Rider Research Reveals Ideal Subway Car Design

Researchers suggest reevaluation of the layout of NYC trains based on the behaviors of riders.

Over the past 50 years or so, seating layouts on trains of the New York City subway system have not changed all that much. According to a recently released preliminary report compiled by the Transportation Research Board, there are several redesigns that could potentially be implemented in order to maximize space and improve the flow of riders getting on and off the train.

Over the course of three weeks, researchers collected data while riding in over 60 different subway cars. They observed a variety of behaviors with a specific focus on when and where riders chose to sit vs. stand, for how long, and how they behaved toward one another. They noted areas of congestion as well as areas of unutilized space and how all of these variables shifted as the train fills or empties. The researchers specifically focused on off-peak times of the day noting that rush hour completely changes the dynamic because riders have much fewer options regarding sitting and standing.

Conducted from February 21 to March 13 of 2012, many of the study’s findings should come as no surprise to NYC Straphangers. From their observations the authors note that, overall, riders prefer to stand near the doors even when there’s more space towards the middle of the car, they prefer vertical poles over horizontal bars, and they generally tend to avoid the middle seat, which is likely part of a larger overarching preference of not wanting to be right next to other riders. In fact, this tendency is so pronounced that, according to the TRB, “90% seat utilization is only achieved at 120% load factor.” In other words, as a train starts filling up, riders are less likely to occupy a seat, opting instead for a modicum of personal space. Therefore a car has to be 20% overcapacity in order for 90% of the seats to be occupied.

Another fascinating discovery the authors point out touches on Game Theory and has to do with seat strategy. They note that:

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 mid-maneuver); to find desirable seats often requires customers to relinquish their current less-desirable seats in advance of busy stops, and position themselves strategically close to where seat-turnover seem likely.

Proposed Subway Layout

From their observations and anectdotal evidence, the researchers, Aaron Berkovich, Alex Lu, Brian Levine, and Alla V. Reddy, compiled several options for a possible redesign of NYC Subway cars. Among these are:

  • Asymmetrical door placement. Meaning that the doors on one side should not directly face the doors on the other side.
  • Avoid designing middle seats. If longer benches are necessary, partition and poles can be used to break up the distance.
  • Installing poles between seating areas rather than between doors.
  • Installing poles or partitions in the middle of bench seats, rather than by doors. These partitions will also have the added benefits of discouraging people from lying down.
  • Removing seats from the middle of the car, to accommodate short distance riders, and adding seats to the ends of the car to accommodate longer distance riders.

It is important to note that these suggestions are based on a purely observational study, and would ideally require further experimentation to determine just how effective these redesigns would be. However, it will be interesting to see what the MTA makes of these preliminary results and if they decide to move forward with additional research.

TRB Report

Image Credit: Daniel Schwen

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