Why train designers should avoid three-seat rows

Train companies should consider designing bigger carriages with pairs of seats only, and should avoid rows consisting of three seats. That’s according to Gary Evans and Richard Wener whose new study demonstrates that it’s not the overall number of people on a carriage that affects how cramped we feel, rather its the number of people in our immediate vicinity. That’s why so many of the middle seats are left empty in three-seat rows.

One hundred and thirty-nine train commuters travelling from New Jersey to Manhattan, New York City were assessed after a typical journey into work. The researchers took two measures of crowding: overall carriage density, based on the total number of people on the carriage divided by the number of seats; and nearby density, based on the number of people in each participant’s row, relative to the number of seats in that row.

Nearby density was found to have a significant impact on the participants’ self-reported mood, concentration (based on a proof-reading task) and stress levels (measured via a cortisol swab). By contrast, overall crowding in the carriage wasn’t significantly related to any of these factors.

As well as avoiding three-seat rows, the researchers advised public transport designers to include “territorial props” such as arm rests and small tables in between seats, to help prevent commuters feeling that their personal space is being infringed.

Evans, G.W. & Wener, R.E. (2007). Crowding and personal space invasion on the train: Please don’t make me sit in the middle. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27,90-94.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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