All aboard

How crowded is too crowded for MBTA passengers?

WHEN IS ENOUGH enough when it comes to crowded trains? For about 20 percent of those who ride the MBTA, apparently there is nothing that will stop them from trying to squeeze onto a packed subway car.

As transit officials try to come up with some metrics to increase rider satisfaction, focusing more on customers’ needs and less on the agency’s shortcomings, the MBTA has begun canvassing riders and hosting focus groups to find out what is important. Personal space, it seems, is one of those.

Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of strategic initiatives in the T’s Office of Performance Management and Innovation, made a presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday showing various points at which riders said they’d be uncomfortable getting on a crowded train and when they just wouldn’t even try.

The T received about 6,000 responses to an online survey that showed six different stages of crowding on a train and asked riders to gauge their comfort level. Meanwhile, with a number of small focus groups, the T marked off a square meter on the floor using tape and asked people to step into the marked area until they were no longer willing to do so.

The respondents were given three choices with the assumptions they didn’t know when the next train was coming but they weren’t running late: Comfortable, uncomfortable but would board anyway, and would not board.

According to the results, nearly everyone would be comfortable boarding a train holding up to 1 person per square meter. But after that, the tension escalates. Nearly 30 percent said they’d be uncomfortable with an average of 1.06 people per square meter while about 9 percent said they wouldn’t board at that level of crowding.

MBTA chart showing several scenarios of crowded trains in which riders were asked to give their opinions. PPSM stands for "passengers per square meter."

MBTA chart showing several scenarios of crowded trains in which riders were asked to give their opinions. PPSM stands for “passengers per square meter.”

More than 80 percent said they would be uncomfortable if there was an average of 1.67 people in the square meter, and that rose to nearly 100 percent at each level after that, up to 6.29 people crammed into a 40-inch-by-40-inch square. But that wouldn’t necessarily stop them from getting on.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

While 98 percent of those surveyed said they’d be uncomfortable being one of three people in that square meter, only about one-third said they would not try to board. When the sardine quotient hits more than 6 per square meter, most people finally say enough and more than 80 percent would not try to board.

A determined 18 percent of respondents said nothing would stop them from trying to get on.