherwise. I have a hard time shrugging in some guy’s face and not helping him, even if it’s just because there’s no time to sit down and explain, “Hey, man, I’m doing this so that a hundred other people can get to work on time.” Guess I’ll have to woman up and manage it though. If nothing else, the PSA campaign may help firm up my resolve.

Adam September 8, 2009 - 9:48 am

I agree with Kid Twist – and I’ll go further and say it’s basically a catch-22. People hold doors because the trains are always having delays and running slowly, and if you don’t get on this train, more than likely you’ll be waiting a long time for the next train.

As for helping others, the urge would be less if we felt we could all rely on the system. It’s easier to take a hands-off, “shrug” approach when in a non-survival situation, but right now, the NYC Subway system continues to feel like it could fall apart at any moment, so the “help a buddy in solidarity” urge kicks in.

Unfortunately I’m beginning to think no amount of money, expansion, cars, smart design, redesign, etc., will fix things.

anonymouse September 8, 2009 - 12:41 pm

People hold doors because they can. I suspect that no amount of public service announcements is going to change that very much, and that the only way to make a difference is to make it so that people can’t hold doors. But how would that be possible? Well, for the most part, the problem is people jamming themselves into the doors as they close, which requires noticing that the doors are closing, getting to the doors, and sticking something in them. The longer the doors take to close, the more opportunity there is for someone to do something like that. The solution? Make the doors close faster. This decreases the window of opportunity to jam something into a closing door, and decreases the area around the train that must be clear before the conductor can be confident that nobody is going to run up and grab a door at the last second. I actually suggested this to the MTA at one point, but was politely ignored. I also timed door speeds on various cars, and while I don’t have the exact details anymore, I believe the R-62 takes 0.8 seconds to open and 1.6 seconds to close (and that doors typically open faster than they close) while the R-142 takes a whole 2.5 seconds to close. And of course in Moscow, the doors are pneumatic and slam hard enough that they actually rebound off each other slightly. Nobody there holds doors. Ever.

Kid Twist September 8, 2009 - 12:50 pm

Maybe instead of rubber, they should use ultra-sharp steel on the edges of the doors. Sure, somebody is going to lose an arm, but after that, no one will hold the doors.

Alon Levy September 8, 2009 - 5:58 pm

Are you going to pay the resulting multimillion dollar settlement out of your own pocket?

samwell September 14, 2009 - 9:01 am

In Moscow, every station has a clock in it noting how much time has passed since the last train departed. During the year I lived there, I took subways at all hours of the day and night. That clock never, EVER, reached 6 minutes and more often than not the next train came in less than two. So in NYC we’re back to what Adam states above–“if you don’t get on this train, more than likely you’ll be waiting a long time for the next train.”

honus September 8, 2009 - 8:01 pm

In the morning at the F train Bergen Street Stop trains are always full. There is no skipping this train because it is full and waiting for the next. It will be just as full. Unless you want to wait a few hours or walk to Jay Street where half the people get off.

herenthere September 8, 2009 - 10:41 pm

1) They should make the other passengers stick the fingers at him
2) Or be like Japan; hire staff to shove people in 😀

Ed September 9, 2009 - 12:05 am

Make announcements or put up signs as to when the next train is coming, and most of this problem will go away. People do this because the next train could be three minutes later, or thirty.

rhywun September 9, 2009 - 12:14 am

I don’t care if it’s the occasional “good samaritan” or the far more common self-important “I can’t wait four minutes for another train” person–it’s bad manners and it needs to stop. Assuming the phenomenon is actually a major cause of rush-hour delays. I wouldn’t mind seeing some independent study of this behavior. Although it escapes me why the MTA would post what amounts to a risky anti-customer screed if it weren’t actually true.

Tony September 9, 2009 - 11:20 am

Think about the math. If a train makes 30 stops one way and the doors get held delaying the train an extra 30 seconds to 2 minutes at 15 of those stops you have a very late train which affects all of the trains on the line going in that direction and other trains that share track with it.

Alon Levy September 9, 2009 - 8:43 pm

Tony, the issue is not people holding the door; it’s people trying to enter the subway. It takes a certain amount of time to load people on a train, which rises when the train is already crowded. There’s no obvious mitigation strategy other than getting more infrastructure. The MTA can get trains with more doors, which it is already doing on the lettered lines, buying 60′ cars instead of 75′ cars. Or it can upgrade the signaling to allow trains to run closer together, which it is doing as well with its plans for CBTC on the QB line and on the whole IRT.

noah September 9, 2009 - 11:53 am

Love this post. it is going deeper than the psa goes. there are always more complexities to a matter. when I see posters like this, it just reminds me, the mta has no respect for my intelligence.

kind of like the old “just say no” psa

Josh September 9, 2009 - 2:05 pm

I went out of town this past holiday weekend, leaving via 7am flight out of JFK. It’s positively astonishing how quickly an A train can get all the way out to Howard Beach, even when running on the local tracks, when the doors are being neither blocked nor held.

herenthere September 9, 2009 - 9:37 pm

Maybe the MTA should place these ads on the doors themselves, or to their sides so that people will actually see them when they board (just saw a few today-they’re inside the car.)

Matt September 10, 2009 - 1:34 pm

The problem is that the doors re-open. If they were not designed to re-open, people wouldn’t risk jamming a body part or bag into the door as it’s closing. The doors can be slow, so that people have a chance to get out of the way, but just don’t let them pop back open. This is how London works, and (surprise!) they don’t have the same issue.

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