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Redesign Metro for crowds?

In May, when we reported that the Metro board had decided to make a deal with Kawasaki for the next generation of rail cars, one commenter wrote: "For the love of god, I hope they will have bench seating for the new trains. That way a lot more of us can cram into them than the current 2-person seat space hoggers." In Monday's Post, Ann Scott Tyson writes about the seat-hogging phenomenon. But would riders prefer to modify their fellow riders' behavior, or modify the design of the cars?

Seat hogging takes several forms:
-- Riders put bags on the seats beside them.
-- Riders put their feet on the seat beside them.
-- Riders sprawl across two seats.
-- Riders sit in the outside seat, which often leaves the window seat empty.

The last version, outside seating, is the one that's most readily cured by designing new cars with seating along the car walls, a design we commonly refer to as bench seating.

interior 7000 series standard.jpg 7000 Series, standard configuration. (WMATA)

Now, I'm not sure this qualifies as seat-hogging, which to me, requires the mindset of "I'm selfishly going to take up two seats on a crowded train." Metro riders will write in from time to time and say, "I'm not taking up two seats. I just don't want to get stuck inside by the window when I have to get out two stops from now."

But whether it's selfish or practical, it's a result of the car configuration and the crowding. Even passengers in the outside seats worry about whether they'll be able to reach the doors when they get to their stop.

Car configuration
Metro hasn't picked a seat configuration for the next generation of cars, the 7000 Series. But the design of the cars will allow for several options. The transit authority staff previewed a few of them this spring. Under those plans, versions with standard seating configurations could provide 64 or 68 seats. Versions with bench seating could provide 58 or 64 seats. (It depends on whether the car has an operator's cab.) The newest cars in operation, the 6000 Series, offer either 62 or 64 seats.

bench seating test.jpg Metro bench seating test. (WMATA)

Metro did an experiment with limited bench seating a couple of years ago. It wasn't the full-out New York style of bench seating. Instead, there were banks of bench seats near the center of the car. (See the photo.)

Planners wound up dropping the idea. Metro said that riders weren't crazy about it, and that the bench seat design didn't really increase the total capacity of the car. There wasn't much, if any, extra room for standees in this design.

But as Metro cars become more and more crowded, should the design favor the arrangement that gets people in and out the best? Total capacity is a lost cause. All the cars are going to be jammed. At least with the bench seating, people have a better shot at reaching the doors, and there would be no opportunity to plunk down in the outside seat.

By Robert Thomson  | July 19, 2010; 9:43 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail  
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Next: It may not be 'seat-hogging' ...


Crowd movement becomes a real serious issue as Metro gets more and more over capacity. Speaking of capacity, when and how is a 2nd tunnel under the Potomac river going to be built? Why is DC spending billions on streetcars when Metro is falling apart?

Posted by: Langway4Eva | July 19, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I don't think that sitting in an outside seat constitutes seat hogging. If I'm going to be getting off the train in a few stops, I'd rather sit on the outside as to not to disturb the rider who would sit on the outside when I have to leave.

Posted by: linroy62 | July 19, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I think the center cars, i.e. cars 3&4 of a 6 car train should have bench seating or some other arrangement. It seems these cars, which often are in the middle of transfer stations like Metro Center and L'Enfant Plaza, would benefit from faster ingress and egress. Long distance riders could walk to the ends of the platforms, and the short hoppers could stand in the middle.

Posted by: idiparker | July 19, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Move to all bench seating as soon as possible.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | July 19, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I'm with linroy62, in that I'd rather not make the aisle seat rider get up for me on a crowded train. It's awkward for the aisle rider. The person has to get up while the train is moving -- maybe lurching into the station -- and back into people standing in the aisle.

If I want a seat on a train, I either go for the current double bench seats near the door (not the priority seats for disabled or elderly people) or the forward-facing seats near the ends of the cars, the seats where you can just get up without asking anyone to move.

Also, I think idiparker has a great suggestion: Put bench seating in the middle cars on the trains, since those often are the most crowded. Even now, the different series of cars are configured differently, so why not do some as all bench seating?

But here's an issue: I can't figure how to make sure the bench cars would wind up in the middle of the train. All Metro cars so far have come in married pairs. They're assembled into either six car or eight car trains that way. The new ones, the 7000 Series, will come in fours. So you put together two sets and you've got an eight-car train. But the two sets may not be the same ones from day to day. How would you design them to have the bench-seat cars in the middle of the train and still have the flexibility of pairing up different sets of four each day?

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | July 19, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Remove all seats.
Remove all hand rails and straps.
Use pushers as in Japan to fill the cars.
The density will keep everyone from falling down.

When it's not crowded, sit on the floor.

Problem solved.

Posted by: rtkx7hwed | July 19, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

One of the biggest problems with bench seating is that the ride is not, shall we say, a continuous journey from station to station - there is plenty of braking.

So picture this. You're sitting on a long bench, parallel to the tracks. The operator brakes, you slide a little toward the person to your right. The operator brakes hard - and this happens frequently on Metro - and you slide a lot toward that person.

Even though you could get more people seated, theoretically, it might make for a much more uncomfortable ride than even now.

With bench seating, you'd have a huge area in the middle where people could stand. But unless you're six feet tall, standing there and holding on to those metal things is painful and uncomfortable. This is why many people prefer to hold on to a pole.

Posted by: dfranzen70 | July 19, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Bench seating is probably the best overall design option for future rail cars. However as a person of short stature (5'1"), I'll absolutely hate it because if I don't get a seat and I'm forced to stand in the middle of the railcar, there's nothing for me to hang onto (I'm just not quite tall enough to grab the ceiling handrails) when the metro operator displays their superb braking skills. Oh well, will just have to be one of those riders who stands near the doors and never moves!

Posted by: cort1000 | July 19, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I found Ms. Tyson's article to be a bit slanted in that the article, and the people quoted in the article, presume that anyone who sits on the aisle seat is doing so with nefarious intent. I don't think that's a valid assumption. There are a number of reasons why one might prefer the aisle seat. Folks here have noted the scenario where your stop is coming soon. Another reason may be that the individual rider finds the inside seat too cramped. I'm just over 6 feet and I find that my knees are jammed into the seat in front of me if I take the inside, so I always opt for the aisle. I don't put stuff on the window seat, and I'm happy to stand up to give someone access to the inside seat, but I'm not going to move over. First come, first served. All you have to do is say, "Excuse me, may I have the inside seat?" It's sort of like sitting at the end of the pew when you go to Mass, or sitting in the aisle seat at the movie theatre--whoever comes first gets first dibs on the seats. (Unlike Dr. Gridlock, I do sit in the priority seats on the Metro if it suits me, but in that case I will voluntarily get up to offer them to someone who appears to be in need or to a pregnant woman. I figure that's part of the "priority seating" aspect. But if I'm in the aisle seat, I don't feel it's my responsibility to solicit riders for the window seat.)

But the words "excuse me" have disappeared from DC society, perhaps because they're too polite. People would rather contort themselves into all sorts of weird positions to squeeze past people instead of saying "excuse me."

I've always thought expanded bench seating made sense on the Metrorail, and it's precisely because it makes eminent sense that I doubt we'll ever see it. :-)

Posted by: 1995hoo | July 19, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Bench seating is effective and works quite well. Just look at NY. I rode the subways there for years and did not fall back and forth into people when the train jerked (and it jerks far more often and with greater amplitude than DC's Metro does). Also, properly placed "straps" (now the metal pull-down handles)are easy to reach for people of modest height, of which I am one (5'4"+). The cattle car setup accommodates more people and the freedom of movement is better as there are less obstacles. Lose the double-up seats, lose the windscreens, lose the cushions, lose the carpet, and create a more utilitarian car. It will be easier to clean and more efficient. I'd rather stand in a cattle car with good hand-holds than sit in a current Metro car.

Posted by: toolie | July 19, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

What metro needs to mandate that tourist cannot ride the system during rush hour. They are the worse pushing through the crowds when people are trying to get home.

Posted by: pjohn1 | July 19, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Bench seating in the style of the newer NYC subway cars (most often seen on the 4/5/6) would be fine, because what those cars have is *plenty* of poles, horizontal and vertical, to grab on to. The newest Metro cars were designed with lots of floor space but nothing to hang on to when you're *in* that space, which is just asinine. (I'm tall enough that I can just get my hand on the ceiling when I'm in one of those no-man's-land areas, but it's not comfortable or efficient.)

The other thing about those unmarked benches on the cars in NY is that it doesn't fix the width of a passenger's posterior at the width of a padded marking. People come in all different sizes (and I don't just mean the extra-large ones) and if 9 people can fit in a space one ride, and 6 people can fit in it the next, it's nice to have the bench simply accommodate that.

Posted by: EtoilePB | July 19, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Even with bench seats the "hogs" will still take more seats....some people in DC just need to learn to be nicer.

Posted by: DChoosier1 | July 19, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the Metro system is unique in that it's so spread out, so you have people who are going from one end of the city to another and people who are coming in from much further away, along with people who are traveling only a few stops.

What this means is that some people will ride for, say, 15 minutes and others will ride for more than an hour.

When the system was designed, I think the former category was considered the most likely passenger. But now, not so much, not as sprawl has spread.

People should be reasonably comfortable on the train. That doesn't mean they should be relaxed, in an easy chair, it just means they should have to endure a minimum amount of pain and discomfort for their trip. That's why it's important to have as many poles or other hand holds as possible, so people can safely and comfortably hang on for, say, an hour-long ride.

This is why I often pass up several trains when leaving the city at night to go home in Montco. I want to wait for a train that's empty enough where either I can get a seat (not likely) or at least stand somewhere comfortably for up to an hour.

Posted by: dfranzen70 | July 19, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

In fact, what I would recommend would be hand holds - not poles - that are set a few inches from the side of the car, rather than the one inch or so the 6000 cars have. Those hand holds are almost useless for a long trip, because you can hold on to one but do nothing else, like read a book, and it's an uncomfortable position to be in regardless.

Posted by: dfranzen70 | July 19, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

One issue I notice with the Metro that seems to cause overcrowding is the inability for the riders to anticipate where the entrance doors will be before the train stops. This causes passengers to crowd at the middle of the platform out of fear that they may not reach a door at the front of the train or rear in time before it closes. This eventually causes passengers to crowd up the middle carts.

To help prevent this, and to promote passengers to spread out throughout the platform, it would be beneficial to provide some kind of indicator or markings that inform passengers where the train doors will stop (within a range of a feet or two).

This may invoke passengers to form lines in front of these indicators helping them to anticipate crowds by the number of people in a line. This may also motivate riders to stand behind a shorter line.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has something similar to this and it seems to work fine. People can immediately anticipate which carts will be the most crowded based on the line that's already beginning to form in front of a yellow strip that the BART doors always stop in front of.

In addition, it should be known by frequent riders that the front and end carts are the least crowded. Knowing where the ends of the trains will stop will help those people to line up at the end, and avoid the middle crowd. However, if one doesn't know which direction the train is coming its quite possible that they unmistakeably waited at the wrong end, and at the last minute try and rush up to the last cart and add to the miscalculated crowd.

Knowing which direction the train is coming will at least give the passengers looking to ride on the front of the train a chance to know where the front train door will stop - the front cart has a greater chance of stopping in the same spot than the last cart, giving front cart riders a better sense of predictability and a way to escape the middle platform crowd.

Posted by: Hesiod | July 19, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Now that I've retired - far enough from the DC area - I don't have worries about the Metro. I do have some bad memories though - especially about standing (or sitting) close to a rider 'wearing' a backpack. Most have little regard for who or what's behind them. To line the seats along the side of the train would leave all unprotected. The general rule should be to remove backpacks on the Metro!

Posted by: yaminidiane | July 19, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I'll sit on the aisle seat when I'm getting off in a few stops. I don't do it because I'm afraid I won't be able to exit the train in time when my stop comes--in my 20+ years of riding Metro, I have NEVER missed my stop because I wasn't able to get to the door on time. Frankly, I'd like to know if that ever really happens to anyone.

Anyway, I consider sitting on the aisle when you're getting off in a few stops an act of COURTESY.

When you sit down on Metro, it can take a minute to get settled--where to put your briefcase/purse. Taking out your ipod, book, magazine, crossword or newspaper. I consider it a bit of a nuisance to get settled only to have to gather everything up again because someone who was getting off in a few stops didn't think to take the aisle seat.

A lot of people have already said this but...if you're not willing to move into the empty window seat when someone is sitting on the aisle, you don't really want a seat.

Posted by: amr39 | July 19, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

It's interesting how many of the things mentioned in comments could be at least mostly fixed by just better informing passengers (e.g., via signs and announcements). Something along the lines of, "Passengers that will be on the train for more than a couple of stops, please take an aisle seat to avoid disrupting your fellow passengers when you need to leave".

Also, a simple sign or announcement that backpacks should be placed on the floor to save space, and signs about where the trains can be expected to stop, etc. would probably be better than the often angry-sounding intercom annoucnements I have heard from train operators that typically sound something like this, "Passengers, please SPREAD *OUT* and USE ALL DOORS! Please *SPREAD OUT* and use *ALL* train doors!"

Don't they hire people that are expert in such transit matters to do these things? If not, can Dr. Gridlock perhaps get paid as a consultant? I'm serious. If nothing else, I think Metro should listen to him periodically as he is very aware of many passenger concerns and solutions.

Posted by: informedtraveller | July 19, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Oops - I meant to suggest that the announcement should say "Passengers that will be on the train for ONLY a couple of stops, please take an aisle seat to avoid disrupting your fellow passengers when you need to exit the train".

Posted by: informedtraveller | July 19, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

That could be coupled with "Passengers that will be on the train for more than a couple of stops should take a window seat"..which I suspect would make people feel more comfortable asking for a window seat.

Posted by: informedtraveller | July 19, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

People who will be on the train for only a few stops generally stand rather than sit next to someone, because it's more of a hassle to get up and make your way to the door. This is exactly why so many people don't move to the center of the car when they board - why should they move so much farther away from the door when they're getting off soon? If they actually do move to the center, then they (may) have to fight through a throng just to exit. Not only that, but it's more painful to stand while holding on to something above you instead of something at waist height, so people prefer to at least lean against the area nearer to the doors.

"A lot of people have already said this but...if you're not willing to move into the empty window seat when someone is sitting on the aisle, you don't really want a seat." I'm not following the logic here. Because I prefer the aisle seat - maybe, as an earlier poster said, I have long legs and am in less pain sitting there than at the window - that must mean I don't want a seat?

Posted by: dfranzen70 | July 19, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

"'A lot of people have already said this but...if you're not willing to move into the empty window seat when someone is sitting on the aisle, you don't really want a seat.' I'm not following the logic here. Because I prefer the aisle seat - maybe, as an earlier poster said, I have long legs and am in less pain sitting there than at the window - that must mean I don't want a seat?"

I thought the person you quoted was referring to the rider who sees an empty window seat next to someone sitting in the aisle seat but feels that it's his right to have the aisle seat, i.e., thinks the person in the aisle seat should move over for him. That is, "someone is sitting on the aisle and you're not willing to ask for the window seat."

Posted by: 1995hoo | July 19, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

BTW, I meant to make a comment regarding the bench seating shown in the photo above. I'm not a huge fan of this design because I think the idea of designating each seat on a side-facing bench isn't an efficient use of space. To me, it's similar to the cities and towns (typically located in the South) that allow free parallel parking but that paint stripes to designate individual parallel parking spaces. If you're driving a smaller car (say, a Miata or a Honda Fit) and there is ample space for your car, you're not allowed to park if your car would wind up over the line between two spaces. Compare this to non-metered streets in DC or New York, where as long as your car fits, and as long as there's not a restriction in effect (alternate-side parking, for example), it's OK to park. It's a far more efficient use of space.

The idea of a pure bench seat similar to what you see in New York or the London Underground is potentially a better use of the space than the design shown in the picture shown above because people can, in theory, use the space they need and you can fit more people onto the bench if they're smaller people. Of course, the potential downside is that people sometimes spread out more--the "designated space" created by the seat cushions theoretically delineates how much space you get so that you don't have people sitting really far over from the next person (sort of like how sometimes you get someone who doesn't parallel park well and thus leaves half a car length of room when two feet would do).

Posted by: 1995hoo | July 19, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Bench seating is the only practical way to go. AND EXPAND METRO HOURS! Closing at midnight is the most ridiculous thing ever! This is a major world city and our subway turns into Cinderalla at midnight? STUPID STUPID STUPID!!!

Posted by: CAC2 | July 19, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm with cort1000. I love the idea of bench seating for more room but would then want a lot of vertical poles scattered throughout the car. I'm also 5'1" and cannot reach the ceiling railings (even the pull-down handles are a little tough).

Posted by: anon35 | July 19, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

I prefer the current setup. Longer trips with bench seating, would send me to my car.

Posted by: Hattrik | July 19, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

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