Monday 23 April 2012

the art of seat-hunting, or: how to get the best seat on a melbourne train

It's rush hour.  You wait to board your train as it pulls into the platform.  "Well I never", you say, "there are seats available!"

You step onto the train.  But all is not quite right.  "Where to sit?", you wonder, as your eyes glance from seat to seat.  As you ponder and delay, men and women in suits push past you.  Seats are filling before your eyes.

You throw your bum onto the last empty space of cloth in sight.  The man next to you unfurls his broadsheet newspaper.  You have an elbow and the lottery results pushing against your left cheek.  The woman across from you dumps her wet umbrella on your feet.  The teenager standing beside you sneezes onto the back of your neck.

If this sounds familiar, or if you really enjoy diagrams, then this tutorial is for you.  While I use examples from Melbourne, I'd say that the below information can be moulded to cities around the world.  All you need is a desire to get through your daily commute while avoiding as many humans as possible—and you have what it takes to become a seat-hunter.

1. Know your entrances

Train platforms are to social norms as black holes are to classical physics: problematic.

As social animals, humans generally form an orderly herd.  The members of a queue will unconsciously space themselves out at a uniform distance, and the occupants of a busy elevator will spread out evenly throughout the box.  Yet none of this occurs on a train platform.

Like a child clinging to her mother on the first day of school, the average Melbourne commuter is unable to move any further than four paces from the entrance to the platform, no matter how crowded that entrance may be.  This is a boon for seat-hunters.

Your first move, therefore, is obvious—away from the "Pack".  But to where? 

2. Choose a carriage

There are two basic styles of train in Melbourne.  On older trains, the carriages are essentially separate compartments.  It is possible to move between adjoining carriages, but this requires opening a door, stepping out onto a little platform in between the carriages, and then opening another door.  This activity is generally frowned upon by the train-travelling public, and is therefore reserved for ticket inspectors and bogans.

With newer trains (the ones without working brakes), the carriages are interconnected, and it is possible to move uninhibited along the full length of a three-carriage set.

To be a good seat-hunter, you must identify the train type as soon as it rolls into the station.  If you do not, you risk being re-absorbed into the Pack that you cleverly dodged earlier, for a curious transformation is soon to take place.

Consider the honeybee.  When honeybees are swarming (moving to a new nesting site), they group and move together in great density, but remain largely docile.  But when the bees finally establish a new hive, they immediately spread out—and become far more aggressive.

The Pack exhibits the same behaviour.  On-platform, the Pack is passive, and remains clustered together.  But as soon as Pack members actually board a train, they immediately disperse far and wide in search of a seat to the extent the carriage will let them.

The above diagram neatly shows the effects of this phenomenon, as well as the way to avoid it—walk a little longer down the platform when a newer train arrives.

3. Get on board

Right, enough with the platform.  Let's now get on board.  For the next few sections, I'll use the older trains as my examples.  They're more widespread than the newer ones, and offer interesting asymmetrical seating layouts to consider.

You can maximise your effectiveness by being the first in position to board a train.  This gives you an extra second or two to assess the on-board situation.  As such, don't be afraid to take prime position in front of the doors; you won't be harming anyone.  The elderly know not to travel during rush hour.  The pregnant and the disabled know to board last, as they will be offered a seat.  Everybody else is fair game. 

4. The choke point

There may be empty seats staring right at you as soon as you board the train.  Resist temptation.  These seats form part of what is called the "Zone of Courtesy".  No matter where they are seated, a passenger in the Zone of Courtesy is expected to give up their seat to a more deserving standing passenger—a man on crutches, for example.  If you treasure your seat but wish to keep your conscience intact (as you should!), avoid this Zone altogether.

In addition, even if you're not required to vacate your seat within the Zone, you will be sitting directly beside the main standing-room area.  Your legs, shoulders, and head will be continually brushed by an always-increasing crush of commuters, some of whom will smell bad.  These people do not care for your personal comfort—you have a seat, and they do not.  If anything, they will take pleasure from your discomfort.

To escape the Zone of Courtesy, you must pass the "Choke Point".  This is the first point at which there is room for only one person to walk or stand in the aisle.

Beyond the Choke Point, you are in seating heaven!  Why?  Well, for inexplicable reasons (by this I mean that there is no bee analogy that helps here), Melbourne commuters have an innate aversion to standing beyond the Choke Point.

All you have to do is sit beyond the Choke Point, and wait for one of these anxious people to "plug" the gap.  Your comfort is practically guaranteed as the door area fills to bursting point, yet the aisles remain delightfully free of humans.

5. Take your seats!

This is the business end of the tutorial!  It's time to select a seat. 
An empty section of an older Melbourne train looks somewhat like this:

Contrary to what they may think, commuters are a predictable bunch of people!  These seats will fill up in accordance with the Three Laws of Seat Selection.  The Laws proceed in the following order:

Law 1: one must sit in a place that creates the least amount of inconvenience to others.
Law 2: a window or aisle seat is preferable to a middle seat.
Law 3: when all else is equal, it is best to sit facing the direction in which the train is travelling.

An average commuter will obey the Laws in the above order.  For example, they will not sit in a window seat over a middle seat (even though Law 2 commands it) if this would require pushing past ten people (as this breaks Law 1).

Knowing the operation of the Laws will aid you in the selection of a seat.  Let's see how this works in practice.
Following the Laws, the best seats in our scenario are marked "A"—the forward-facing window seats.  Average commuters will always take these seats first, and you should too. 

I've highlighted the best "A" seats with an extra black ring in the diagram.  I'll explain why these are the choice picks shortly.

Next, the seats marked "B" should fill up.  Note that (in accordance with Law 1) the personal space of any of the "A" commuters has not been encroached upon. 

Again, I've indicated the pick of the "B" seats with an extra black ring.  This seat is a hidden gem.  The reason: leg room!  Due to the design of the inter-carriage door, there is not enough room for a commuter to stand in front of you; they instead stand in line with the aisle.  But there is enough room for people to enter the seats next to you without forcing you to move.  You are thus guaranteed to be able to stretch your legs without causing inconvenience to others—save for jealousy.

Next are the "C" seats.  Note that for the groups of four seats at top left and bottom right, "C" and "D" are essentially interchangeable, as the seat taken depends on the personal preference of the passenger for a window seat (which lets you avoid eye contact) or an aisle seat (which allows you slightly more space).

But for the groups of five and six seats at top right and bottom left, things start to get interesting.  As you can see, "C" (following Law 1) sits in the reverse-middle seat to avoid causing inconvenience to "A" and "B".

Then, the "D" seats are filled.  In the group of six seats, "D" must sit reverse-aisle; this is the only seat that can be slid into at this point with a minimum of disturbance to others.

In the group of five seats, "D" has the choice of sitting opposite of "A", or in the forward-middle seat.  While it may seem like sitting forward-middle would cause greater inconvenience, in such a scenario, "C" often swings their legs slightly out into the aisle, affording "D" the opportunity to sit in relative comfort.

Phew!  We'll stop there—and take a look at the two "A" seats that I highlighted earlier.  While the other "A" seats are now completely hemmed in, our highlighted "A" seats still sit in relative space and comfort.  If standing room now starts to fill up, and the Choke Point is plugged, these people will arrive at home or office as very happy commuters.

If I had to choose though, I would pick the group of five seats over the group of six seats to sit as an "A".  The reason?

6. The "slider"

Beware the "slider"—the worst enemy of an "A".  Sliders are nefarious people.  In the workplace, they will do anything to get ahead.  Amongst friends and acquaintances, they are ruthless social climbers.  They are hard to spot on trains, but often give themselves away with darting eyes and shifty disposition.

The slider is usually a "C", and hunts almost exclusively in six-seat areas:

"E" approaches, looking for a seat.  Under the guise of courteousness towards "E", "C" slides over to occupy the window seat—even though "E" should, and probably will, sit between "A" and "B"!

Now, "C" has slyly promoted themselves from a middle to a window seat, and "A" is left boxed-in and uncomfortable.  With one swift move, "A" has lost the vast majority of his or her seating advantage.


With that cautionary tale, I conclude my tutorial.  Despite appearances, I don't claim to have all the answers.  What I've written above is merely a starting point, one which I hope each and every aspiring seat-hunter uses as a springboard for their own personal strategy.

Some of you may have entirely different strategies.  I have a friend who takes it as a foregone conclusion that the train is going to be crowded, and instead finds the most agreeable-looking person on the carriage to sit next to, regardless of where the empty seats are.

Hats off to him.  And best of luck to you all, my very dear friends.

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