Why Nobody Likes the Middle Seat

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.