Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new study finds manspreading and door-blocking are legitimate issues. Eating and pole-hogging, not so much.
Protecting riders’ comfort seems to be the goal of most subway etiquette campaigns. Out of respect for those who value quiet, space, and cleanliness, you’re not supposed to blast music, take up unnecessary seats, or snack on a burger.
But there’s also a logistical case for good train behavior. Subway etiquette can affect the efficiency of the transit system, argues a group of Hunter College researchers in a new study of New York City subway riders. For example, blocking the doors while others are trying to board or disembark can increase train delays. Other, less obvious forms of discourteous behavior can also slow down schedules, they write. “Bulky knapsacks” and pole-hogging can exacerbate crowding, they add, which “in turn, creates loading and unloading problems that extend ‘dwell time’ and lead to progressively lengthier delays.”
Some have wondered if this sort of poor behavior is partly causing ridership to taper off. Besides keeping riders comfortable, subway etiquette campaigns targeted at tamping down these activities could help keep ridership numbers up and the system running smoothly.
Very few studies have attempted to actually quantify subway etiquette. To fill the gap, the Hunter College researchers launched their study to measure how much riders really do engage in bad behaviors—specifically, those targeted by the New York City MTA’s “Courtesy Counts” campaign, which include blocking the doors, eating, pole-hogging, and manspreading. The researchers also analyzed how these behaviors express by gender.
In two phases—fall 2015 and spring 2016—groups of Hunter College undergrads were assigned specific subway lines (this wasn’t randomized, but the sample was still fairly diverse). They observed and recorded rider behaviors on specific days of the week and at certain times. Each student had to study 40 separate “segments,” or trips between two adjacent stops. Altogether, nearly 100,000 passengers were observed during nearly 6,000 subway segments across 21 subway lines.
The results were striking. First, the students found that almost no riders—male or female—eat on the subway. Just over half a percent were observed chowing down. Likewise, pole-hogging (whether by riders leaning too heavily on the pole, or by semi-professional acrobats dancing for tips) was barely an issue, with less than 3 percent of all standing riders engaged in this behavior.
Manspreading, however, was a widespread (sorry) issue. Close to nine percent of seated male riders were observed sprawling their legs enough to compromise space for another rider. However, manspreading wasn’t as bad in crowded conditions. When there was more room in the subway, the incidence of manspreading was roughly nine percent. With less room, that share dropped to about three percent. “This finding suggests that manspreading is not a biologically-based phenomenon due to the body dimensions of males, as some have argued,” the authors write. “Rather, its occurrence appears to be situational and depends upon the population density of the riders in the car.”
But the most serious problem was a lack of orderly exits, which the authors define as occurring when, at a given stop, “all exiting passengers were able to leave the train before any entering passengers get on.” Without counting times when no riders entered or exited, more than 12 percent of all trip segments ended with a disorderly exit. This frequency increased substantially during weekday peak hours, and when the car was very crowded.
With the exception of manspreading, the students didn’t observe much difference in bad behavior between male and female riders. But they did find that women have certain preferences when it comes to the cars they choose to ride in. Women tended to ride in the interior cars, rather than the exterior cars, by a slight margin. And they seemed to prefer to keep other people around:
The data show that as the load of cars rose from 5 or less passengers to 28 or more passengers, the share of female riders increased from 42.3 percent to 51.2 percent. It appears, therefore, that females were more inclined to ride in cars with a greater density of riders.
The study’s design wasn’t perfect; namely, the subway routes that the students studied weren’t chosen randomly, and there were only two “phases” of study. A longer-term project would yield better data.
But the findings still have an important take-away: Policing snacking and pole-usage might not be the best use of time for MTA (even though they inspire awesome campaign ads). Trying to keep doorways and seats clear might offer a better payoff. “If the subways are to run more efficiently and attenuate the frustrations of riders due to delayed trains,” the researchers write, “then one priority should be to focus on reducing the incidence of disorderly exits.”