Home View from Underground Studying the way subway riders sit and stand

Studying the way subway riders sit and stand

by Benjamin Kabak
One of these three diagrams may represent the ideal subway car. Read on to find out which one it is.

One of these three diagrams may represent the ideal subway car. Read on to find out which one it is.

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:

  1. Avoid symmetrical door layouts.
  2. Install stanchions between seating areas, rather than between doors.
  3. 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.

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John-2 April 15, 2013 - 1:16 am

Avoid symmetrical door layouts.

…which the NYCTA figured out with the R-26 cars in 1959. And then forgot again.

Perhaps we stand because of the physical stigma attached to too much standing 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.

We also make our seat choices based on an assessment of the person(s) we would become temporary neighbors to. Excessive, cleanliness or a certain ‘look’ that says “you’re probably better off standing,” are among the other reasons besides just trying to stay healthier that people opt not to take open seats.

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.

When the IRT opened, they also had test door set-ups that assumed passengers would enter through one door and exit through another. Silly IRT.

In this case, you’d simply have people who like sitting facing the front or rear of the car taking the seats, whether they’re getting off in two or 20 stops. Assuming the end seats would be for riders to the outer areas of the line would be like assuming riders 100-plus years ago were going to pay attention to ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ markers on the outside of the cars. It wouldn’t work, and having that lengthy a narrow aisle during rush hour would also likely cause access problems (But if the MTA ever does opt to continue the front/rear facing seats on future B Division cars, they might want to take a page from the R-110As, and only have forward-facing seating on one side of the car at each end, to allow for better passenger flow from those end seats to and from the doors).

John-2 April 15, 2013 - 1:20 am

Should be “Excessive weight, cleanliness...” in my second paragraph, not “Excessive, cleanliness…“. Unless you’re Oscar Madison sitting next to Felix Unger in the subway, ‘excessive cleanliness’ shouldn’t be a problem.

Bgriff April 15, 2013 - 7:00 am

Well, as long as we’re not moving any closer to a standard door placement to make those platform edge doors achievable any time soon 🙂

Anyone April 15, 2013 - 4:35 pm

That’s what I was thinking too. But then the more I looked at the layout, why would offset door placement matter?
Potential partition doors wouldn’t align at directly opposite platforms but the locations would always be the same on the “right” side or the “left” side no matter.
Am I missing something here?

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 4:57 pm

It’s not the side of the cars that matters.

Take this example (note: W is window, S is space inside the foor and D is door)

Also note, A cars have cabs and B cars have no cabs.

A-B-A trainset (R188)







Now look at the 3-Car set of R62As:







So as you see, the doors are off-set from each others in the R188 B cars. It is not so in the R62As, because all cars are built identical.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 7:57 am

The bucket seats on the R68s and the R62s always seem far too narrow for comfortable seating, and the eight-seat benches on the R62s never seem to fill up with eight people.

The bucket seats were probably designed not having in mind that the average American would be too fat to sit in a 17-inch-wide seat.

Avoid symmetrical door layouts.

What about platform screen doors?

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.

Oh, so more people get to stand in this layout? That’s not what I’d call the “ideal subway car”.

Christopher April 15, 2013 - 1:51 pm

I am 6′ tall and weight 153 lbs. and hate the bucket seats. The force people to sit in awkward positions a little too close to each other. And if there is a seat empty next to you, you can’t do the logical thing which is move slightly away from the person next to you. Instead you are crammed up together. They don’t work even for skinny people.

Alon Levy April 15, 2013 - 2:52 pm

To be compatible with PSDs, layouts have to satisfy at least one of the following conditions:

1. The layout is symmetric under rotating by 180 degrees; symmetry under reflection, which is what’s being discussed here, is not relevant.

2. The same side of the train faces the same direction at all times. For example, on the Shinkansen, there’s one side of the train that consistently faces Tokyo and one that consistently faces the other end. This happens on the subway if the terminals are stubs, but not if they are loops.

al April 15, 2013 - 3:28 pm

Speaking of loops City Hall, South ferry and Bowling Green have them.

Option C seating looks like early IRT and BRT/BMT layouts.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 3:34 pm

Bowling Green’s and South Ferry’s loops are the same.

By the time the MTA is smart enough to implement PSDs, the SF loop (which is the last loop station open) will be closed.

al April 16, 2013 - 12:01 am

Different tracks, different minimum curve radius, different max allowable speed.

Larry Littlefield April 15, 2013 - 9:14 am

With all the talk of platform doors, this smells like they are looking to change the door positions again. Locking in different door positions for different car classes for the next 60 years.

I always thought the TWU was behind this. With the idea that if platform doors were installed in all the crowded and curved or vision obstructed stations, the conductor position might be eliminated.

Benjamin Kabak April 15, 2013 - 9:17 am

For what it’s worth, none of the study’s authors are union. They’re all management here.

Larry Littlefield April 15, 2013 - 10:20 am

Yup, my explanation doesn’t work. Does anybody have an alternative?

I like the recent car classes, and they have offset doors do they not? Just keep it going, even if that means no more 75 footers.

al April 16, 2013 - 12:25 am

The R142’s doors on B and C cars are offset, but the A cars have symmetrical door layouts.

I’ve noticed a design feature on R160. The car is essentially a body on frame design. The car body sides and roof are built on top of a carbon steel/stainless steel platform. This design philosophy leads to a heavier design than a monocoque structure. However, if the underbody is akin to a lightweight flatcar, it opens up the possibility to lay out the doors and seats anyway we want. This could mean you can have the redesign the side walls to be as thin as possible. This would increase the clear interior width and thus the subway car’s carrying capacity.

Slightly modify design C so all seats are facing forward or back and boost the doorways to double ADA width with a pillar in between plug door leafs. You’ll physically enforce the double passenger streams at each doorway. That way you can have higher carrying capacity and higher sustained alighting and boarding throughput.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 9:48 am

Half-height gates would keep the conductor jobs while still protecting people from falls.

Besides, as Ben says above, the study wasn’t produced by the union.

Alon Levy April 15, 2013 - 2:53 pm

Requiring more labor is not desirable.

BBnet3000 April 15, 2013 - 9:21 am

Completely agree with asymmetrical door layouts being desirable. Its yet another reason I prefer riding the A division. They also keep you from being stranded in the middle of the door zone without anything to hold onto.

Unfortunately the MTA cant seem to grasp this and the system is flooded with tons of the new B-division cars with symmetrical door placement.

Matthias April 15, 2013 - 9:41 am

“…90 percent of subway seats aren’t taken until a subway car is at 120 percent of its seating capacity.”

Are you saying that only 10% of seats are occupied until the car is at 120% capacity, or that seats don’t reach 90% occupancy until that point?

“Perhaps we stand because of the physical stigma attached to too much standing these days.”

Wait, you mean too much sitting?

I wonder if something similar has been done for buses. There is no good place to stand on an NYC bus.

Benjamin Kabak April 15, 2013 - 9:44 am

Already fixed the standing/sitting typo. The stigma is attached to sitting, not standing.

I am saying the latter. Researchers found that seats do not reach 90 percent capacity until the car load is at 120 percent. Basically, if a car seats 50, 5 seats will remain open if there are 60 people in the car in total. Does that make more sense?

Matthias April 15, 2013 - 1:21 pm

Yep, thanks. The first interpretation didn’t make sense, but wording was confusing.

SEAN April 15, 2013 - 3:01 pm

If you look at busses from the fishbowl days to the present, you will notice the number of seats has steadily decreased from 53 to 38, although the bus has remained at 40 feet. This relates to to several factors… 1. wheelchair requirements, 2. low floors & 3. the new hybrid style busses on the road. The latter two cause the loss of seats over the front wheels.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 3:49 pm

I didn’t get it either. I thought you originally meant 120 percent of its standing capacity,

alen April 15, 2013 - 1:20 pm

a lot of times people will not sit between two other people. myself and lots of other people will take an edge seat just because of this mentality

Ivan April 15, 2013 - 9:47 am

Missing from this analysis is the need for some place in the car that can reasonably accommodate people with strollers, wheelchairs, big suitcases, bikes, etc. without seriously getting in anyone’s way. From this point of view, (c) seems to me to be the worst of the three layouts.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 9:49 am

The middle of the car is understandably the place for wheelchair seating/strollers/luggage/etc. Bikes are not allowed on the subway.

Benjamin Kabak April 15, 2013 - 9:50 am

Bikes are indeed allowed in the subway. Riding a bicycle is not permitted, but carrying one into the subway is allowed.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 9:54 am

Oh, sorry. Riding bikes aren’t allowed, that’s what I meant.

Tower18 April 15, 2013 - 11:36 am

That’s what you meant, really? That you can’t ride your bike inside the car? Thanks for the insight!

SEAN April 15, 2013 - 2:48 pm


Careful, you have made numerous inturpitational errors in the recent past & that’s why we remind you to read before posting.

Personally I prefer the R142/ R-160 fleets. Inparticular the R-160’s, with there bench layouts & there open ends on certain cars for wheelchairs, carts & bikes. The R-32’s although older, have a comperable setup.

Ant6n April 15, 2013 - 3:29 pm

I thought Ryan and SEAN are the same person.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 3:35 pm


Ryan April 15, 2013 - 3:47 pm

But that’s okay. Some people thought that Someone and I were the same person.

Like I said before, I only comment under a single name.

Benjamin Kabak April 15, 2013 - 3:48 pm

It’s not a thought. You have the same IP address, have used the same email address and have the same commenting style. If you’d like to keep your commenting privileges here, I strongly urge you to drop it.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 3:50 pm

Here’s the difference: I also use a different IP and I use a different e-mail. I speed-read sometimes when I am in a hurry, and I also speed-type, so there may be some mistakes. Sorry if there are any misunderstandings.

Benjamin Kabak April 15, 2013 - 3:55 pm

I’m done with this argument at this point. Pursue it at your own risk. You admitted your name is Ryan, and the IP addresses and email addresses you’ve used have been used by both Ryan and Someone. Quit lying about it.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 4:59 pm

I use a shared computer! With shared e-mail! Posting under the name ‘Someone’ during that post was an error and I will not do it again. End of discussion.

al April 16, 2013 - 12:27 am

Maybe he has multiple personality disorder….

Stefan April 16, 2013 - 1:59 pm

“End of Discussion”

The real end of discussion will take place when you finally realize that people don’t want to read hastily-compiled posts filled with your conjecture. If you don’t have time to fully read and understand what you’re posting about, do us all a favor and just sit out. Believe me, no one here is coming to this site to read your posts…you don’t have to get a word in for every topic that’s discussed here.

People don’t care whether you post under “someone” or “Ryan” or whatever name du jour you choose. If you post nonsense, people will treat you as such. Think about it, why do people have problems with only your posts, whether you post under Ryan or Someone? Doesn’t that seem odd to you?

Ben havs give us a great community to enjoy a topic we’re all passionate about. He has been extraordinarily patient with you throughout this whole ordeal, more so than I would have been. Don’t ruin a good thing. Keep the nonsense out of the discussion and I think people will get off your back. I really do. If you can’t tell what is nonsense and what is informative, err on the side of caution and don’t click submit.

SEAN April 15, 2013 - 5:57 pm

I’ve always posted my name in all caps for a reason, as to not be mistaken for another commenter.

Matthias April 15, 2013 - 1:28 pm

Are there any specific rules about this? For example, WMATA allows only 2 bikes per car during off-peak hours (one at each end–no bikes allowed in the middle). This would seem like common sense, but the other afternoon at Grand Central, during rush hour, a girl tried to shove her bike onto a crowded 4 train–she pushed the filthy front tire right between my legs before giving up. Whenever I take my bike on the train (which is never on the IRT during rush hour), I try to pick whichever end is least crowded and keep it out of the way at the end of the car. The ends with flip-up seats are really the only good place.

Ivan April 15, 2013 - 2:24 pm

http://www.mta.info/bike/ : “Bicycles are permitted on Subway trains at all times. However, we strongly recommend that cyclists avoid boarding crowded rush hour trains. Be courteous to your fellow passengers by standing with your bike, moving it so others can pass, and not blocking doors.”

Peter April 15, 2013 - 10:16 am

You make brief mention of the branched poles. I wonder why the MTA hasn’t adopted these more widely? I’ve only seen these a couple of times on R160 cars (E and F lines), but they seemed to be testers. Too many hands on the pole is always a problem, as is the “slider” (the person who keeps absent mindedly sliding their hand down the pole to touch yours). Seems like the branched poles would help, and they could easily be retrofitted onto lots of cars.

John-2 April 15, 2013 - 3:12 pm

I don’t think the branched poles were very favorably received when they showed up on the first generation of ‘kneeling buses’ delivered by Flxible back in the late 1970s. Depending on your height, people trying to get past the poles tended to bump arms or shoulders on them, or even get things accidentally hooked on one of the branches.

Sara April 15, 2013 - 1:17 pm

I love this stuff. I think about it every single morning on the way to work.

What is the difference between a stanchion and a pole?

Christopher April 15, 2013 - 1:54 pm

I think stanchion is the wrong word. Stanchions are the things that divide crowds waiting on lines. Poles are taller. Not sure why they would call a pole a stanchion.

But then I read the definition and … it can be a pole. But a barrier … so not really still the right word:

An upright bar, post, or frame forming a support or barrier.

Nyland8 April 15, 2013 - 6:25 pm

According to the legend on the seating diagrams atop this thread, stanchions are poles.

Jeff April 15, 2013 - 3:28 pm

I, personally, love forward-facing seats (and 75-foot cars, for that matter). Having said that, I also like free ice cream, so if they aren’t an efficient way to go, then they shouldn’t be done.

Anyone April 15, 2013 - 4:47 pm

Standing or sitting? If you are on your feet all day, you’re more likely to sit next to nearly anyone going home.
What about the seat hogs (not fat people) but those angry guys who sit with their legs spread so wide they’d wish they had a physical reason for it. The 3-space bench becomes 2 people. Should poles be 2 seats apart?
The Homeless Hotel deuces at the ends of the cars seem to have a lot of different scenarios not mentioned.
Subway riding is a fascinating sociological study and mirrored sunglasses help but never at night – that’s suspect.

Sara April 16, 2013 - 12:22 pm

Your “Homeless Hotel deuces” are my love-seats. My top choice for subway seats.

Buckley April 15, 2013 - 6:51 pm

I find it interesting that you say that the 8 seat rows of bucket seats never seem to hold 8 people. I have often found that on my way home on the 7 train, 10 people will squeeze into those 8 seats somehow.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 8:20 pm

Because the 7 train patrons don’t have the same type of fat-ass patrons found in other part of the subway. Remember, many 7 train patrons are immigrants to the US, and many more are not inherently fat.

AMM April 15, 2013 - 7:27 pm

Riding on the Lex during rush hour as I do, I notice that the stanchions
by the doors are a real obstacle when you want to get off a crowded car,
but on the other hand, in a lot of spots, there’s nothing to hold on to.

Basically, you have a trade-off between helping the passengers stay upright
and making it possible (never easy) to get on and off a crowded train.

The stanchions that run from the bench seats to the ceiling are the worst,
though. They are just in the way, and they’re not necessary, anyway, since
there are horizontal bars there.

On another note,
I’ve sometimes wished they had IRT cars with more doors — basically, as many
as you can squeeze in — for rush hours. It would cut down on the problem
of empty spaces in the middle of the car which you can’t get to because
of the crowds at the door.

Ryan April 15, 2013 - 8:23 pm


Not more doors- the doors are only about 20 ft apart- but wider doors at least 1.8 m wide.

al April 16, 2013 - 12:36 am

NO! Have doorways that have ADA compliant door leafs (>32″ each). Separate the 2 door leafs with a pillar. It will physically enforce the double passenger streams per doorway. 1.8m ~ 5’11” = 71″ = 34″+3″+34″

Spendmore Wastemore April 15, 2013 - 8:12 pm

” always seem far too narrow for comfort … the forward-facing seats clash with the center-facing seats”

No surprise: they were designed by transit planners not normal humans. The idea is to make the population miserable, reflecting the planner’s inability to relate to anyone/anything fun. At least that’s my impression, having known a few political/planner types . Those seats are child-size and bite into your thighs; they’re hostile to even thin adults, forget modern Homo Carbohyratus.

The whole subway system seems designed to drive people out of the city. It *was* a remarkable accomplishment 80 years ago, and a few determined souls have done an amazing job of raising it from the dystopian misery of the ’80s to the mere ordinary misery of today, but it’s still a giant, time-draining sewer.

Henry April 16, 2013 - 1:24 am

Option C looks particularly compelling as a homeless magnet…

BruceNY April 17, 2013 - 1:44 am

My thoughts exactly. Better to have few or no seats on the ends to discourage them, and allow for the open space for people with strollers, bicycles, or luggage instead.

Nyland8 April 17, 2013 - 6:32 am

I’ve often thought, on a typical 5 car train set, that the middle car should have the least seats, and the least obstructing poles, and that all strollers, bicycles and large luggage riders should be encouraged – or required – to use them.

Some planner could develop yet another arrangement that optimizes space for strollers, bikes, etc – and those people who feel compelled to bring … you name it: a large rolling toolbox; a floor lamp; a hand truck with boxes; artwork and easels; (… you get the idea … all those things we curse other people for bringing on board – until we’re compelled to bring something like that ourselves) would be shunted toward those two cars.

So each train would wind up with two such cars – not too close to the center – not too far from the ends – and it would be quickly understood that if you had to bring your stroller on the train, or chose to bring your bike, or were headed to the airport with 5 pieces of American Tourister on the train, it would only be welcome in one of those two specialty cars.

Is there any international precedent for having “different” cars like that?

Beau January 25, 2016 - 7:37 pm

I’ve always loved the idea of “specialty cars”! What I’d give for a “Quiet Car” or “Pet Car”! Considering that most humans can’t be considerate of one another, it would never work, but a boy can dream!

growing grapes October 18, 2013 - 7:27 pm

Genuinely when someone doesn’t understand after that its up
to other visitors that they will help, so here it takes


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