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Updated on April 10, 2019

The term straphanger came from the early subway trains. When the first rapid transit subway cars were introduced, they were no different than regular train cars. The doors were at the ends of each car, and you needed to climb steps inside the train because platforms we're still being built at track level. It would be a couple of decades before they realized passengers could exit and board trains a lot faster if the platforms were raised and sliding doors were built on the side of the car.

Something else they needed to fix was how to accommodate the crowds. Normal trains sold tickets, one for each seat. the inside of cars were configured with rows of seats facing twards the front or rear, and a small aisle down the middle. But with subways, instead of tickets, access was sold to the platform. The cars were then packed with as many passengers as could fit. The seats were taking up too much valuable standing room. So the insides of cars were reconfigured with the seats along the walls, usually facing inwards, so there could be wider aisles. Now that most passengers would be standing, they needed something to keep themselves from falling whenever the train stopped short or made a turn. So they began attaching leather strap loops from the ceiling. From that day forward subway commuters were called straphangers.

Leather straps would eventually be replaced with metal loops, still refered to as straps. But a better solution was on the way. Metal poles. Up to ten passengers could grab onto a pole to steady themselves. Eventually both busses and trains would replace straps, both leather and metal, with poles and ceiling bars. But while poles were better, there was a flaw in the subway car design. The MTA insisted they be placed in the intersection of the side aisles that connected to the doors and the central aisle. What always ended up happening was passengers standing around the poles blocking the doors while there was still plenty of standing room in the center of the car.

Bad etiquette is the norm in subways. From the person's on the platform who shove in front of the people who were there first to get into a train door first, to the guys who manspread to the point they take up three seats, to the idiots wearing backpacks with little regard for the passengers they back into. And I could go on and on. But the poles for some reason have inspired a whole new genre of selfishness, which is something I hope the designers of the next generation of subway cars take into account. And it goes beyond refusing to move to the center of the car and preventing those standing on the platform from getting on the train.

Let's start with guy who uses the poll as a backrest, a.k.a. the poll leaner. It doesn't matter to him that he is hogging the poll to himself. There's the poll hugger, who grabs on to the poll as if it was their lover, making it impossible for anyone else to get a handhold. And the guy with a nickname still pending who is sitting in the seat but uses the poll as a leg rest, not so much preventing anyone else from holding the poll, but blocking passengers from moving past the poll. There are the people who take up way too much real estate around the poll, instead of reaching in an arm, standing right next to it. And worse than that guy, the other guy who walks into a train car and nudges or pushes people out of the way before taking up too much room.

This was as bad as the pole ever got. Most of the time people were on their good behavior when sharing the pole. Jerks who hogged a pole to themselves were about 1 in every 20 poles. That is until the MTA asked for a redesign. The idea was to have the pole split into two poles in the middle, resulting in two sets of handholds. And this is what they came up with.......

My inspiration for this article is how the simple redesign of the subway cars has altered how people act. And usually for the worse. Such as how the bowl seats on the benches of the number lines were supposed to curve seat hogging, but instead lead to manspreading by those trying to keep the bowl on either side of them vacant. Six or more passengers are usually sitting on a flat bench while there are sometimes only four on a bowl bench with the rest of the seats inaccessable.

In the case of the split pole, there was supposed to be more room for hands, which was supposed to mean more passengers could grab on. The MTA failed to grasp that the problem wasn't not enough room for hands, but not enough room around the pole. It wasn't too many hands grasping on a single pole, but the people or person standing next to it was in the way. Splitting the pole did nothing to address that problem. Instead, it only made matters worse.

Here is the design flaw in the split pole. An arm can easily fit in between the split. Which is the first place it usually ends up whenever someone is the first to grab into a vacant pole. This quicky leads to the pole being grasped like a handbag, and eventually hugging the pole with no chance of anyone else getting their hand on it. Unlike other pole huggers who's action was intentional, the huggers on these poles are seduced into doing so. Where a normal poles would result in 1 out of 20 hogging it, you can count on about half the poles in a car with split poles to have pole huggers.

There is one other oddity I would like to bring up. Newer benches now have poles attached to them. Only a slight design flaw being that since they are in front of the bench where sitters are facing outwards, no more than two passengers could hold onto a pole at the same time, unlike a pole in the center of a car that several passengers could surround. But it is not the design flaw of the bench poll I would like to point out.

For one thing the pole forces a set number of passengers sitting on either side. Usually three on either side and no longer the ability to jam seven or more on a bench. The pole should also mark the boundary between two seats, the same way an armrest in a theater would, right? That would seem like the logical conclusion.

But anyone who has say next to the center pole knows, your space is guaranteed to be invaded. The second someone sits next to the pole, their first instinct seems to always be to spread their torso through it. You are suddenly being forced to move over so that the other guy can add a foot and a half of space next to him. And it doesn't seem to matter if the pole person has room on his other side. Even if the three seats in his half of the bench are empty. If he sits next to the pole he has to sit through it, even if it means unfairly squishing the three people sitting on the other side of the pole.

And the worst offenders, old people. spreading past the pole is not enough for them. They have to sit through it. Keep in mind I am talking about a fraction of old people. Most old people just torso spread or man spread through the pole like everyone else. But a significant fraction will request other sitters move so they can sit at an angle with their butt going between the pole and the rear of the seat. Here they face forward in the car while one hand holds onto the pole. The pole may mark a boundary, but some old people see it as an excuse to take up two seats.

They act as if they have some sort of medical condition that requires them to sit in that position. I can tell you, no such medical condition exists. I checked. The doctors I talked to said that sitting in that position, where they have to twist their body, may even be bad for them in the long term. Furthermore, it's not even as comfortable as sitting the correct way.

So why do they insist on doing it? For the same reason younger people insist on extending their arm past the pole to the point where they are forcing sitters on the other side to move over. We all have a built in instinct of territoriality. That same irrational instinct that has caused so many wars also causes us to want to stake out a pole. Territoriality did have a purpose. Millions of years ago when our ancestors were hunter/gatherers, it made sense to stake out property, because that property was where your food came from. If another tribe drops by to eat, then there may not be enough food left over for your tribe. For the invading tribe, they were better off driving the home tribe away, once again so vital food would not need to be shared. So fighting over territory was a survival instinct, which became unnecessary once man invented farming. But the instinct remained, compelling countries to fight over territory neither needs. Or for one individual to feel the need to stake his claim to a filthy subway pole.


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