Home View from Underground Musings on the way we ride

Musings on the way we ride

by Benjamin Kabak

This photo is entitled “Pet Peeve.” It’s easy to see why. (Photo by flickr user animalvegetable)

Let me tell you a secret: When I ride the subway, I judge people. I judge the way they board, where they stand, how they sit. I judge what they read and the way they read. I judge their headphone qualities and the volume of their music. I am, in other words, a people-watcher.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not a ruthless critic of New York’s straphangers and their approach to their shared commutes. I watch — and judge — because I enjoy seeing how other people relate to the subways. Do they treat it with respect as they would their own car or apartment or do they eat and discard without regard to the communal nature of it? Are they aware of leaking headphones and music that’s too loud? Do they recognize that taking up two seats is frowned upon and that the elderly and expectant mothers should be offered seats at the right time?

The answers to these questions vary. Many people ride respectfully. They aren’t pole-huggers or door-blockers. They throw out their leftovers in the trash cans and listen to music at volumes that do not disturb others. They don’t spread their newspapers out across three seats during the morning rush, and they do give up their seats when appropriate. The rude ones always stand out, but by and large, New Yorkers are more respectful of each other than the stereotypes say we are.

Yet, etiquette aside, New Yorkers exhibit behavioral tendencies of all stripes on the subway, and in one of her last amNew York pieces on transit before heading to The Post, Heather Haddon and a behavioral psychologist examined those tendencies. What, Haddon asked, does the way you ride say about your personality?

Haddon and her panel of experts — a body language instructor, an etiquette maven and the aforementioned psychologist — looked at six different styles of subway riding: the door-blocker, the pole-hugger, the seat hog, the wanderer, the pole avoider and the corner sitter. As you might expect, the answers are obvious and amusing.

Of the door-blocker, for instance, Haddon and the experts say:

Typically, this is someone who wants to keep his or her options open, is claustrophobic or is a “business guy with complete disregard for others,” Brehove said. These riders spark widespread disdain among commuters. “It drives me crazy when people stand right next to the door,” said Lisa Wagner, 40, of Manhattan. “Usually there’s room in the middle of the car but they just won’t go there.”

The person who takes up more than one seat, they say, is either confrontational or inconsiderate (or both). The pole hogs, says one rider, are the worst. “Clueless and ignorant immediately come to mind,” Regina Iulo of Brooklyn said. But my favorite is their assessment of those who seek corner or aisle seats:

Our experts agree that this is likely an anxious person seeking refuge from the masses. “It’s like crossing your arms in front of yourself. They want to be as far away as they can get,” Fitzpatrick said. “I am a big fan of personal space,” said Danielle Marie, 24, a Manhattan rider who prefers the corner. “I don’t want anyone to crowd me and I don’t want to crowd anyone else.”

Who can be faulted for wanting to take a bit of refuge from the maddening crowd? The middle seats, after all, are a recipe for a sandwiched and uncomfortable commute.

New York’s subways are, as I’ve said in the past, a great social incubator. Millions of people come together for the shared experience of riding the rails every day, and this diverse crowd comes from all walks of life and all backgrounds. How we ride speaks volumes about the way we interact with others. Whether we like it or not, someone else is always watching and probably judging too.

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John September 24, 2010 - 11:03 am

I don’t know what it makes me, but I tend to almost always stand, even if the car is pretty empty. I just don’t want the car to fill up and then have that moment when an older lady comes in and I’m supposed to give up my seat or whatever. Better to just never have a seat at all. And since I’m standing I guess I’ll stand by the pole, but I’m not sure if that’s what “pole hog” means?

Scott E September 24, 2010 - 12:57 pm

A “Pole hog” is someone who either leans against the pole, or wraps their entire arm around the pole (usually so they can use both hands to eat, turn pages of the paper, etc. Having one hand on the pole is not a pole-hog.

Jeff September 24, 2010 - 12:05 pm

I am, at worst, a pole avoider. I sometimes delude myself into believing that it is possible to drink coffee and read the newspaper at the same time on a crowded train. I usually face reality and give up after one stop, admitting defeat by slipping the newspaper into my bag and holding on to a pole.

Christopher September 24, 2010 - 3:03 pm

My favorite bit of behavior is how NYers will absolutely not move from their seated position as the train empties out. It’s a wonderful bit of chicken and stacking claim. “Yeah we might be the only two people left in this car, but I staying right here. You going to flinch first?”

In other cities I’ve lived, people can’t wait to relocate to an empty space. But here? I really think it comes down to losing face. You move, you look weaker.

ferryboi September 24, 2010 - 5:49 pm

God, I hate this city.

Julio September 25, 2010 - 9:59 am

My favorite are the folks that eat on the subway or even more obnoxious, on the station platform. To give credit where due, most of these folks dispose of trash in the appropriate receptacle. what is bewildering to me is the act of eating in a rat and vermin infested environment.
I wonder of those people take their food into their own bathrooms to eat.

On a more comical side for me is when to give up a seat to a woman that may be pregnant. Yes, often times it is plainly obvious but there are times especially in the current overweight world we live in that I am not sure and don’t take the chance because I may “offend” instead of help.

Alon Levy September 25, 2010 - 8:21 pm

If you keep the food away from the floor, it’s safe to eat. The rats don’t make the air unsafe. The difference between the subway and a bathroom is smell: if you’re in a place that stinks, as bathrooms do, then it’ll make the food taste worse, since smell is part of taste.

ferryboi September 25, 2010 - 12:56 pm

God, I REALLY hate this city.

Ed September 25, 2010 - 2:18 pm

In crowded cars, I’ve taken to sitting down at the first opportunity. The reason for this is that I’ve noticed that people won’t stand still anymore but keep jostling, and tend to block traffic. Once I sit down, I get out of that and take out less space and don’t block anyone. Its more courteous that way.

Where there are lots of seats, I prefer to stand. If the car is crowded and there are not many seats, I will look to sit.

But I agree with Ferrybol.

Shawn Chittle September 25, 2010 - 9:37 pm

I’ve been riding the trains for almost 15 years. I don’t sit on the train. I am a healthy male in my late 30’s and there is a 100% certainty that someone in a given car could benefit more from sitting down than me. A busted knee, bad leg, older person, pregnant woman, tired construction worker – whatever. I just don’t ever sit. It’s guilt.

Where do I stand? On the newer R160s – which seem to be all I catch now – I lean against the corner of the doorwell, in the small section of the car between the door and the long handrail which also acts as the endcap to the seat row. I’m tall and thin and I fit almost perfectly right into this section. People seem to glide right past me and no one ever says anything to me.

The one downside is that people getting on the train at the station think I am leaving, and hesitate a bit before they get on – but no one has missed a train on account ‘o me.

My question to you all is, am I one of these so-called “door blockers?”

Matthew September 26, 2010 - 2:24 pm

@Shawn – No, because you are out of the way. If you were standing facing into the car or facing the door, then your entire upper body would be in the way.

Vin September 27, 2010 - 12:15 pm

I’ll cop to it – I’m a door leaner. But there’s a proper way to do it. I have four rules:

1) Always move to the side when the doors open.
2) Step off the train to let people off, if necessary.
3) If a lot of people get on at one stop, move to the middle of the car with everyone else. Don’t just stand there like a jerk.
4) Where possible, only lean against doors that you know will not open. In my commute on the J from Marcy Ave. to Fulton St., I’ll actually switch sides at Essex because I know that from Essex to Fulton only one side will open. If I can’t get a spot on the proper side, I won’t lean.

Vin September 27, 2010 - 12:19 pm

Also, for my money, music sharers are the worst. Blasting music generally is probably my biggest daily behavior pet peeve – not just in the subway – because it’s SO COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY. You can very, very easily listen to music yourself and not have other people hear it. When I listen to music on the train, I actually take my headphones off for a moment just make sure it’s not too loud (though it never is).


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