Home > rant > I never sit on the subway

I never sit on the subway

September 24, 2011

I remember when I moved to New York in 2005. I found it intimidating and shocking how aggressively people vied for seats on the subway. I live near Columbia so the 1 train is my line, and of course everyone thinks their subway line is the most overused and crazy line, but in this case I’m right. I came from Boston, where we have subways too, four little itty bitty ones, and we are extremely polite to each other and, in particular, we never touch. By contrast here were these New Yorkers not only touching but literally squeezing into these tiny seats and sweating all over each other in the summer.

After about 3 months of living here I got really into it. I was in love with this city, and every gritty thing about it, and I considered the shared experience of the subway a sign of a larger public communistic love. Here they were, people from all walks of life, sharing their sweat! Isn’t it beautiful?

That kind of admiration only grew in the two years I stayed a professor at Barnard, which meant I almost never left the cozy neighborhood of Morningside Heights, so subway rides were rather rare, amusing events.  I loved the subway and I developed theories about when people start talking on the subway (in three situations: 1) someone who is incredibly smelly gets off the train and everyone needs to talk about how smelly they were, 2) someone who is incredibly sick and coughing up a lung gets off the train and everyone has to talk about how sick and nasty they were, and 3) the train stops in the tunnel and the announcer tells us we have no idea when we will be able to move, and everyone has to talk about their stuck-in-a-tunnel-during-9/11 experiences.)

As soon as I started working at D.E. Shaw in midtown, and commuted during rush hour, I got real. I figured out exactly where to stand, and I mean exactly where on each platform, to maximize my chances of getting a seat once the train came. I figured out, depending on how many people were on which platform in Times Square, and the subsequent stations as we passed them, what the recent train traffic pattern had been in terms of the express 2/3 train and my local 1 train, and sometimes I’d do crazy things like get off the express train early to get on the 1 train because I’d anticipate that if I waited til 96th street like everyone else, there would be no chance I could get on the 1 train. Actually looking back, I almost never sat down at all during these commutes, even when I was pregnant.

Which comes to the turn in my story. When I was heavily pregnant, commuting on the subway was actually hellish. I had no balance, and felt vulnerable, and being squished up against people with no place to hold on was really scary. For the most part commuters are a selfish bunch, and people sitting would pretend not to notice me, so they wouldn’t have to give up their seat. I promised myself I’d never be that jerk.

For the last two weeks of my pregnancy I took a cab to work every day, but even so coming home was another story, since it’s hard to get a cab in Times Square at 5pm. I remember one time some asshole in a suit actually ran to grab a cab that had stopped for me, and he beat me because… I was 9 months pregnant and couldn’t keep up with him. I started crying, on the street, until this nice pedicab guy pulled over and asked me if he could help. I told him I lived all the way uptown and he biked me around until he found me a cab; he refused to let me pay. I still love that guy.

Once I started down the road of getting up for pregnant people, though, it was a short logical step to never sitting down again. After all, there are all kinds of hidden reasons people may need to sit down more than I do. What if their feet are killing them after standing all day at work? What if they have balance problems?

For a while I decided it’s okay to sit if everyone else had an available seat. That seemed safe. But then I’d be sitting there, spaced out or reading, with a sea of empty seats around me, and all of a sudden a huge group of people would converge and somehow I’d be face to face with someone with a murderous look which said, you motherfucker you’re sitting in my seat. In the end, it’s become my policy to just never sit down.

I do of course still think about the question of where’s the best place to stand in the subway. This is a whole different optimization play, which for intellectual property reasons I won’t share with you all, since I don’t want more competition than I already have. Just one hint: don’t get on in the middle of the car. Always get on at one of the ends.

Categories: rant
  1. Richard Séguin
    September 24, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Once, a long time ago, I got onto a packed bus, glad to have gotten one of the last seats because I was in pain that day. As usual, I started reading and lost myself in whatever it was, barely noticing the isle filling up at the next stop. With no warning, I was hit in the head by the purse of an old woman sitting behind me, who proceeded to yell at me for not giving my seat to a pregnant woman.

    Now that I have a lot of grey hair myself, I assume I probably would not be the target of flying purses.

    BTW, I’m not sure why my email address and name are not being remembered.


  2. September 25, 2011 at 8:52 am

    In London, the tube works in a similar fashion. Hardened travellers will select their position on the platform according to the position of the exit at the destination. Also, selection of where to change lines can vary according to the walk distance between platforms.

    Many of the buses here are double decked, in which case the polite thing for fit people to do is to go and sit upstairs, leaving the seats downstairs for those less able to climb..


  3. October 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Nice post!
    I spend so much time on the subway that my frequent flyer mileage are growing quickly. I’ll soon get my own personal train.
    But in all the time I spend riding, I notice that people in the South Bronx (and other peripheral areas) are the most polite. I often see older folks and women being offered a seat, and people picking up dropped things for strangers and generally being nice.
    It’s much less common to see this behavior in Manhattan. Much less.
    My opinion is that we should generalize this – we often have no idea of other people’s hidden pain and anxiety. It’s worth being considerate out of general policy.


  4. November 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I always optimized based on where I need to go after getting off the train, based on where the exits/stairs were at my terminating station. You need a mental map of all the platforms. Secondary considerations are how crowded the car may be – you want the back of the E train to get off at 53rd & Lex, but that very back car gets packed at Penn Station, so its sub-optimal.
    I love the getting off the express train. There are a couple of stations where people “idle” on the stairs to figure out which train is coming where one can hear/see multiple trains that run on different levels (like the C and E on west 50th, or ACE/DF at W4th).
    Ah the memories. Atlanta has a crappy subway system that is more like the T (though the trains don’t look like they came out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which is what I remember about Boston).


  1. October 27, 2011 at 9:28 am
  2. August 11, 2012 at 10:57 am
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