As the subways grow more crowded, the way we take up space has garnered more attention. No one should care how we spread out, sit, or stand on a subway car that’s mostly empty, but when every square foot is precious, straphangers who take more than their allotted space come under the microscope. “Manspreading” was seemingly the 2015 word of the year in New York City as the unfortunate tendency of some riders to reserve space and take up multiple seats by spreading their legs became the Internet’s cause du jour. And now a Hunter College professor has taken a closer, observational look at subway etiquette.
The report — available here as a pdf — used observations across a variety of subway lines in both the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016 to identify certain etiquette trends. Observers found manspreading to be a steady issue while door-blocking was more prevalent. Pole-hugging, another etiquette violation, wasn’t nearly as widespread, and riders eating made up only around 1/2 of 1 percent of subway passengers.
I found the passages on manspreading to be instructive. In the fall studies, observers found that 8.5 percent of seated male riders engaged on some form of manspreading, but this figure dipped to just 2.9 percent on crowded cars. “This finding suggests that manspreading is not a biologically-based phenomenon due to the body dimensions of males as some have argued,” they wrote. “Rather, its occurrence appears to be situational and depends upon the population density of the riders in the car.” In the spring, these totals jumped to 14.4 and 9.6 percent of riders, but the Hunter professors attribute this, in part, to a renewed focus on manspreading during the spring observations.
Interestingly, though, the Hunter observers spotted a problem the MTA has recently identified as a cause for delay. The study calls the phenomenon “disorderly exits,” and we know it more commonly as door-blockers. Riders will not get out of the way of open doors as straphangers attempt to enter and exit subway cars or those entering will board before everyone exiting has alit. Thus, passengers have to queue up to funnel through a confined space, and train dwell times at stations (and thus delays) are increased. In crowded cars, disorderly exits were observed during over 30 percent of peak rides this past spring.
The MTA has started an aggressive campaign of public address announcements aimed at reducing delays due to crowds, and I’ve worried this comes across as victim-blaming. Since the agency isn’t or can’t run enough trains to meet demands, they’ve taken to lecturing riders for delays that are kinda, sorta beyond the riders’ collective control. The Hunter study though suggests that perhaps riders on both sides of the doors are to blame for these delays. Some people can’t wait to run unto a train while refuses to clear the doors at busy stations. Delays mount one way or another.
It’s tough to draw sweeping conclusions from an observational study, but the authors offer up a few words of advice. They note, interestingly, that females are less likely to enter a subway car that’s relatively empty, and they have some words of wisdom on boarding. “If the subways are to run more efficiently and attenuate the frustrations of riders due to delayed trains,” they write, “then one priority should be to focus on reducing the incidence of disorderly exits.” Easier said than done, eh?