Dear CityLab: Why do so many subway passengers refuse to move towards the center of the car, even when there’s plenty of space there?
Every subway rider has spent time wedged into a forest of armpits, avoiding eye contact. Posted train etiquette directs us to the center of the car, which often has more room; the crowd shifting that way would alleviate pressure on everyone. But public transit is largely a game of chicken with your fellow passengers, a calculus of commute length and relative comfort. Why not use all the space available to us, rather than packing ourselves near the door?
After all, we’re able to do this in other public spaces. On sidewalks, for instance, pedestrians take advantage of gaps to move past slower walkers or groups. However, on trains or buses, we’ve got two big factors working against us: bad design and human nature. Our approach to maneuvering on the go is mostly game theory. Pedestrians are constantly anticipating how a crowd might behave in order to optimize their own behavior within it. But confine and immobilize us and we prioritize maintaining control, especially if travel comes at the cost of comfort.
This impulse, a stress response, turns into passenger avoidance, and it explains everything from staring at the ceiling to snagging an aisle seat first, to discourage someone from asking to slide next to the window. The New York Times reported in 2013 that on New York’s MTA, standing riders’ urge to avoid eye contact with seated passengers was so strong that crowding near the door seemed like the better option, despite greater discomfort. Habit plays a part, too—DNAInfo Chicago recently created an interactive survey to determine CTA riders’ favorite spots to sit or stand. The overwhelming answer was “not close to you.”
The predictive instincts that help people slip into open spaces on sidewalks may seem in short supply on public transit. But that doesn’t mean passengers aren’t gaming their surroundings. Having easy access to a door feels like a measure of control, explains Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. That oblivious person blocking the emptier middle of the car may not be so oblivious. In fact, that guy may choose not to move “because if he does, it gets more crowded where he is,” Wener says.
Wener believes that some transit systems condition riders to be territorial about their spots. When the doors close too quickly, passengers “feel defensive, [thinking] ‘Am I going to get out in time?’” he says. Rider anxiety—and huddling around the doors—could be alleviated through something as simple as clearer countdowns to doors closing. Other researchers have suggested asymmetric doors, to stagger crowding, or open gangway cars, which are popular outside the United States. Any of these solutions, Wener says, reduce stress by removing ambiguity in favor of reliability.
Okay, so how do I get people to move?
Your solution to unclogging bottlenecks is simple, though it requires overcoming the very instincts that lead to us to block passageways in the first place: Just ask for the space you need. A simple “Hey, can you move to your left?” or even “Pardon me” should do the trick.
There’s research to back this up. Stanley Milgram, widely known for his controversial experiments on obedience, also led a breaching experiment in 1972. Graduate students approached bus riders and simply asked if they could take their seats. “One of the things that Milgram found was that people actually were more likely to give the seat up if you didn't give an explanation,” Wener says. “Sort of counterintuitive, but I guess you're able to imagine all sorts of reasons if someone just asks you for it.”
Milgram’s students also reported the task was immensely stressful, so you can forgive yourself for not finding it too appealing. Still, if your other option is a 40-minute commute with someone’s elbow in your side, angling for something a little more comfortable might serve you well. “By and large, people hold their space on the idea that a lot of blocked people are never going to say 'Excuse me' to get past them,” says Wener. Get up the nerve, and by and large, people will make the room.