American Travelers Still Avoid Middle Seat

PHOTO: Across the country, rail companies acknowledge that most Americans avoid sitting in the middle seat on a train.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Across the country, rail companies acknowledge that most Americans avoid sitting in the middle seat on a train.

Americans around the country are taking to public transportation more than ever. But despite a greater number of seats being filled, travelers are still reluctant to squeeze inside the one in the middle of the row.

In 2013 Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation -- the highest annual public transit ridership number in 57 years, according to a report released by the American Public Transportation Association earlier this month. Still, despite the shift toward communal travel, most individuals are disinclined to rub elbows.

“We have a middle seat issue,” Helena Williams, the president of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR,) a commuter railway in New York, told NPR in a recent interview.

Studies on seat preferences commissioned by LIRR determined that while its riders were willing to cram together on their morning commute, by the end of the day they needed their own space and would avoid the middle seats. Others who secured aisle or window seats have confessed to placing bags beside them to deter middle-seat occupancy.

The phenomenon is not unique to New Yorkers: A representative for the MARC Train Service in Maryland also acknowledged to NPR that there was a rider bias against middle seats.

Reasons for the middle seat's unpopularity range from the increasing size of Americans' waistlines causing cramped quarters on to confusion over who can lay claim to arm rests to the awkwardness of others falling asleep on you.

On long-haul railways such as Amtrak, in which the seats are configured in pairs, riders aren't experiencing that issue, said a representative.

"Unlike airlines and commuter railroads, Amtrak doesn’t have middle seats in any of our passenger cars," said Kimberly Woods, a spokesperson for the company.

But in the friendly skies, the quest to escape being sandwiched has even led some travel resources, such as TripIt, to design seat-tracking apps that monitor the availability of desirable seats so fliers have a chance to be reassigned before boarding.

If such obsession sounds extreme, consider one recent tweet on the subject:

"Having the middle seat on an airplane is like being a tribute in the Hunger Games. There is a very slim chance you will survive."