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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.

"It puzzles me," said Norman Rhodes, senior vice president of transportation for the New York consulting firm Hatch Mott MacDonald. "I suppose people don't want to give up their private space."

"I am an Englishman, and I've become terribly brash and assertive since I moved to New York, but if you have less-assertive people, that would not work so well," he said.

In New York, subway authorities have banned selfishness with seats. A rider who occupies more than one seat, places a foot on a seat, lies on the floor or blocks movement on a train risks being cited for "disorderly conduct" and charged a $50 fine.

"The police . . . enforce it," said Deirdre Parker, spokeswoman for New York City Transit.

Metro has no such rule, preferring to rely on the civility of Washingtonians.

"I think in Washington there is a respect" among riders, said Barbara J. Richardson, Metro's chief of customer relations. When space is at a premium, "common courtesy takes over," with customers stepping in to "remind" riders who are out of line to make way, Richardson said.

Just wait 10 years . . .

Metro is researching design options for its new generation of rail cars, the 7000 series, and plans to gather rider feedback to maximize seating and comfort, said David Kubicek, head of Metro operations.

That doesn't necessarily mean relief for the Metro passengers of tomorrow. By 2020, Metro projects that the Red, Blue and Yellow lines will be "highly congested," with 100 to 120 people per car, and that the Orange Line will be "unmanageable," with more than 120 riders per car.

The transit agency would need 320 more rail cars to keep congestion manageable, but the current capital spending plan does not include funds for those, Kubicek said in a recent presentation to Metro's board of directors.

"I am concerned about there being enough seats; we need more capacity," said Chris Zimmerman, a Metro board member from Arlington County. Civility "becomes more and more critical as conditions become more and more crowded, as we fail to increase supply to meet demand."

On the fringes

Anecdotal evidence suggests that during the morning and afternoon crushes, only the most brazen will attempt to monopolize space on subway cars. Instead, seat hogs tend to inhabit the fringes of rush hour, victimizing less-assertive commuters, Metro riders say.

"It bothers me," said one Blue Line rider, a few steps from a man who had taken over two seats on a packed Blue Line train at rush hour. Seat hogs "are expecting a level of confrontation from anyone who will have them move over. Most people won't achieve that level of territoriality," said the rider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said his wife has a sensitive government job.

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