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How people behave on the subway and how subway seating could be better designed

I take the subway to the office every day and oftentimes I find myself standing there thinking about what the most efficient subway car interior would look like. I guess it’s the architect and designer in me, but I keep trying to rethink the seating arrangement.


My first thought is always that the perpendicular seats that shoot out into the middle of the train are a complete waste of space. If you’re tall (I’m 6’3”), they’re actually uncomfortable to sit in. Every time I do, I feel as if my femur is too long for the allotted space. 

One top of that, nobody ever wants to sit in the interior seat—primarily, I think, because they’re cumbersome to get in and out of when somebody is sitting beside you. So you end up with a countless number of cases where those benches are only half occupied.

But what’s really interesting about this thought exercise is that it can’t be done without also closely analyzing human behavior. Here’s what I’ve noticed here in Toronto.

People want to be as far away as possible from other people on the subway. It’s weird to sit beside someone unless you really have to. In fact, try this exercise: Walk onto a sparsely populated subway and sit directly beside somebody. I bet you that person will move and/or give you a dirty look.

What this means is that the end seats always fill up first. People don’t want middle seats, which, I’ve learned, is why they put grab poles in the middle of benches longer than 2 seats. They’re trying to simulate an end seat and make that middle seat feel less like it’s, well, in the middle. You get a pole in between you and the person next to you.

But before sitting in the middle seat, most people would rather stand. Standing is preferable to rubbing shoulders with someone, unless the subway train gets really busy, in which case people will start to sit anywhere. Typically people like to stand right beside the doors, because there’s a place to lean and it’s easy to get off when your stop comes. But this isn’t ideal from an onboarding and offboarding standpoint. It’s people in the way.

Of course, there are many others who have spent a lot more time than me thinking about this topic. A quick search revealed this Wired article talking about this very subject. And below is the layout that they recommend. The design is from the Transportation Research Board.


Their recommendation is to basically remove the seating around the middle doors, so that it’s easier for people to get on and off the train, and to stack airplane style seating towards both ends. In this scenario, the middle gets optimized for standing and the ends get optimized for sitting.

Now it’s your turn. Do you think this would be better or worse than what you have today in your city? Let me know in the comments below.

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