Designing a Comfortable and Convenient Subway Car (No Middle Seats!)

If you’re a regular bus, trolley, or el rider, you probably know of the best places to stand or the most coveted seats in a transit vehicle. You might favor a seat with a window or that spot by the door knowing that you can jump off first at your stop. Your choice may even depending on whether you’re hopping on for a few stops or settling in for a cross-town ride.

Some service planners at New York City Transit Authority and the Metro-North Railroad set out to document and measure how people sit, stand, and circulate on New York City subway trains. As they mention in a current working paper, the interior layouts of their trains haven’t changed much in decades, and a redesign would have the potential to get more use out of limited space and make customers more comfortable.

What did these planners discover? Their most striking observation was that people really do not like “middle” seats—nobody wants to sit between two strangers without any physical separation. Riders frequently choose to stand rather than take an open “middle” seat. Such seats were more attractive, though, if poles or partitions split up a long row of seats into discrete pairs, effectively equipping every seat with a separator on at least one side.

They also found that when standing, passengers overwhelmingly prefer holding on to vertical poles rather than overhead bars or hanging straps. Passengers liked to congregate near the doors and only move in to the aisles as a last resort.


In this illustration from the study, layout (a) depicts a typical existing subway car, as viewed from above (the blue areas are seats). Layouts (b) and (c) are two recommendations developed by the authors that provide the same number of seats but eliminate the dreaded “middle” ones by strategically positioning separators. They also rearrange the doors so that they no longer face each other, creating a more open feel that encourages passengers to move further into all available standing areas.

The results of this study will potentially be applied to future generations of subway cars in New York City, but more research would help to confirm that these findings can extend to other cities and other types of vehicles. Bus and light-rail trains, for example, often only allow boarding at the front door to collect fares, which probably results in a different pattern of standing room and seat selection.  Varying travel distances and degrees of congestion among different markets would also influence local customer preferences.

The Broad Street Subway uses both transverse and longitudinal seats. (Image from

The Broad Street Subway uses both transverse and longitudinal seats. (Image from

Philadelphia is served by three heavy-rail lines with vehicles similar to those examined in the study. On the Market-Frankford and PATCO Lines, transverse seating provides more places to sit but less overall passenger capacity compared to a longitudinal layout. The Broad Street Line uses a mixed longitudinal and transverse seating plan.

The Federal Transit Administration estimates the useful life of a heavy-rail vehicle at 25 years, with many actually used for longer, so design decisions are made in advance of an entire generation of riders. Transit agencies have limited means to respond to changing trends, such as the 14% increase in SEPTA system ridership since 2006. Facing similar growth, Chicago decided to transition from transverse to longitudinal seating in their new vehicle purchases, while Boston has removed seats entirely from a few subway cars.

We want to hear from you: Would you rather have a better chance of finding a seat or have the room to quickly get on and off the train? How would you design a future generation of heavy rail vehicles?


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