subway car configurations: a matter of taste?

Chicago Transit Authority is asking its customers how seating should be configured in its rail rapid transit cars.  Whet Moser has a good writeup in  Here are the choices:


The one on the left is "Chicago-style" seating, with most seats in pairs facing along the length of the car.  The one in the middle is "New York-style" seating, with most seats facing sideways.  The third is a hybrid.

Transit agencies commonly do surveys that imply that these things are just a matter of taste, as though they'll go with whatever their riders prefer.  This question is not just a matter of taste.  The left hand image has the most seats but the least capacity.  The middle image as the fewest seats but the greatest capacity.  Seats with their backs to the wall take up much less space than seats in pairs facing forward or back.  And of course, any seat takes up more space than a standee in a crowded car.  This is why really crowded subway systems inevitably gravitate toward side-facing seats.

So the question should be not whether you like the the configuration on the left, but whether you like it so much that you don't mind being left behind at rush hour because the train is full.  

The survey asks you which configuration you prefer, and which you like better in terms of "personal space."  But it doesn't inform the reader that the more forward- and back-facing seats there are, the more people will be left behind on the platform during the peak and the less ridership the system will be able to handle.

Almost all choices are tradeoffs, so when you ask the public their opinion, you need to explain what the real consequences of the options are.  (At least that's my firm's approach to public outreach!)

28 Responses to subway car configurations: a matter of taste?

  1. Zoltán April 18, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    That longitudinal (sideways) seating takes up less space than 2+2 transverse seating is what I’d always assumed. But I was just looking at the mixed seating on the Bakerloo Line in London and commuter trains in Leeds, and in both cases the two kinds of seating took about as much of the carriage’s width when the passengers’ legs are taken into account.
    What I also observed is that longitudinal seating does greatly reduce the length of time passengers take to enter and leave their seats, thereby improving flow of passengers at stations.
    I wonder if 2+1 transverse seating, as often used on buses in Europe, might be the most capacity-efficient form of seating, and maintain acceptable station dwell times. (1+1 transverse seating, as on many Italian buses, is likely to most effectively maximise capacity and minimise dwell times, but it also gives the passenger experience a very cattle truck feel and is likely unacceptable to the US palette).

  2. Matthew April 18, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Oddly enough, MBTA Green line trolleys have it the other way. The older Kinki Sharyo with front and back facing seats have higher capacity than the newer Breda with sideways seating. But that may have more to do with the low floor design of the newer cars.

  3. Michael Benami Doyle April 18, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    I moved to Chicago from New York City 10 years ago. This is the exact same thing that played out there in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In both cities, riders told the transit agency on surveys and in focus groups that they preferred to retain forward/backward seats (for those lines that originally had such seating.) In both cities, the marketing research results were clear that the preference was for forward/backward seats.
    And…in both cities, the transit agency ignored its own findings and went with all-sideways seating anyway. With the result that, yes, yet again in both cities, the riding public and transit reporters took the transit agency to task for doing so.
    The story here is not that riders may not know what is good for them. They story here is that riders–right now in Chicago and previously in New York–made an informed decision and told the transit agency what they wanted, and then were completely ignored.

  4. BBnet3000 April 18, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    A bigger question is, if capacity is an issue (it isnt always, but in New York it certainly is), why are riders being given the choice at all? We shouldnt be managing the capacity of the transit system by a committee of millions.

  5. b April 18, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    The sideways seating is much easier for passengers with suitcases or large bags than the Chicago style forward facing seats. A while back I used the MBTA redline & blue line to get to the airport where I flew to Chicago and used their subway to get to my hotel. It was much easier to maneuver my suitcase in and out of the seats and around standing passengers in Boston that it was in Chicago. My suitcase was just a normal standard medium size suitcase but felt difficult to get it into a seat where it wasn’t blocking the narrow isle in the Chicago subway car.

  6. Lior April 18, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    And here is the Atlantic Cities’ article from yesterday. Another approach: don’t ask the people, just watch them.

  7. Miles Bader April 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    I strongly prefer longitudinal (sideways) seating.
    Chicago subway cars with their F/B seating feel cramped and constraining compared to systems with longitudinal seating, and getting on/off is miserable and slow, especially when there’s any amount of crowding.
    Systems with longitudinal seating, by contrast, feel much more free and open, and egress is vastly easier and quicker.

  8. Dancou-Maryuu April 18, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    I’m surprised there’s so little discussion about the hybrid option. It could incorporate the best of both worlds (longitudinal for short-distance passengers, transverse for long-distance).

  9. david vartanoff April 18, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    Note that Chicago L cars are shorter by a couple feet than either PATH or IRT (NYC numbered lines), slightly narrower and have 2 instead of 3 doors.

  10. LeighH April 18, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    For me, it’s not a matter of taste. I get severely carsick if I have to sit facing backwards.

  11. Ben Smith April 19, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    I find the quality of the seats makes far more impact than the direction it faces. Toronto’s subway trains use light padding on a hard wood frame, and they are absolutely horrid. Montreal uses non-padded plastic seats, and they are far more comfortable.
    I’ve seen pictures of Tube trains with side seating, but the seats are all thick padded cushions. Damn they look comfortable!

  12. Jordan Trew April 19, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    Jarrett: Firstly thank you for your ever-passionate and informed posts – I have been reading for 6 months or so and find it fascinating.
    On the question of seating: I’ve wondered for some time about the longitudinal option, I don’t believe I’ve seen it in Melbourne. It struck me as useful not just for increased capacity but for faster boarding and alighting times. Extending the idea further, I wondered about the viability of running the seats not along the walls but along the centre line of the carriage, facing outwards, with intermittent gaps for passengers to pass from one side of the carriage to the other. The benefit in this being that it would make possible a dramatic widening of the doorways, and hence potentially a further improvement in boarding and alighting times. Any thoughts anyone?

  13. Tsuyoshi April 20, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    If they’re doing an honest survey, they should pair the lower-capacity seating with the fare or tax increase required to provide more peak service to make up for the lower capacity.

  14. asdf April 20, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    How about different seating configurations in different cars on the same train? You want forward-facing seats, go to a car near the front. You want maximum chance of getting on the train at all, go to a car near the rear.
    Even better, if you have a transit system where the trains are longer during the peak to match much higher demand during the peak, the sideways-seating cars can be the ones that disappear during the off-peak. This way, during the times when capacity isn’t an issue, everyone can still get forward facing seats.

  15. Dexter Wong April 21, 2013 at 12:35 am #

    Or you could go for a configuration like BART’s, which is transverse seating except near the doors, where it is longitudinal. Also, half of the seats face one direction and half face the other direction. But, then again, BART never considered itself a subway, but an electrified commuter railroad.

  16. Lucre April 21, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    I left this comment on some time ago on a discussion of this issue with regard to the DC metro:
    The number of additional stationary passengers that can fit in a longitudinal arrangement is nothing compared to how much less effort and shuffle it takes a longitudinally seated passenger to get in and out of her seat. You lose four seats per married pair [of DC metrorail cars] by seating longitudinally, but consider how many seats are unoccupied in crowded transverse seated metro trains now because passengers know how difficult it would be to egress from a transverse seat (particularly if you find yourself in the window seat); I’ll bet a nickel it’s at least four.
    For each window seated passenger who needs to exit, at least three times as much space must be cleared for her egress as would be necessary in a longitudinal arrangement (the seat she vacates, her neighbor’s seat, the space her neighbor needs to occupy during her egress). How much more efficiently would trains run if they could load passengers without the need for all this?

  17. Jack Horner April 22, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    Transverse seats like those pictured run at about 3 per square metre, which is also a good upper limit for comfortable standing (a crush load would be more than 4 per square metre).
    So a comfortable full (not crush) load is about 3 per square metre altogether, regardless of the proportion of sitting to standing.
    Longitudinal (or transverse three abreast if you wish) comes into its own only when you need to plan for standing at more than 3 per square metre.
    Longitudinal is not very good for older or less able folk who may want to hold something as they get up. Transverse three abreast gives roughly the same proportion of sitting to standing space.
    The transverse seats shown are front to back. England and Australia traditionally use front to front. I’ve always been curious about what led to that choice, as to me front to back is so obviously superior (more privacy, more places for seatback corner handholds).

  18. Andrew in Ezo April 22, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Even better would be to fit seating that can rotate to be either longitudinal or transverse. It also solves the problem of backward facing seats, as the seats can always face forward.
    On the Kintetsu Line in Japan (5800 LC car):
    *Of course seating this nice would likely be vandalized within a week if used in an American transit system.

  19. Robert Wightman April 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    In the magazine article they show some arrangements with vertical poles in the middle of the floor near the doors. Toronto tried these and found that they created road blocks because people hanging on to them would not move out of the way.
    Toronto has much wider cars, 10′, and doors with longitudinal seats beside the doors and back to back transverse seats half way between the doors. No one is facing the back of a seat so it is not difficult to get out of the transverse seat and each door has its own area around it.

  20. Pete Brown April 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    @ Ben Smith. Older tube train (built 1960/70s, refurbished 1980s/90s) seats are indeed deeply padded and very comfortable. When trains gather speed you get a nice bouncy sensation as they are sprung. More recent trains however have hard seats and are not so comfortable.
    Bakerloo Line 1972 Mk 2 Stock Train:
    Central Line 1992 Stock Train:
    London Underground’s trains built since the early 90s have had all longitudinal seating to maximise standing capacity.

  21. Pete Brown April 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Video footage at link shows London Underground’s latest trains, the ‘S’ Stock trains being introduced onto the sub-surface lines (Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City, Circle, and District). The video features the first of the Hammersmith & City Line fleet with 100% longitudinal seating. Note the walk through cars, and also a shot of one of the outgoing ‘C’ Stock trains to contrast with.
    The Metropolitan Line has received all its ‘S’ Stock trains and these have a mixture of longitudinal and transverse seating, despite this they have significantly less seating than the outgoing ‘A’ Stock trains dating from 1960-62 which had 100% transverse seating on a 3 + 2 layout, high backed with overhead luggage racks. The Metropolitan Line is more of a suburban line than an inner city metro, with a mixture of local, semi-fast, and fast trains.
    ‘A’ Stock car interior:

  22. Patrick S October 26, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

    @Jack Horner –
    I agree about the front-front seats on Australian trains being a strange choice.
    In fact as a significantly-taller-than average person, my pet hate about these kinds of systems is there isn’t enough room for my legs.
    Maybe the decision was some effort to make the trains “family-oriented” given they served a lot of suburban suburbs?

  23. bloxorz December 5, 2017 at 8:17 pm #

    This is so fun! What a great idea. Also I love how authentic you seem to be. Your style and passion for blogging is contagious. Thank you for sharing your life!

  24. ankara sineklik May 6, 2018 at 4:59 am #

    I’m surprised there’s so little discussion about the hybrid option.

  25. ankara sineklik May 7, 2018 at 11:54 pm #

    For me, it’s not a matter of taste

  26. çocuk etkinlikleri May 7, 2018 at 11:55 pm #

    It could incorporate the best of both worlds (longitudinal for short-distance passengers, transverse for long-distance).

  27. Robin August 9, 2018 at 10:45 pm #

    For me, it’s not a matter of taste. It’s a matter of necessity. I cannot ride longitudinally without my neck, back and pelvis going out of place, such that my chiropractor had to put my body back in place after a short ride in longitudinal seating. We are not made for side-to-side motion – our spines are made for forwards/backwards motion – that is the biomechanics of the body. it is really stupid to ignore that reality. Additionally, if there is a sudden stop, people sitting longitudinally will be thrown into each other. There will be injuries. And if there is a large area of standees, they will also be thrown into one another, with injuries and possible fatalities. Only transverse seats stop motion. This ridiculous idea of making cars with longitudinal seating needs to stop. We need to respect the laws of motion – the way our spine is set up for motion -ie forwards/backwards, in transverse seating, and the need to block sudden motion in the case of a sudden stop.

  28. geometry dash June 11, 2019 at 8:58 pm #

    I think it is possible to use the middle way, because it holds a lot of people. People who are prioritized will be seated