Monday, November 29, 2010

Less Sizest Seating?

Does the newer bench style (right) on some subway cars help fit riders more comfortably?

One of my earliest exercises on AiP was a catalog of subway characters. Included in this list was the Squeezer: the person who tries to fit into a seat though there isn't room to comfortably accommodate the person and the people around him or her. Squeezers can be men or women, and fit or overweight. Essentially, the Squeezer sees an open space and believes that wedging himself into the space is fine even though the experience will not be a comfortable one. I've fallen victim to a Squeezer on a few occasions, and as a result, I admit that I do attempt to expand and occupy all of my seat space rather than withdrawing and making myself as small as possible, which seems to encourage Squeezers. I've also realized that Squeezers are more common on the older trains (above left) where the seats are delineated by an orange border. On newer trains that employ a single unbroken bench for seats, people are far less likely to squeeze into a space that they cannot fit into. Are the newer benches less sizest? Is sizism even a factor here? What are the pros and cons of these different types of seats?

Because the orange seats of the older cars on the 2 and 3 lines are actually recognizably seats, people may view the open space and think, "Well a seat is open" and attempt to squeeze themselves in. Larger passengers tend to stand out in these cases because they cannot easily fit into the confines of the defined seat. With the newer bench style seats, the space available for seating is a bit more subjective—though may require some negotiating (i.e., saying excuse me to get people to shift and free more space). However, these seats encourage Sprawlers—riders who feel it's necessary to spread out, giving open legs and their packages extra space at the expense of other passengers. Still, in the image above people are more likely to claim the orange seat than a place on the bench. Why?

Perhaps the definition of the orange seat helps provide riders with a physical sense of personal space. It provides parameters for negotiating space in the public domain. But what happens if you need more personal space than the orange seats allow? In this regard, the orange seats impose a norm—they suggest that within those orange borders an individual will be comfortable. If more space is needed, the individual falls outside of the norms, and may be subject to ridicule or ostracism is some form. This only seems to be the case if the individual needs more space as a result of being overweight. Moms struggling with infants, for example, are sometimes given the benefit of extra seat without too much of a fuss so that the struggling toddler or infant can flail freely. In these instances, fellow passengers seem far more tolerant than with overweight individuals.

What are your experiences with seating on mass transit?


  1. If an orange seat is open, I'm going to sit in it. It's not my fault that the people to either side have bloated up with high fructose corn syrup.

  2. On the DC Metro, there aren't long benches like you're showing - the rows have only two seats on each side, and they're clearly delineated seats. The expectation is clearly two people per two-seat bench. Some people do choose to sprawl out and take up an entire bench; whether they're challenged is decided based on how crowded the car is, how reasonable the sprawl is considered to be, and how standoffish the sprawler seems to be.

    I have observed during rush hour many situations in which a metro car will be standing room only, but people remain standing as seats empty - I think it's a sort of paralyzed politeness: nobody wants to be the rude person who denied an open seat to the lady/disabled person/older person/etc. That's jsut my guess though.

  3. Anonymous, would you feel the same way about that open seat if someone who was "bloated up with high fructose corn syrup" tried to wedge in next to you? How would you feel if the claimant was a mom with a grabby toddler? Or a business exec who hit the bar a bit early? Is that seat still up for grabs?

    Hasufin, your second point is also something I've observed: People will stand on an almost empty train for several stops. I have a few ideas about this: (a) It's late night and they're trying to stay alert (b) There's social pressure to stand (i.e., they're able-bodied and should not need a seat—similar to your idea about paralyzed politeness) and/or (c) There's a heightened sense of awareness—something about the situation in the car has put riders on high alert. Also just guesses on my part, but interesting to know it's widespread.

  4. I've also noticed - as I alluded earlier - that the attitude of the person in an adjacent seat, especially if they're a "sprawler" plays a huge role. A sullen teenage boy with his feat on the seat is much more likely to keep that second seat, than a polite businesswoman who has her laptop case on an adjacent seat; I believe this is due to the common (and probably accurate) notion that the businesswoman will respond to a polite request by clearing the seat, whereas the teenager will likely be hostile.

    One other thought about the people who remain standing - I'm really not thinking of "door dwellers", who are regular fixtures and don't want a seat. But I often observed people who clearly wanted a seat when they boarded, but then don't take one a few stops later when it's available. I wonder if this is also in part a "thinking in macros" issue - they look for seats upon boarding, but after finding there are no seats, don't think of it again.