[Paleopsych] WP: Dr. Gridlock on Obese Riders

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Aug 28 20:06:48 UTC 2005

Dr. Gridlock on Obese Riders

    By Ron Shaffer
    Sunday, August 21, 2005; C02

    Dear Dr. Gridlock:

    Obese people should be charged double to ride Metrorail. Are these
    people aware that the seats on Metro cars are only 22 inches wide, and
    when they are also using half the seat next to them, it is unfair to
    fellow riders?

    Even when they stand, they block the aisles and doors.

    Lynn Wood


    Southwest Airlines (and perhaps others) will have large people sit in
    airline seats to see if they fit. If they don't, they are charged for
    two seats.

    But Metro handles 650,000 trips a day. It is unlikely the transit
    agency could enforce an arbitrary size limit on passengers.

    For those who object about a fellow passenger's size, smell or
    personal habits, remember: It's mass transit.


For Train Riders, Middle Seat Isn't the Center of Attention

[This problem will solve itself. As the American population widens, three 
people will occupy two seats.]


     Before the 5:19 p.m. train headed north out of Grand Central Terminal
     last week, some passengers were already sitting on the floor,
     surrounded by the scuffed shoes and stuffed briefcases of people
     leaning against the walls.

     Another overcrowded shuttle during the evening rush to the suburbs?

     In fact, empty seats easily outnumbered the unseated riders.
     Throughout the car, all of the window and aisle seats were occupied.
     But there was an unbroken column of 18 unfilled seats - straight down
     the middle - along the eastern side of each car, where the wider space
     could accommodate three people.

     Once again, everybody had steered clear of the middle seats.

     People around New York have a hard time reaching a consensus on many
     things, but on this they - and, really, commuters everywhere - tend to
     agree: Nobody wants to sit in the center.

     Transit officials are gradually getting the picture and, wherever
     practical, are eliminating middle seats. Following the lead of the
     Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit has ordered double-decker
     coaches with two seats on each side of the aisle, rather than the
     three-and-two combination that has been the norm.

     Several other commuter railroads across the country have been making
     the switch to double-decker trains without middle seats. Two systems
     near Washington, the Virginia Railway Express and the Maryland Rail
     Commuter trains, are adding bilevel cars with only pairs of seats. In
     San Diego and Seattle, there are new commuter systems without middle

     The Virginia railway, which awarded a $109 million contract for as
     many as 61 cars two weeks ago, trumpeted its return "to the two-on-two
     design, eliminating the underused third seat."

     The idea of being squeezed elbow to elbow with two strangers on a ride
     that can last an hour or more causes many commuters to shudder. The
     hope of avoiding that bind can inspire long hikes from car to car in
     search of that one available window or aisle seat. This is true even
     where the seats are new and fitted to support aching backs and nodding
     heads, as they are in cars that Metro-North Railroad started running
     last year.

     So while the first prototype train for New Jersey Transit with no
     middle seats is not due until the end of the summer, some commuters
     are already eagerly anticipating the disappearance of some middle

     Maxine Marshall, a financial executive from Plainfield, N.J., said she
     and other riders cheered when they saw that mock-ups of the new cars
     had only pairs of seats. Ms. Marshall, 35, was one of about 20 people
     New Jersey Transit invited to critique its plan for the coaches'

     "The middle seat was gone and that was one of the things that
     everybody liked," she said. "It was just smooth sailing from there."

     New Jersey Transit's primary reason for ordering the bilevel cars was
     to increase the capacity of its trains; being able to remove the
     middle seats was more of a bonus. The railroad agreed to pay $243
     million for 100 of the cars. That amounts to about $600,000 more per
     car than Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road have paid for their
     new cars with middle seats.

     But for New Jersey Transit's customers, Ms. Marshall said, customers
     think the new cars will be worth the money. "Culturally, we like our
     space," she said.

     Ms. Marshall, who is well versed in rail car rituals after five years
     of traveling to and from her office in Jersey City, said aisle and
     window riders engage in not-so-subtle schemes to discourage

     "They are blocking that seat with whatever they have," she said.

     There are also the spread newspapers and the closed eyes to encourage
     commuters to move on. When those tactics do not work, there can be
     huffing, whining or even arguing. Rarely does an aisle sitter move to
     that middle seat to make way.

     Since Metro-North introduced its new coaches, riders have been
     complaining that they are overcrowded. While the cars do have fewer
     seats, an average of about 15 fewer than their predecessors,
     frustrated Metro-North officials say that is not the problem. There
     are plenty of seats on most trains, they insist, if only people would
     sit in all of them.

     "There definitely is a sense of frustration over that," said Jeffrey
     Olwell, Metro-North's manager of market research.

     The reaction is particularly troubling, he and other transit officials
     said, because the new middle seats were designed to be more inviting
     than earlier models, or even than typical coach-class seats on
     commercial airliners, which are as narrow as 17½ inches across. The
     bottom cushions are just as wide as those on the aisle seats (19 1/8
     inches) and wider than those on the window seats by almost half an

     In the newest cars on the Long Island Rail Road, the middle seats, at
     19.3 inches, are wider than those on either side and slightly wider
     and deeper than the middle seats on the cars they replaced, said Dave
     Elliott, the railroad's general manager of fleet support.

     Commuters' responses probably have more to do with perceptions and
     attitudes than actual latitude, said Richard E. Wener, an associate
     professor of environmental psychology at Polytechnic University in
     Brooklyn. He said that passengers are more likely to say they feel
     crowded if there is somebody sitting beside them than if the adjacent
     seat is empty, no matter how many other people are on the train.

     "It's clear that people feel more crowded when they're sitting next to
     someone," said Dr. Wener, who studies what causes stress for
     commuters. "You can design the middle seat so it's more comfortable,
     but that doesn't mean people will sit in it."

     When the Long Island Rail Road introduced bilevel coaches on its Port
     Jefferson line in the 1980's, they had the traditional configuration
     of three seats on one side of the aisle and two on the other. The
     seats were tight and riders were not very pleased, Mr. Elliott

     "We never really got full occupancy within those middle seats," he

     Several years later, when the railroad ordered a whole fleet of
     bilevel coaches for its diesel locomotives to haul, the managers
     decided to switch to two-by-two seating exclusively. But on its other
     lines, which are powered by electricity, the Long Island Rail Road
     cannot use the taller bilevel coaches, leaving no option of throwing
     out the middle seats.

     Metro-North, whose trains must fit through the long, low tunnels at
     Grand Central, is also confined to single-level cars with a
     traditional three-by-two seating chart.

     Women especially dislike being sandwiched between strangers, Dr. Wener
     said. Academic studies have found that women "are more uncomfortable
     being encroached on side to side," he said, adding that men are
     bothered more by being face to face with strangers.

     Does that mean Ms. Marshall, the New Jersey financial executive, will
     walk on by when the only available seats on her trains are buried
     under coats and briefcases? Not necessarily.

     "If I'm tired enough," she said, "you're going to have to get the bag
     up off of the seat."

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