Why Nobody Likes the Middle Seat

Monday, March 17, 2014 - 04:00 AM

New Yorkers use more public transportation than anywhere else in the country, and ridership is going up. But as transit usage grows, one thing remains consistent on commuter trains: no one likes the middle seat.

Kids fight to avoid them on car trips. Air travelers vie for aisles and windows. And on the Long Island Rail Road, people would rather just stand, as Barry Wadler can attest.

“There’s usually two or three people standing in each car,” he said. “They try to tell you that there’s empty seats or seats towards the back of the train. That’s not usually true.”

Wadler takes the LIRR every day. And he’s noticed something.  

“What is true is the middle seats are always empty," he said. "But you have to be a Lilliputian to fit in them. So if you get large people they can’t sit down."

Helena Williams is the president of the LIRR, and she's thought about this a lot.

“We have a middle seat issue,” she said. Her staff has done surveys, they’ve held focus groups. It turns out that usage is linked to the time of day. In the morning, people are more willing to squeeze next to each other. On the ride home, not so much.

“By the P.M., when people are more spread out, and more tired, and seem to have more stuff, the middle seat is less occupied,” Williams said.  

On one recent evening, the middle seats weren’t all empty. But most were. And dozens of people were standing in the aisles. Including Patrick, who rides from Penn Station to Floral Park every day. He has unambiguous feelings about the middle seat. Does he sit there?

“Never. Ever. No. It’s just uncomfortable," he said. "I’m a big dude, 6’3”. It’s weird, there’s no elbow room, no space. So no. Never."

There are a few reasons. People don’t like to ask aisle sitters to get up. People are getting heavier, making the middle seat even closer quarters. And then there’s a uniquely American part of the problem, said Cesar Vergara.

“There’s a thing called the space bubble,” Vergara said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the space bubble?"

I hadn’t, but Vergara knows all about it. He’s originally from Mexico City, but he’s been designing trains in the United States since the 1980s. And he’s noticed something about Americans.

“You keep a nice distance from people," he said. "You shake hands. You don’t go kissing everybody when you meet them and all this stuff, you know? We have a big space around us." 

This attitude is a challenge for railroads. 

“Good or bad, it doesn’t translate very well to public transport,” Vergara said.

In Paris, where they do kiss hello, the commuter trains have two seats together, not three. Same in London. In Hong Kong, they have long benches. So they all avoid the issue. Closer to home, NJ Transit has double-decker cars without middle seats. Maryland does have three seat benches, said John Hovatter, head of that state’s commuter rail system.

“Yes, people tend to shy away from the middle seat,” he said.

Maryland’s solution: eliminate it. “Most of our service is going to be double-decker cars here," said Hovatter. "So we will no longer have that issue.” Hovatter said.

Here in New York, that’s not possible. There are some double-decker trains on the LIRR, but they can’t run everywhere, because they don’t fit through the tunnels.

The railroad is looking into creative strategies, including adding extra inches to middle seats, and changing the upholstery to make the seat stand out more. Since they can’t physically change the trains, they’re trying to engineer psychology.

“We’re nudging,” Williams said. “We want to nudge them towards that seat.

Fellow passengers might be nudging, too. The LIRR is the nation’s busiest commuter railroad, and ridership is on the rise. With trains increasingly crowded, that middle just might start looking pretty good.




Comments [24]

Larry A Schroeder from Highland Falls, NY

1. I like the middle seal because it's the least used and is the least broken down.
2. Only it is socially awkward to occupy if there are only two people on the bench.
3. When crowding forces a third person onto a bench, I find it much easier to slide over to the middle seat than to go through the bustle of standing and stuffing in the newcomer and rearranging oneself. Also, it seems politer and less confining to ladies to allow them the aisle seat.

Mar. 20 2014 08:30 AM
Harvey Wachtel from Kew Gardens, NY

LIRR double-deck trains *do* fit through the tunnels between Jamaica and Penn Station, so they could be used on most runs. But they're unmotorized trailers that must be pulled by locomotives (same is true on NJT). LIRR's locos are primarily diesel-powered, with low-powered electric motors to get them through the tunnels, where diesel fumes might be deadly. For reasons of fuel economy and pollution control, the double-deckers are used only on long-haul runs that go beyond the area of third-rail electrification.

I usually commute from Kew Gardens to Penn Station on a double-decker train that originates in Speonk (it's the only loco-hauled train that stops between Jamaica and Penn Station, BTW); on my trip home I'll let a train go in order to be among the first onto the following train so I can get a comfy seat.

There usually *are* more seats at the rear of eastbound LIRR trains because far more passengers arrive from the Seventh Avenue end than the Eighth Avenue end of Penn Station. Unfortunately for me, only the first four cars "make the platform" (as they like to put it) at KG, so I have no choice.

Mar. 18 2014 11:38 AM
Beachy62 from Long Island

I have been riding the LIRR for almost 30 years, and I can tell you, I've seen it all. The double decker cars are the best. The seats are nice and wide and even if you DO sit next to someone who's lets creep over to your side, you are by no means cramped into your seat and pushed against the arm rest. Those seats are the most comfortable seats on the rail road.

As for the newer electric cars, the seats are far too small. We all know that. But nothing is going to be done about it. As you all read in the story, the LIRR is on a campaign to draw attention to the middle seats, to get riders to be more aware of them and use them more. What the LIRR doesn't get is that we see them fine. We see them just fine. We CHOOSE not to sit in those seats because standing is far preferable - in most cases - to being so tightly squeezed in that your entire body tenses up. So please, save your money and spend it more wisely. Spend it on something that will actually benefit the railroad and the riders.

But the amount of picky complaining that I'm seeing in these posts is indicative of the problems on the railroad - you just cannot please everyone. It's public transportation. It is NOT your living room. It is NOT a private car. Deal with it, in whatever way you have to. Wether that be by sitting in the middle seat, sitting next to someone who's leg touches yours, by sitting sideways in order to avoid being crushed by the person next to you.. whatever it is. Just find it and do it. I've developed certain techniques that I use for different situations. Adapt! Or find another way to commute.

Mar. 18 2014 09:46 AM
phyllis unroch from NYC - Fire Island

As a summer LIRR user I don't have a down coat but use a rolly bag for y commute. There is no place for commuter baggage. So there are people, luggage and dogs. LIRR ads talk about take the train to the beach but there is no room for us and changing for the double decker merely reshuffles the crowd. I'd rather stand to be near the bag I can roll because I cannot carry or lift (on the subway part of the ride). The return trips to nyc LIRR arrives with passengers I like to call who own a love seat..also 2 people sitting diagonally with the dog carrier in seat 3 and luggage in seat 4...only luggage racks for a briefcase and the other issue is catching the returning train either prime time or not and based on the crowded platform you go to the end (first car) you wait and they send you back saying the doors do not work to make sure you now squash into the second car merely because they either don't want to work another car or prefer to have it for themselves. And what about those narrow 4 seaters where everyones knees touch what are the rules about those seats..On double deckers I'll stand by the door than climb the steps to even see if there is a seat. Maybe we need a light up panel that shows empty seats before we crawl up and down. Can't image that the conductors even like those levels. When I can no longer walk all those steps L.I. weekends will be in my past.

Mar. 18 2014 09:23 AM
SamR from NYC

It is reassuring to hear that the suburban commuters face similar problems to the larger numbers of users of MTA buses and subways in the City (although at a higher price and lower intensity). My solution to middle, and other, sitting problems:
(1) have specially designed cars for obese people separate from more compact persons (they have that in parking lots already for compact and full-size cars)
(2) prohibit the use of seating space for bags and other items
(3) fine the (usually men) who spread their legs and other limbs in a flagrant display of zoological territorial supremacy

In general, I think it is time for summons to start to be given to people who obstruct public transportation standing and seating spaces with large bags and backpacks, exit door crowding, loud music, etc

Mar. 18 2014 06:39 AM

As a subway rider, I agree with most of the comments. I am tired of leg spreaders, diagonal sitters and people who think their possessions deserve a seat.

I am also tired of seeing people: spill beverages and not at least try to clean up, leave their food garbage anywhere and everywhere, put their feet up on the seats or put a wet min-umbrella on the adjacent seat like no on is going to sit there later. Oh I forgot to mention teenagers who race past elderly people to get a seat.

I know this story was about the empty middle seats, but it is about time to talk about how anti-social NYC has become

Mar. 17 2014 05:45 PM
Susan from Central Jersey

As a bigger person, I get sick and tired of the so-called average size commuters complaining about people's girth. Most of the time I can fold myself up into a smaller space, only to be crammed in by some "petite" woman with loads of bags or a gentlemen who feels entitled to 2/3 of the space. If I don't fit, I don't even bother to try and sit--but then I'm usually forced inside the car and in the middle aisle by a conductor who won't let me ride in between the much cooler cars. So please, before you all think twice about picking on heavy or obese people, think about your own spread in the seats first. Nine times out of ten you take up more space than you're willing to admit.

Mar. 17 2014 04:12 PM

The worst side-effect of the middle seats frequently go unknown to most commuters. Each year, the LIRR and Metro-North do ridership counts of each and every train and those numbers determine the amount of standees that each train has, and how many cars those trains should get (though they don't always have the ability to add or subtract cars.)

When the railroads determine the train's "loading factor" and number of standees, they do the math as if every seat was taken (even the middle seats). This throws off the standee numbers by a lot and clouds the real crowding conditions of the trains. If you were to ask the LIRR how many of their trains had actual standees, they would tell you there were only five (four in the morning and one in the evening), but many commuters would disagree with that.

If you adjust the formulas to account for the middle seats, you get a much more realistic standee number, which is closer to what you'll actually see onboard a train. You can see how this adjustment impacts the actual amount of standees on trains from the LIRR's 2012 Ridership Book here: A More Realistic Look at LIRR Standee Counts.

Mar. 17 2014 03:05 PM
Jamie NYC from Westchester

Heard this piece on the radio -- the notion that people aren't taking middle seats is far from the truth. On Metro North those seats are always taken. Sure they're the last seats to get taken, but take a ride during commuter hours and those seats are plenty popular.

Mar. 17 2014 12:07 PM

The problem is also compounded by down coats and hot, sticky weather when the air conditioning isn't functioning properly.

The double-decker trains on NJT are a rarity on my line and I have to say it's arrogant to leave your stuff spread out all over the middle seat. You pay for ONE seat, not two... and to make the middle sitter have to wait while the isle/window sitters collect their stuff is rude. If I sit on the isle and the middle is empty, I don't ignore people who want to take the middle like so many people do.

It's really about manners which seem to be evaporating.

Mar. 17 2014 11:25 AM
llopez from Upper West Side

Want a psychological trick to get people to willingly use the middle seat? Make it 6" bigger.

As for "territorial" men, I have no problem asking men to "make some room" for me. Generally, if their legs are open, they close them. I think they instinctively peg me as someone who, if they say there is no more room, will reply (nicely, of course), there will be if you close your legs.

Mar. 17 2014 11:13 AM
Anne from Harlem

Is this really a newsworthy topic? Is it a slow news day? Really, I commute on the MTA during rush hour everyday, stand in a crowded, body-to-body mass, in subways cars that give zero or unintelligible announcements, break down all the time, are dirty, and often lack AC in the summertime. Every day it seems the trains are rerouted for maintenance, and often riders get the run around on basic information.

I'd give my right arm for a middle seat--any seat.

Mar. 17 2014 11:05 AM
average-size old lady from Brooklyn, NY

Separate cars for men, women? It may seem like a good idea, but do we want to become Saudi Arabia? It would be better if both men and women become more civilized and less territorial, and, more realistically, if the seating is reconfigured -- larger seats, no middle seat, and more leg room. We'd lose a few seats per car, but couldn't an extra car be added? Station platforms would have to be extended also. But this is an investment for our expanding (in every sense of the word) population. And, oh yes--we should all eat less and move more.

Mar. 17 2014 10:49 AM
James from West Orange

When we were pushing the double deck cars for NJT, we decided on a two-two seating arrangement, which we knew the public was more comfortable with. The only way to increase capacity on a line that will not add more trackage is to increase the capacity of your equipment. NJT took great pains to build a comfortable and efficient car and two-two seating helped.

Mar. 17 2014 10:34 AM
All_Thumbs from Manhattan

Well we don't have a middle seat empty problem in the subways. In fact where there are three seats and two people of normal size are sitting on either sude of the middle one, you can almost be guaranteed that the middle one will soon be occupied by a person of size who pushes the other two against the railing/wall. It is literally a breathtaking experience.

Mar. 17 2014 10:17 AM
Erika from Islip, NY

I have been riding the LIRR from Islip for more than 13 years, and I agree with Peg's assessment of a lot of men who ride the train: they tend to automatically spread their legs when they sit down even if someone else is in the seat beside them. In fact, when I get on and am looking for a seat on a double decker train that has only two seats, I see many men who sit in the window seat, with legs diagonally out so they occupy the aisle seat area, or with legs crossed so that, if I were to sit next to them, the bottom of one shoe would hit my clothing. I have had to ask men to "excuse me" so I could sit down in the empty seat, and most will move their legs but keep them spread out so that I have to jam myself into the aisle arm rest to avoid unwanted contact. The gentlemen who are aware of the space they take up are few and far between, and I am always grateful to find one of them to sit beside.

Women, too, though, can be "space hogs," especially those with large pocketbooks who insist on putting them in between seats, instead of in the luggage rack or on the floor. However, I have been able to request that they move their pocketbooks, whereas how do I say to some guy, :"Can you keep your legs closed?"

Overall, I think the trains purchased in the last decade were made for smaller bodies than here in America. I fit in them, but many people don't, and in winter, even I have a problem when it's cold and I wear a fluffy winter coat. People also seem to be less polite than in years past, when there was a realization that public transportation is not your own personal vehicle.

I think more than psychological efforts should be made by the railroad. Seats have to be larger and seat courtesy should be more of an intense focus, with emphasis on telling men to "sit without spreading out" and women that "large pocketbooks belong on laps or luggage racks."

Mar. 17 2014 10:01 AM
Rich from Union City

Most of the above is true, but there is one other consideration. I ride the LIRR and NJT, and the Comet car seats are much more comfortable, even 3 across, than the M cars of the LIRR. Even on the newer cars, the cushioning on the LIRR seats and backs are mostly compressed to where it feels like you are riding on a stack of corregated, the upholstery is dried out and stiff, and the seats and backs are at uncomfortable angles. The two agencies share at least one terminal and operating agreement, perhaps they could share notes on car design too?

Mar. 17 2014 09:55 AM
Donald Diamond from BEDFORD

Metro North has middle seat aversion too.

Mar. 17 2014 09:49 AM
Ted Koczynski from Nyack NY

Is the commuter trains for the commuter or the low tunnels?
Fix the tunnels and save thousands of commuters a bad start to their
work day.

Mar. 17 2014 09:46 AM
Sausage McMuffinz

I love to be exposed to commuters' gastric presence. Nothing beats getting flanked by two of my fellow commuters gulping down sausage McMuffins! Thhhhhtpffft!

Mar. 17 2014 09:45 AM
Chris from Jersey City

I'm a male; I'm not obese. I have big shoulders and they're just there, I don't need to "spread out". When I get on a train or a plane, my shoulders take up width of the seat. I avoid the middle seat for my own comfort.

Mar. 17 2014 08:50 AM

This is a news story?

Mar. 17 2014 08:36 AM
tao from New York city

men are socialized to spread out take up more space and women are socialized to do the opposite. there are self-defense courses that teach women to command more space as men do. One can see this behavior in animals when they are threatened, too. They make themselves appear larger, therefore more powerful and menacing to their opponent.
on the other hand, i am your size and feel too confined and claustrophobic in the train seats. they need to able to recline slightly and have more leg room to be more comfortable. Also, the seats are wide enough for people who are an ideal weight, while greater than 50% of the population in this country is overweight or obese.

Mar. 17 2014 08:23 AM
Peg Bridan from Syosset LI

I'm 5'5" about 125 - 130lb female, have been taking the LIRR regularly for about 35 years and some things have not changed. Invariably, when I am occupying the window seat on the train, whether going into NYC or returning to LI, some really big guy - think heavyset to obese - will sit next to me and spread out, cramming me against the window and forcing a physical contact that's really not welcomed. It doesn't matter if I'm in a two-seat or three-seat....I have tried getting up and yielding the window seat (why should I even have to do this?) and taking the aisle seat only to find that I pushed to the very edge, up against the armrest. It's not just the so-called blue collar working men who do this but the guys in suits as well. I have never had a woman sit next to me and exhibit this behavior. I have spoken to other women I work with and they have had the same miserable experience. Sometimes I just give up my seat all together and stand for the 1 hour ride home. So kudos the "big dude" in your story, for his courtesy in not wanting to squish another rider! At least on the subways there are constant announcements about inappropriate touching, maybe something like this is called for on the LIRR! Oh - and when I talk to the men I work about this, I get the 'hundred mile stare' which says 'oh I have no idea what you are talking about' and yet I have seen them do the same thing, staking out territory as it were on the train......maybe we should have cars for men and cars for women like we have a quiet car during peak (which is lovely...if only I could find a seat on the last car during rush hour)......

Mar. 17 2014 08:00 AM

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