There's a monster that lives under the sidewalks of New York City — a snake of steel that hisses and groans as it carves its way through the bowels of the boroughs at all hours of the day (except for when it rains too much or it decides that it's sleepy and is going to stay at napping at Broadway Junction for an indefinite, inexplicable and infuriating amount of time). We hate it and fear it and yet we love it and need it, we pay increasingly high tributes with the swipe of a metrocard (the MTA is currently proposing a fare increase that would require each family who rides the subway to send a child into an arena where they'll engage in a televised fight to the death) and therein lies the terrible, gritty beauty of the iron beast, the New York City subway system.
While it's easy to complain about the subway, the truth is that it does those of us who live in New York more good than it does bad, which is saying something considering that a couple of months ago I sat next to someone whose sneakers and pants were heavily spattered in blood. At it's worst, the subway is a means to an end, a (not entirely) comfortable way to get from A to B. At it's best, it's an amazing look into the oddities of human behavior. Did you know that it's possible for an old man to continue reading and not even look up from his tablet while a group of teenagers blast an Akon song and break dance at his face? It is possible and it happens every day! Other things that happen everyday: old Chinese ladies clipping their fingernails and eating out of a bag of cashews at the same time, jerks who take pictures of you for no reason at all and grown men who think it's okay to step into a closed-yet-public space and start openly masturbating. None of these things are normal and yet they occur all the time and no one says anything about it, which makes it even less normal because humanity is one big group of awkward freaks.
The MTA recently did an in-depth study of subway behavior and found that people act in arbitrary (yet somewhat intuitive) ways on the subway all of the time. For example, while it might seem like you're always fighting for a seat on public transit, it turns out that even when a train car has more people standing than there are sitting, an average 10% of seats are still available. Is this because people are assholes and act like their purse or backpack needs its own seat? Is it because of the plague of dudes who sit with their legs spread so far apart that no one else can sit down at all? (A friend this weekend told me that he deals with these guys by standing in crux of their legs, which is A.) an awesome tactic and B.) might get him punched.)
The truth is that they don't know how people decide when they want to sit, only that they often choose not to: “We cannot fully explain seating preference,” the report's author (who might be an artificial intelligence) stated. “Only can describe it.” It then added "What are feel-ings?"
The authors speculated that passengers often had a "disdain for bench spots between two other seats" and that people, when standing, generally preferred positioning themselves closer to the door because they could lean against partitions, make a quicker exit and more easily avoid eye contact with fellow passengers.
Then there is the art of seat stealing. From the report:
“Customers do change seats as seats become available due to passengers disembarking, but seat-change maneuvers incur utility costs (movement effort, and risk of desired seat becoming occupied midmaneuver).”
Riders would also "relinquish their current less-desirable seats in advance of busy stops to better position themselves near to where seat-turnover seems more likely."
What can you say besides that in the game of subway seats, you win or you die?
Collecting Data on the Habits of Passengers Underground [New York Times]
Image via John Moore/Getty.