On Subways, We’re Anti-Social But Also Nicer Than You Think

A study of the New York City subway reveals the social complexity of our everyday commute.

Riding the subway never gets easier. We get more proficient to an extent–learning all the stops and the quickest transfers–but the (anti)social tension never really lessens. Are we socialists or capitalists in our daily quest for open seats, better seats and avoiding that spilled liquid of some sorts?


Now, a recent study (PDF) by Metropolitan Transit Authority paints New York City’s subways as a subterranean game of Risk, in which we’re constantly repositioning to make eye contact with as few people as possible. The findings serve as evidence for a lot of things you probably already know–like that we often prefer to lean against the walls near exit doors, and that there’s a strong preference for forward-facing seats. And it even suggests one fantastically obvious piece of urban planning–by making doors asymmetrical across subway cars, passengers will be less likely to pool in parts of the train.

But my favorite bit is something that happens amongst that highly strategic but poorly understood jockeying for open seats. People go altruistic. From the NYT:

Some riders, the study found, can thrive in even the most crowded cars. “Children are almost always able to find seats, even under heavy loads,” the researchers wrote, noting that children account for a disproportionate share of ridership during times when trains are crowded, very likely because school hours tend to coincide with rush hours…

…And the report seemed to contradict much anecdotal evidence: in crowded trains, the data show, men were more likely to be standing than women, “probably because New York’s gentlemen do live up to cultural expectations regarding giving up seats to ladies and children.”

You could imagine an overzealous designer, parental lobbyist, or politician demanding child seats across New York mass transit, couldn’t you? “Do it for our children! Our children need seats, too!” But in reality, we appear to be a pretty darn considerate species regarding our young. And we’ve even retained a bit of old-school chivalry, too.

Apparently, even in environments that transform us all into Napoleons of our commutes, you really can depend on the kindness of strangers–at least for a very slight majority of the time. Because lady, you’re on your own for the ride home.

Read more here and here (PDF).

[IMAGE: Subway, NYC via Shutterstock]


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach