Reuters

A new report zooms in on how people actually want to use the subway, giving rise to a hypothetical train design for the future.

I've long assumed that most New Yorkers, if not most city residents in general, have a particular spot they prefer on the subway. As a 1 train rider, I typically lean against the operator box at the end of the car to maximize personal space and minimize hand-to-pole interaction. Circumstances can change things — in empty trains it's almost creepy not to sit, and in full trains I stand as far away from the door as possible — but on a normal ride that's where you'll find me.

Turns out that assumption was a safe one. New Yorkers do seem to have certain spots where they'd rather sit or stand, according to a new report led by Aaron Berkovich of the New York City Transit Authority [PDF; via Gothamist]. In time this fascinating window into on-board behavior may give rise to improved car designs.

Berkovich and colleagues (including a planner from Metro North) documented rider preferences over a three-week study period early last year. The New York subway system has seven different types of cars, each with its own blend of seat style, door alignment, and pole deployment. The researchers observed the spots people chose in 60 subway cars outside of rush-hour — the idea being that during rush-hour, there isn't actually much of a choice.

It probably comes as no surprise that riders overwhelmingly prefer sitting to standing. Seats near the door are the first to go, followed by those near some partition (like the end of the car), followed by seats beside a pole. What riders are looking for here, the researchers believe, is "some degree of discrete separation" from other passengers — or what we've called a feeling of being "alone together." The "dreaded" middle seats are a last sitting resort, write Berkovich and company.

Some subway cars have a mixture of seating types, with some facing the other side of the car ("longitudinal," in jargon) and others facing forward or backward ("transverse"). In these cases, according to the research, people show a slight preference for longitudinal seats — it's a weak preference, though, and statistically insignificant. Among transverse riders, most prefer the inside seat when the train is empty (no doubt to feel removed from the crowd) and the outside seat when it's full (no doubt to avoid being "boxed in").

A few notes on crowded cars (for riders who fail to find an empty one). Researchers report that subway seats weren't 90 percent full, on average, until the car itself was 20 percent over capacity. They believe riders had trouble reaching seats in full cars, as assumption supported by the "overwhelming" preference of riders to stand near the doors — especially on trains with symmetrical doors. Standers also prefer poles to any other stability fixture, such as straps or overhead bars.

The findings suggest a few ways to enhance the layout of future New York subway cars. Here's a standard layout:

The problems here, at least based on the survey results, are pretty apparent. The symmetrical doors lead to excessive crowding in these areas, which impedes passenger flow, makes some interior seats inaccessible, and generally contributes to train delays. Meantime there are at least a dozen of the "dreaded" middle seats (e.g. F-25). These flaws in mind, Berkovich and company offer two design suggestions. Here's the first:

This layout addresses pretty much every problem discovered in the rider research. The asymmetrical doorways alleviate crowding. The additional stanchions create a buffer feel that makes interior seats more desirable. The poles preferred by standers are grouped in clusters and set away from the door to draw people further into the car. It's a rider paradise on paper.

The second design takes the greatest hits of the first and integrates some seats that face forward and backward, in case you're into that sort of thing. These seem particularly well-suited for the trains that go deep into the outer boroughs and carry the farthest commuters:

Now it's important to mention that M.T.A. hasn't necessarily endorsed these suggestions, so take them as the hypothetical plans they are. With that said, they look pretty good from where I'm standing.

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