Atlantic Cities

How to Find the Least Crowded Subway Car

Earlier this month the Daily News reported the results of a Metropolitan Transportation Authority study to determine which areas of New York City subway cars get the most crowded. The MTA looked at two lines — the L and F trains — and found that, generally speaking, the front cars carried more passengers than those in the middle (and, in fact, more than the maximum capacity). The most spacious car, relatively speaking, was the caboose.

Of course the crowdedness of any given train depends in large part on the location of its platform entrances and exits. No veteran rider would expect the first car of the uptown 1 train to be anything but jammed after the Times Square station, since the main part of the station funnels people onto the front of the platform. But others lines, particularly the 6 train, funnel in from the center, as an MTA spokesperson explained to the News. System-wide, there are no hard and fast rules.

The problem is hardly unique to New York. British blogger Dan Taylor has conceived an answer to the same dilemma on the London Tube: a digital platform display that indicates the passenger volumes of various cars. Taylor's system would transfer real-time information from the trains to platform screens via body-heat or carriage weight sensors. That way people who enter the platform near a door to a crowded car can shuffle along toward a more spacious domain. He's even made a mockup of the display:

The Brussels-based design house Ahsayane Studio proposed a similar system a couple years back. This display conveys the next train's arrival time through a series of colored bulbs that dim when more passengers are traveling in a particular car:

Wonderful in theory. In practice, however, the systems might often make congestion worse. After all, if everyone knew which car had the fewest people in it, then everyone would stand near that door. (This strategy of cruising the platform before a train's arrival for proper positioning even has its own urban dictionary term, "pre-walking," though that sounds a bit too much like a developmental stage during infancy to our ears. May we suggest board-walking? Or the more consonant plat-strat?)

For those who accept crowded trains as a foregone conclusion, there's at least an app that helps you plan an efficient subway getaway. Exit Strategy NYC shows riders where to stand on a platform so they can be positioned right near an exit at their destination. On the F.A.Q. page of the app's site, the creators of Exit Strategy seem to anticipate the day when "everyone has this app and the 'right door' becomes overcrowded?" Their response: "Then that should be our next app: show you where the least crowded part of the train is!" Let's hope they're hard at work.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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