Survival hacks in crowded subways

Update, 4 June 2007 – I beg all of those who find the tips below offensive and rude to go read the Errata as well.

Update, 30 May 2007 – Sometimes hack is the wrong keyword. I learned this the hard way as this article got on Digg homepage which led to me getting a LOT of evil comments, ranging from this ain’t a hack, you’re a hack to common sense has never been a hack or you’re a f**k and a jerk. What can I say but apologize for an uninspired title? A more accurate one could have been 5 obvious things to do if the subway is crowded. But inspiration came otherwise, and for that I sincerely apologize to all readers who misunderstood the message, didn’t see it’s irony and were disappointed by a funny/how to/not to list.
Still.. the hatred of some private messages or comments I received still makes me shiver as I remember Kathy. So, once again, sorry if my lame article annoyed or offended you; its purpose was just to entertain, at most…

Hate the crowded train or subway? Hate to be squeezed like a tomato between sweating strangers? These tips can be a lifesaver.

crowded subway Are you one of the tens of millions who, every morning, have to commute by subway or train to their day jobs? I feel your pain, as I was one of you, daily being squished in the side of the wagon by sweaty crowds of other commuters. Here are some tips I use to make my daily commuting a bit more comfortable.

  • Pick the place where you stand
    Obviously, if you hate crowds, first of all you should avoid them. If you take the sub for more than one station, you shouldn’t stay by the doors – advance instead towards the center, where less people are bound to gather.
  • Pick the place where you sit
    When you get back from work, if the train is crowded but you spot an empty seat, go for it. Being polite and offering your seat to the hot blonde is great once in a while, but it will ruin you if you do it every day. From time to time you have the right to indulge yourself with a bit of rest after work.What if the train you take isn’t crowded yet but you know it will be packed by the time you get to destination? You have the choice of the seating place. Try to pick it with an exit strategy in mind: pick the one that minimizes the crossing of the crowd – the closest one to the door will do.

The vital space

The reason you feel uncomfortable when being squished against strangers is because you need your vital space. This comes from the primitive animal nature: our survival instincts start red alerting us whenever we let strangers get too close – we feel this as the sensation of discomfort or anxiety; the bigger/more dangerous the stranger, the bigger the space we need to stay away from it.

It’s a no brainer – in order to feel more comfortable, we need to feel secure, at distance from danger and strangers.

  • Mark your territory
    Remember, what makes you feel more secure(and comfortable) is having strangers away from you.So go ahead, try this – when you get on your next crowded subway/bus/train, try to occupy the most space as possible; keep others AWAY – keep your arms a bit wider from you, keep your backpack on the back instead of at your feet, make larger arms gestures whenever possible, etc.You don’t need to have “clear space” around you to make yourself more comfortable. Whether you are seated or standing, you can keep the crowd away from you by marking your territory with clothes, accessories, luggage, etc. For instance, if you keep your jacket or luggage in your hand or on your seat, barely trespassing the space of your neighbors, you are actually making THEM feel uncomfortable – though they probably won’t be able to see why ; hopefully they will step back a bit, preys of your evil space-domination plan.
  • Be the alpha male – look powerful
    lionAll animals(humans included) keep their distance from the powerful alpha males. The vital space is proportional to the importance of the animal. An alpha male will benefit from a larger space, as the weaker ones will tremble in fear and step back.The nice trick here is that you don’t really have to BE a dangerous fellow. In order to maximize your vital space and push the crowd back, all it takes is to look powerful and confident. Not to mention you will probably hook up with some girls along the way – everyone loves a secure and confident guy.How can you do it? I’ll write about this some more in some future articles, but here’s the short version: it’s all in the attitude, language and body language:When you speak, do it a bit louder than usual with larger, confident hand gestures; when you walk try to look big and important; when you seat, keep your feet spread and your arms apart; instead of looking humble, look secure. When it’ll work, you’ll know – people will start perceiving you as a secure, important fellow, an alpha male they need to keep their distance from. Careful though, not to overreact – you don’t want to look obnoxious, loud and aggressive, do you?
  • Make your trip more enjoyable
    Keep yourself busy while commuting. Make some use of this otherwise wasted time. Time goes a lot faster if you enjoy yourself. Here’s some things I love doing on the subway:

    • play mobile phone games – an exciting yet easy-to-play mobile game turns a boring trip into a gaming session
    • read a book – there’s a reason why pocket-sized books are shaped as such – great for getting them out of your pocket in between stations, the time to read a couple of pages.
    • talk to people – people you might know or even strangers sitting next to you – there’s always time for networking
    • relax and meditate – perhaps with the help of your favorite music, just sit back, watch the scenery and try to relax. Might be hard in the crowd, but it’s an art worth mastering.
  • Make your trip educational
    • read the latest rss feeds on your phone or pda
    • solve mental science problems and try to remember your forgotten college knowledge – how many golf balls fit in a subway train? What’s the volume of your shoe? What’s the friction between the subway wheel and the track?
    • listen to an instructive audiobook or to your favorite podcasts
    • observe others – you can learn A LOT on human psychology by just looking around – see how other react, what they say, how they say it.


Here they were, some tips for more enjoyable commuting. Remember, what I wrote above is not maths nor law. Your subway might never be crowded, you might be one to enjoy being squished against a random stranger or maybe the commute is so crowded you can’t do anything about it but try to survive. Me, I use most of them whenever traveling by train or subway, and I’m having fun.

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