Subway Seat Supply and Demand

Filed under fun times on the subway, good times at everyone else's expense, why i'm better than everyone else

On the subway, the law of supply and demand is fully in effect: the fewer seats available, the more desirable they are.

I get on the 4/5 after work at Bowling Green, which is the first uptown stop in Manhattan. There are always a few stragglers from lower Brooklyn on it, but most of the seats are empty. Some people still rush into the train, of course, but the majority of us take our time. I usually nonchalantly nab a seat if I’m planning to read, but if I’m going to play my Nintendo DS and don’t want anyone looking over my shoulder to see how terrible I am at Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, I stay standing.

Plenty of other people stay standing at that stop, too, but at Wall Street, the train fills up a little more, and you start to see riders get a little anxious about their lack of choices. They want to sit, but they don’t want to try to squeeze in between the oversize lady with her five bags and the guy with his legs unnecessarily spread three feet apart. People try to look casual, but they’re secretly sneaking looks up and down the entire train to see if there’s anything worth making a move on.

At Fulton Street, there’s no time for pretending. Women rush into the train and plunk down with no regard for how huge their assets are and how small the seat space is. Men who would normally open doors for little old ladies practically push them out of the way. Pregnant women are left clutching their stomachs and fanning themselves with their hands as everyone looks at each other, hoping someone else will volunteer to give up his or her seat first.

I feel very smug about getting to choose whether or not I’ll sit, and I’ll admit that I like to mess with the people who have to stand. I’ve found that if I take off my headphones and turn off my iPod right as we enter Grand Central, the woman standing in front of me will breathe a sigh of relief and grab my seat as soon as I stand. I hate that. So when I want to have a little fun, I’ll take my headphones off as we enter the station before Grand Central, which is Union Square. And Union Square is a full 28 blocks away from Grand Central. Which means that after I take my headphones off and the woman in front of me prepares herself mentally for the joy of sitting down on the crowded train, I’ll make her stand waiting for another five minutes until I actually get off. And if there’s a lot of train traffic or a track fire or anything to slow us down, that five minutes can turn into ten or fifteen. You can imagine how this delights me.

(also posted to Examiner)


  1. Sandy says:

    I would love to gleefully comment on the vicarious satisfaction I get from this strategy, but I’m stuck on “track fire.”

    • If it’s not track flooding, it’s track fire. And the greatest part is that they still run the trains through the stations with the fires, but they turn off all the air to keep the smoke from getting in the cars. So not only are people pissed off that the train’s so slow-moving, but they’re also sweating.

  2. Kelly says:

    I think I would be so good at riding the subway in New York City.

    Hailing cabs, on the other hand? I would suck at that. The southern belle in me hesitates to draw attention to herself and ask people (even cab drivers) to go out of their way for her.

    • Oh, man, not me. Maybe the city has changed me, but I really feel as if cab drivers owe me something for hailing them when the perfectly good subways and buses are right there. If I have bags with me and the driver doesn’t get out to put them in the trunk for me, there’s absolutely no chance of a tip.

      And if a driver cuts across four lanes of traffic to be the first to pick me up, I wave him on to teach him a lesson about good driving. You’d think I’d be pleased at how far out of his way he went to get me, but all I can think of is how greedy he is.

  3. Mark says:

    I usually feel guilty sitting in a full train. There was a time when I first lived here when I would NEVER sit when all the seats were filled. But then, when you HAVE to read for school; it’s really difficult to do that & stand. And then, when you’re only getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night, you begin to care less about chivalry.

    Sometimes I find myself dazing off while seated and all of a sudden the train is packed & I don’t even have the room to stand up if I wanted to; people would have to move just so I can give up the seat.

    On a commuter train from West Chester to Philadelphia, my cousin insisted we stay seated b/c we had a longer way to go (about an hour) than the people who were packing the train. I, again, felt guilty being seated while people older than me stood, but it ended up making sense; they were all gone within 15 or 20 minutes.

    I don’t know, at the end of the day, it’s not a big deal for the vast majority of people to stand for a few minutes. The only real need to give it up is for the elderly, pregnant, children & disabled.

    • I rarely, rarely feel guilty for sitting, but I want other people to. In the mornings when the 4/5 is so crowded people are standing on each other’s shoulders, I can’t help but look at those smug assholes from Harlem and the Bronx who get seats every morning by virtue of getting on at the early stops and want to give them the stinkeye until they pay attention to me. When the train gets stopped because of traffic or whathaveyou and they sit there sleeping, I want to slap them awake. Although when I’m comfortably seated after work every day, I love it when the train gets stopped and I have more time to read or watch “Lost” on my iPod.

      And that’s why you’re considered nice, and I’m considered a bitch.