As Metro congestion grows, so does anger at 'seat hogs'

An examination of the nation's second largest rail transit system comes at a time when Metro tries to weather an unprecedented season of danger and dismay.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010

Brooke Timmons grasped a bar in the middle of a crowded Red Line rail car and held on, looking exasperated as she tried to keep her balance while the train jerked and accelerated down the track.

On both sides of Timmons sat riders referred to on commuter Web sites as "seat hogs." A man and woman occupied aisle seats with empty spots beside them but made no move to slide over and offer Timmons a seat.

"There is a self-centeredness about it. 'My space is more important than you,' " said Timmons, 37, a lawyer from the District. "It's epidemic" and reflects a lack of etiquette in Washington, said Timmons, who grew up in Vinita, Okla., population 6,000, where she said gentility prevailed.

As Washington's public transit network grows more congested, with Metro projecting "unmanageable" levels of saturation on its rail system by 2020, the phenomenon of people taking up more than their share of space is becoming increasingly touchy.

"It makes me mad," Soulman Bushera, 26, an IT recruiter in the District, said as he rode a packed Red Line train downtown one recent morning. "I ask them to move," he said. "You find a whole aisle of them sometimes, and the one you pick gets disgruntled."

Twitter users and commenters on transit blogs such as Unsuck DC Metro frequently sound off about people who place purses, briefcases, feet or wet umbrellas on seats next to them in jammed trains.

"This is one of my favorite kinds of Metro riders. It's bad enough that she's doing the 'sit-on-the-outside-seat-so-no-one-will-try-to-sit-next-to-me,' but she's also got her filthy foot on a seat," "Amanda" said in a blog post. "Several people were standing, including myself."

Commuter irritation over the problem is not limited to Washington. Last fall, a 33-year-old Manhattan businessman posted to Facebook a picture of a woman with her legs crossed taking up two seats on a New York subway car while scratching a lottery ticket.

"It created a lot of outrage," said the businessman, who decided to create the Web site and post photographs aimed at shaming the guilty into behaving. The Web site has attracted photos of territorially insensitive public transit riders from areas such as Toronto and Hong Kong.

"Seat hoggers and people being rude in public has kind of reached a boiling point, with the economy bad," said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect himself from harassment by people spotlighted on the blog.

"Seat hogs are so prevalent, and there is such a sense of entitlement among certain passengers," he said, calling those who sit on the aisle, blocking empty seats, particularly "passive-aggressive."

Private space

Industry experts are hard-pressed to explain the psychology of people who are greedy with space -- blocking off seats, standing in doorways or obstructing aisles.

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