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In maybe the least surprising part of all of this, the MTA found that riders are always, always trying to jockey for a better seat, and will even risk losing their current spot to do so. "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 midmaneuver)."
In other words, it's a high-risk, middling-reward game. The MTA also noted, "We cannot fully explain seating preference, we can only describe it." I'd say it mostly comes down to physical comfort and getting as far away from your fellow passengers as you can in as little time as possible, but I'm sure the MTA knows best.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.