Apparently, in addition to raising fares, planning to raise fares again, altering service on almost every single subway line last weekend, and continuing to work on recovery from Sandy, the MTA has been quietly studying the behavior of its riders for a while now, per a report released yesterday.
Creepy, sort of, but also you have to admit, pretty intriguing! Sure, we already know how we should be riding the subway, but in practice, how does that actually shake down? Like most human behavior, a lot of it is a disgusting mystery, but still, there are a few key takeaways.
Even in cars that aren't totally full, the MTA found, about 10 percent of seats were left empty, and there were a few staunch passengers who seemed to prefer standing no matter what. Still, you can't stand or sit just anywhere. Passengers who stood liked to position themselves near doors for optimal leaning and exit opportunities (and failing that, the vertical poles rather than the overhead ones), and almost everyone showed "disdain for bench spots between two other seats.”
Now personally, if I see someone really not trying to make the seat next to them sit-able on a crowded train, I'll pretend to be tired and cram myself into it, just to make their day a little bit worse, and more importantly, prove a point. Do these people think about what they've done after spending 5-20 minutes with me sausaged in next to them? I don't know, but I'd like to think that they do. If more people did this, the subway would be a better place for everyone.
Another reason people like standing near the doors? Avoiding what the study tactfully called “the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of accidentally making eye contact with seated passengers.” Obviously. Is anything worse than this? Accidentally locking eyes with someone, looking away too fast so that they know you noticed, looking back to figure out why the hell they were staring at you in the first place, beginning the cycle all over again, god.
Maybe having a stranger's clammy hand touch yours by accident (please let it be an accident, uggggh) on the pole is a little bit worse, but only maybe. Unless someone around you is doing something weird and/or scary, in which case, eye contact is comforting. But only then.
The study's authors noted that female passengers were generally less likely to ride in unpopulated cars and often tried to position themselves relatively near to a conductor, presumably out of "personal security concerns." Because still, in the 21st century, that's part of the day-to-day routine for most women: in one way or another, being forced to work around the assumption that your personal safety is always at risk. Really, pretty fun. But also, avoiding empty trains cars is always kind of a best practice regardless of personal safety issues. Show me a mysteriously empty subway car, and I will show you a knee-bucklingly awful smell. Usually on the C train.
What is this the Titanic? Har har. No, but really, this just seems nice. The MTA reported that "children are almost always able to find seats, even under heavy loads," and that men were more likely to be standing, "probably because New York's gentlemen do live up to cultural expectations regarding giving up seats to ladies and children." Anecdotally, that last bit seems like sort of a stretch, but sure. Let's assume this to be true.
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.