Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
It’s never OK in rush hour. But when the train isn’t crowded, it might be a person’s only option, and we should all be able to live with that.
The past few months have brought some memorable instances of large object-toting aboard the New York City subway. There was the guy who wedged a sea-foam motorbike in the doorway of a train, giving nothing more than an unflappable shrug to the peeved would-be boarders. Another fellow just barely squeezed a leather love seat through a train’s doors at Utica Avenue station, and blissfully lounged for the rest of his ride. And then there’s the NYPD cop who parked his scooter on an A train in the thick of morning rush hour on a Thursday in July.
It’s kind of amazing that any of these things were possible. New York City subway stations are remarkably hostile to anything with wheels—i.e., anything that would make it easier to haul these big objects onto trains. That’s part of what makes these videos so fun to watch. That, plus schadenfreude: You’d hate to have these things taking up your own precious subway space, but you also can’t help but enjoy seeing other passengers react to these weird, massive objects riding along with them. Depending on how crowded the train is, it’s a spectrum that runs from tickled amusement to righteous anger.
I submit that, as long as it’s not rush hour, there is no need for anger. Fellow riders should be allowed to transport their homewares and small vehicles in peace. In this city, sometimes the best way to get home with a couch or scooter is in the belly of a train.
After all, the logistics of heavy-item transport in a crowded, sprawling city of 8.5 million people can feel totally hopeless when you don’t own your own vehicle. (And a majority of New York City households do not). Even if more of them did, the average sedan isn’t much help with a refrigerator or a Christmas tree. And when about one-third of all households bring in less than $35,000 per year, not everyone has the money to spend north of $100 an hour on two guys and a truck, or the time to travel to a U-Haul location and back. Plus, all of these car-based options would mean more congestion and miles on the road. Uber XL can be an option, but not all ride-hail SUV drivers want schlep home whatever you just bought off Craigslist.
I know this from experience, trying to move an eight-foot surfboard from Bed Stuy to Rockaway beach. Denied by two ride-hailing apps, I dragged the thing under my arm down into the subway around 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, taking up about 250 percent more space than I do as a person. I took care not to whack anyone in the face, though I did obstruct some of the walkway. Fellow riders did not love me for it. MTA officials wouldn’t have, either. “No person may carry on or bring to any facility or conveyance any item that… interferes with passenger traffic,” their Rules of Conduct state. But this was my best option.
Giving other people a pass on using the train as a moving truck is probably an unpopular position to take at a time when subway overcrowding is as awful as it is. Take note: during the weekday rush hour, it is never okay to shove anything but yourself on board a train. Undoubtedly, when the train is packed, every rider is obligated to make as much room as she can for others. And if the object you’re trying to bring on board is a bicycle or a scooter, the best thing you can do for society is to ride that thing above ground.
But on a Sunday or Saturday morning, or midday during the week, the number of times a person should be allowed to haul something hulking on transit over the course of her lifetime can’t be zero. It’s part of the social contract of city life: Sometimes neighbors are loud, bars are crowded, and traffic is frenzied. And sometimes you’re going to end up riding the subway with something bigger than a bread box.
It’s true that the most important tenets of subway etiquette come down to making room for other passengers. If you’re seated, don’t take up more than a single spot. If you’re wearing a big backpack, hold it by your feet. Let fellow passengers disembark before you board, and for god’s sake, stand clear of the doors. Too many people forget that last rule—video footage published by Gothamist last week captured a blood-boiling number of New Yorkers standing in the way of fellow MTA passengers last week, either oblivious or rude. That video was correct to lay shame on un-self-aware riders mindlessly blocking others.
But if you see a person shedding sweat moving their kitchen island through the obstacle course of the MTA, know that they’ve probably determined that this is the best option. As long as the platforms are quiet, give them peace in this journey. It’s another way to make space for someone else.