From the New York Times, April 15, 2013, Matt Flegenheimer
The decisions arrive with each approaching train, testing the hard-won instincts of the New York City subway rider — world-weary, antisocial and at all times strategic.
Riders on the A train in Manhattan on Monday. A study shows that some prefer to stand, even when seats are available.
Stand, or sit in a crowded row, brushing thighs with strangers?
Surrender a seat to a shuffling elder, or pretend not to notice his buckling knees? Remain in the same seat throughout the ride, or contend for a more desired seat near a door?
Now, the daily seating calculations of subway riders have been recorded for academic use, as part of an observational study conducted by researchers of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. A draft of their report, published on the Web site of the Transportation Research Board, drew on data collected over three weeks in late winter 2012.
Some of the findings might seem intuitive to the veteran subway rider, even if the rationale is not.
When a subway car has more passengers than seats, the study found that an average of 10 percent or more of the seats were not taken. And even when a subway car is less than half-filled, the authors found that a small percentage of riders would inevitably choose to stand.
Riders prefer seats near a door, the authors said, and demonstrate “disdain for bench spots between two other seats.” Those who stand also prefer to do so near doors, in part because of its many “partitions to lean against,” and for the precious seconds they save getting off the train.
But the doorway area was desirable for a less obvious reason, too, the report found; it allowed riders to avoid “the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of accidentally making eye contact with seated passengers.”
The snapshots combine to sketch a transit landscape of convenience, game theory and occasional altruism, where often every movement is executed with purpose.
Perhaps most telling is the authors’ account of rider decisions when a fellow traveler rises from a seat.
“Customers do change seats as seats become available due to passengers disembarking,” the report said, in language riders would be unlikely to use: “but seat-change maneuvers incur utility costs (movement effort, and risk of desired seat becoming occupied midmaneuver).”
To mitigate this risk, the authors found, riders must often “relinquish their current less-desirable seats in advance of busy stops” to better position themselves near to where “seat-turnover” seems more likely.
“We cannot fully explain seating preference,” the authors added; they “only can describe it.”
Some riders, the study found, can thrive in even the most crowded cars. “Children are almost always able to find seats, even under heavy loads,” the researchers wrote, noting that children account for a disproportionate share of ridership during times when trains are crowded, very likely because school hours tend to coincide with rush hours.
Women were found to be less likely to ride in near-empty cars, perhaps preferring middle cars closer to a train conductor because of “personal security concerns,” the authors said.
Riders who choose to stand were “overwhelmingly attracted” to vertical poles, compared with other graspable supports, like overhead bars.
And the report seemed to contradict much anecdotal evidence: in crowded trains, the data show, men were more likely to be standing than women, “probably because New York’s gentlemen do live up to cultural expectations regarding giving up seats to ladies and children.”
On trains with seats facing in both directions, rather than the ones along a car’s outer walls, the authors found that New Yorkers, unlike riders in other parts of the country, do not appear to have a preference. According to past observations, commuters in Boston and New Jersey had strongly favored forward-facing seats. The researchers suggested that perhaps higher commuter train speeds made backward-facing seats “more nauseating” on the railroad than on the subway.
It was unclear what effect the research might have on the transportation agency’s future plans for cars. A spokesman, Charles Seaton, noted that the findings did not amount to an official agency position. (The paper was submitted independently by the authors, three researchers from New York City Transit and one from the Metro-North Railroad, and was not commissioned by the authority, Mr. Seaton said.)
But the report did suggest a remedy for crowding near car exits: asymmetric doors, which do not face each other precisely, and thus would stagger the crowds that tend to form near them.
“Visually,” the report said, “asymmetrical arrangements make car interiors look a little more open, and perhaps more inviting.”
Aboard an A train on Monday, riders were skeptical of some of the report’s findings. Ginny Zarzano, 59, of Howard Beach, Queens, said she had observed little evidence of male kindness on the rails. “When I was pregnant, men tried to beat me to seats,” she recalled from her perch beside a window.
Others defended their introversion underground. Awolou Sossa, 23, a student from Benin, in West Africa, who came to New York City last year to study civil engineering, said he had been told upon his arrival to avoid eye contact on the train. “People are afraid if you’re looking at them,” he said. “They wonder why.”
But another transplant, Willie Mullins, 37, said he never understood the tacit, near-universal strategy of gaze aversion.
“I wasn’t born and raised in New York,” he reasoned. “I’m much more connected to human beings.”