Home Asides Coming Soon: A new courtesy campaign targeting backpacks, seat hogs

Coming Soon: A new courtesy campaign targeting backpacks, seat hogs

by Benjamin Kabak

For some reason or another, I’ve noticed lately a lot of adults riding the subways at rush hour with backpacks. Glance around a full car, and you’ll see it too: Grown men and women taking up space in the subway by cramming their backpacks into the people around them. They don’t take off their bags and hold them at their feet or between their legs. They just use them as a weapon.

As things go in the subway, backpacks aren’t the most pressing issue, but they affect the way everyone feels. We begrudge our fellow straphangers who aren’t considerate enough to minimize the space they use on crowded trains. We grow annoyed as every bump, curve, start and stop leads to yet another jab into our shoulders and elbows and backs. We sigh; we shove; we hope a fight doesn’t break out. We grow disgruntled with fellow New Yorkers who don’t recognize that we’re all in this together.

At the MTA Board Committee meetings earlier this week, Charles Moerdler noted that he had had enough with backpacks and suggested the MTA ban them outright. Of course, this is a foolish line of thinking that would discourage people from riding the subway and could otherwise result in a bunch of unnecessary summonses. But the MTA knows that people are fed with backpacks. So iin early 2015, as part of a rebranding campaign, the MTA is going to target this behavior.

For the past few years, we’ve been told in countless announcements that “courtesy is contagious,” but that idea came to a screeching halt when a doctor with Ebola rode three subway lines a few weeks ago. Now, in a campaign designed to fight quality-of-life complaints, the MTA will urge riders to take off their backpacks and, more importantly, stop taking up seats by spreading your legs, a campaign with which Jezebel is thrilled. Signs and in-car announcements will carry the word. Whether this will be a success remains to be seen, but this is a message I can get behind. It’s far more tolerable than yet another apology for train traffic ahead of us.

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Patrick O'Hara November 19, 2014 - 11:55 pm

Back in the beginning of November I took a week’s worth of Tweets (11/2-11/8) from my TweetDeck column of Tweets mentioning “LIRR” (about 773 in total) and categorized them into a bunch of different categories. The number one complaint category was people complaining about the conduct of other passengers on trains (17.2% of Tweets). It beat out any other type of complaint by a lot, even delays (11.6% of Tweets), the M3’s (4.6% of Tweets), and fares (4.1% of Tweets).

Quirk November 20, 2014 - 3:59 am

I might add that mostly older folks and most bloggers use twitter. Very few people under the age of 27 actually use it.

Might want a better source and also not everyone uses Twitter 😉

Patrick O'Hara November 21, 2014 - 7:41 pm

I don’t really find that to be the case…the sampling of Tweets I sifted through is pretty representative of those who would normally be commuting (i.e. fewer 16 year old’s commute on the LIRR to work than those in their 40’s.) There appeared to be comments and complaints from most of the age groups over the course of the week.

It’s not intended to be scientific. The sample index is likely more complaints than the railroad would receive through their online e-mail system and less formal than the MTA’s official survey, so it does seem like it would reflect things slightly better.

Alon Levy November 23, 2014 - 10:51 pm

I might add that mostly older folks and most bloggers use twitter. Very few people under the age of 27 actually use it.

[Citation needed]

Quirk November 26, 2014 - 12:40 am

lol relax. IDK why everyone there looks 35+ looking. none of my friends use it

Larry Littlefield November 20, 2014 - 12:29 pm

My impression has been that the behavior and attitude of passengers is worse on the commuter railroads than it is on the subway, where most people just ride in silence and try not to annoy (or even be noticed) by anyone.

This may be a holdover from the days when creating annoyance (or even being noticed) on the subway could lead to a mugging, stabbing or shooting.

Matthias November 21, 2014 - 10:59 am

I have noticed that too. You never know how someone will react. One morning a door-blocker screamed at the top of his lungs that if people didn’t stop jostling him, he’d break someone’s f—ing jaw.

Nyland8 November 20, 2014 - 6:48 am

I know these are pet peeves of many people, but there may be other things to consider. One example are large people. Large people simply take up more space. I know myself that while I’m more than happy to let someone squeeze in next to me, that seat will often go empty because the distance across my shoulders and hips is wider than an average seat width. While I make every effort to “make myself small” in the seat, I know that gap must appear uninviting to the average rider. Even just standing on an IRT train, there is not enough room for two people across the width of the train car, unless I am leaning uncomfortably forward and resting both hands on the cross bar.

My work often requires me to travel with a backpack which is full and weighs over 40 pounds. I’m over 60 years old, and with my arthritic shoulders, it is very difficult to get the damned thing on. Moreover, getting it off in winter requires removing my jacket. If people understood what was involved in taking my backpack on and off and on and off during a subway journey, they have less of a strong opinion about the presence of my backpack. If the combined effect is that we take the space of 2 people, then that’s how we should be viewed – as two people!

When I am lucky enough to travel at off-peak hours, or take a train before it gets full, I’m nestled up against the end of the seats as tight as I can get, with my backpack between my legs. That combination width of legs and backpack far exceeds the width of a single seat, again discouraging anyone from sitting in the adjacent seat. Sometimes more petit people will, especially now that it’s winter, and people seem to understand that with everyone bundled up, squeezing together seems somehow less intrusive than it does when everyone is just in shirtsleeves.

But ultimately, I wind up standing far more often than I sit, and for much longer periods of time, because I’m not inclined to squeeze my bulk between any two passengers, so I don’t even get a seat until there are at least three in a row available. As the trains get nearer to the end of the line, and become more and more empty, long after other passengers have jumped into the nearest available seat, I’ll still be standing. So, in the aggregate, I feel that any discomfort I cause others is more than balanced out by my own.

Which brings me to one of my pet peeves. There are smaller people who should simply sit as soon as a seat becomes available, but instead choose to remain standing as the train fills up. This leaves less space for those, like me, who must remain standing. As a train car becomes fuller, and fuller, people who can sit, should sit.

Riding the subways are filled with all kinds of discomforts. I don’t complain when people take their bikes on the train, or when people with their baby carriages take up the equivalent of 3 or 4 people, or people who travel with large luggage take up just as much, or people who’ve just come from shopping have large parcels. That’s just life riding the subway. Everyone is different, and we must make allowances for the fact that we’re not all the same, and what we have with us doesn’t take up the same space.

Targeting backpacks is simply unfair. Would you suggest that people should be fined for being morbidly obese ?? Why not? They take up too much room too! If Charles Moerdler wants to ban backpacks, then I want to ban bicycles, baby carriages, Christmas shoppers, and people over 300 pounds.

Even though we’re all not the same size, it’s a one-size-fits-all subway system. People should just learn to be more patient with our differences.

sonicboy678 November 20, 2014 - 7:36 pm

Thank you.

stan November 20, 2014 - 8:32 am

not quite sure what to make of the tone of your first couple of sentences (what, “grown men and women” SHOULDN’T wear backpacks????). but the issue here is with all forms of luggage whether it’s backpacks, briefcases (is that what “grown men and women” should use??), purses, diaper bags, whatever. people just need to find a way to carry it without taking up lots of extra space.

now this 43-year-old is going to put his laptop into his apparently no-age-appropriate-backpack and go to work.

Benjamin Kabak November 20, 2014 - 9:34 am

To be clear, I don’t object to anyone using a backpack. I’ve taken backpacks on the subways for years. But once on a crowded train, anyone with a backpack (and without a physical issue like Nyland’s above) should remove that backpack and hold it at their feet. That’s the courteous part.

SEAN November 20, 2014 - 10:27 am

I’ve been taking my backpack on the subway for several years now. If possible I’ll either put it on my lap since it’s not that big or just ware it when seated. If I have to stand, I make an effort to get out of the way. The funny thing is that I tend to get crushed by other riders who don’t have backpacks with them.

SEAN November 20, 2014 - 8:26 pm


I saw a passenger on a Bee-Line bus this afternoon place their backpack on the seat instead of on the lap, but I said nothing since the pack looked rather full, but it did remind me of this post.

This reminds me of my college days commuting to & from school. In a few instances, I asked the driver if it was OK to store the backpack in the space between them & the farebox & it was OK to do so.

Larry Littlefield November 20, 2014 - 9:19 am

Would backpacks be such a problem if the MTA was financially and structurally capable of meeting its crowding guidelines?

I usually don’t carry anything to work when I’m on the subway other than a lunch in a brown paper sack (I carry my business casual clothes in a sidepack when I ride in on a bike).

But sometimes I have to buy something and have a shopping bag. Since the supermarket in my neighborhood closed, sometimes I get off the subway, go to a different one, and carry my groceries home on a bus. Rarely I go to the airport, and carry luggage.

What this really show is that as public employees and contractors, like the one percent, get richer and richer relative to everyone else (generally as a result of pension increases in the past that were not paid for at the time), everyone else has a choice of paying more out of their incomes for public services, or accepting less.

We’ve reached the point where rising subway ridership is no longer filling empty space. We’re being squeezed. Just as younger people without rent regulated apartments or condos or houses bought years ago are being squeezed in to less housing per person at higher rents by the real estate industry. Just as class sizes have gone up and extra help and activities have been cut to pay for the 2008 UFT pension deal. Etc. Etc.

The population is rising. And it’s shifting to more and more transit use. But the MTA is too broke to maintain what its got, let alone expand. Think about it.

BenW November 20, 2014 - 11:30 am

Backpacks are a problem as long as any train is ever crowded, yes—and I say this as somebody who basically always has a backpack on the subway. People don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads, and therefor do not see where the backpack is going when they turn to avoid somebody in front of them: if you are to one side and behind them, you have a strong likelihood of getting whacked. Large handbags, totes, purses and messenger bags can have a similar effect, but if it’s carried to one side you’re somewhat less likely to bash somebody without noticing (can’t do anything about “without caring”, sadly).

sonicboy678 November 20, 2014 - 7:21 pm

The worst part is that people probably don’t want to move around too much while wearing backpacks because they can stick out and whack other people. The same can’t be said for those with handbags.

Eric Brasure November 20, 2014 - 10:31 am

We really need something that is socially acceptable for men to carry their stuff in that is not a backpack. I use a canvas bag which I put on one shoulder.

Bigger Packages November 20, 2014 - 1:00 pm

That’s for flamboyant “guys”

Eric Brasure November 20, 2014 - 1:12 pm

I see.

pete November 20, 2014 - 1:24 pm

Expect back problems from the strap being unbalanced on your back. Ever seen a single soldier or woodsman carry a messenger bag?

Michael November 20, 2014 - 2:19 pm

I think that there are a few related issues:

Lifestyle change: Years ago, 1950-1960’s many workers carried briefcases, and often students used a “book-bag” made of cloth and string. Briefcases practically had to be placed on the floor while using transit, or were held by the hand. Meaning that few others encountered such briefcases at chest or face height. There have been several changes over the decades – fewer briefcases – more backpacks – plus the items carried inside one’s day bag (music device, phone device, computer, books, newspapers, etc). Look at some of the older movies that show transit riders – many of the riders are not carrying much, except say a newspaper or book, a purse, etc.

Changes In The Subway Cars/Buses Themselves: Fewer seats! There simply are fewer seats within NYC subway cars and buses these days compared to the cars used decades before, due to wider doorways, space need for wheelchairs, full-cabins for train personnel, etc. This has meant more appeals to “give up seats” for the elderly, handicapped and others.

Folks Are Wider: Blame it on the baby-boom and those folks getting older and wider, blame it on lifestyle – whatever. Folks “take up space” and the space around a person (their personal zone or space) changes over time. The meaning of “standing too close” to the next person changes over time.

There Are Fewer Trains! There are Fewer Buses! Rapid transit was supposed to mean that the riders did not HAVE TO concern themselves with train schedules or worries about when the next train will arrive because the service was designed to be very frequent. My WPA Guide to NYC said that express service on many lines was 2-minutes apart, with local service at 4-minutes between trains in the 1930’s. Those kinds of days are long gone!

So What To Do:

It simply just pays to be a bit more considerate of the folks and riders around you. Take off the backpack if possible. Don’t stand or block the doorways, and move to the center of the subway car – especially when you do not have get off the train immediately. Be considerate and patient with those less able to stand, or folks with small children and/or strollers. Try not to become part of the problem but rather a part of the solution.


Rob November 20, 2014 - 2:22 pm

MTA Board member Moerdler suggested the MTA ban them outright — just in case you had any doubt that the people who lead us, rule us, etc., are not the brightest among us.

SEAN November 20, 2014 - 8:13 pm

MTA Board member Moerdler suggested the MTA ban them outright — just in case you had any doubt that the people who lead us, rule us, etc., are not the brightest among us.

Since when did the former assume the latter?

sonicboy678 November 20, 2014 - 7:35 pm

You know what’s funny? A backpack certainly does take up plenty of space and while you just might be able to fit an extra person on the train if someone with one removes it from their back, the issue then transitions to the floor. If one is to stand at least somewhat more comfortably, then the backpack may as well not be removed, since it would then serve as an obstruction on the floor. Trying to keep it between your legs only causes you to increase the space between your feet, causing you to stand awkwardly and take up more space. This is especially bad in case of an emergency, whereas the bag already being on someone’s back reduces the odds of someone tripping or otherwise staying in someone else’s way.

Come to think of it, placing a backpack on the floor only makes it easier to steal, especially when dealing with a standee. At least a sitting person may be able to shield it easily.

SEAN November 20, 2014 - 8:08 pm

Great points – I didn’t look at it that way, but everything stated is so true.

adirondacker12800 November 20, 2014 - 8:36 pm

Don’t carry so much stuff around that you need a backpack…

SEAN November 21, 2014 - 9:43 am

Easier said than done.

adirondacker12800 November 21, 2014 - 1:04 pm

Other people manage to get through the day without half of their apartment slung over their back.

SEAN November 21, 2014 - 8:29 pm

Have you seen there apartments?

sonicboy678 November 22, 2014 - 10:08 am

You’re literally asking me to do the impossible, given that I’m a student.

Owen Sindler November 21, 2014 - 1:59 pm


Here in Phily, SEPTA has launched a campaign to encourage folks to take only “one seat”—-
“Did your backpack pay a fare”?

I wish SEPTA would encourage folks to stop standing sideways in subway doorways so you can enter and leave the train.


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