How To Avoid Sitting Next To Someone On PT


Variable delays on the Western Line because of Newmarket and Britomart platform berthing issues means I have been using more buses than I would like lately – for occasions I need to have a clear ETA -something not possible at rush hour if you’re heading to Britomart with little time to spare.

And I’m not greatly enjoying the experience of using the bus.

There is something slightly claustrophobic about buses compared to trains – that might be too strong a word as I don’t have that phobia – but whatever it is that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable has a lot to do with seating.

When you enter a train, you  have more time to make a choice about where you sit and whom you sit next to but on a bus, it’s a matter of grabbing a seat ASAP before the bus driver roars off.

So I have gone back to Victoria University researcher Dr Jared Thomas who did a thesis on the issue of public transport seating and asked him for help.

This is what he had to say.

“In terms of social seating layout improvements, the L-shaped seating and facing seating, where passengers can more easily view each other are preferable for social interaction.

The typical paired seating means that actually making eye contact at that close range puts your heads a distance apart which in a New Zealand culture is more suitable for a romantic distance.

So even for friends (that are not romantically involved), both conversationalists making eye contact at the same time for continued periods is not comfortable. Visual cues are really important when attempting to pick up the complex subtleties common during conversation.

Otherwise it is like talking to the person over the phone, where you are not sure whether the person is responding positively or negatively to what you are saying until they give you verbal feedback.

For people that are after greater privacy, the use of seat demarcation (such as arm rests) is quite useful. Unfortunately, the space constraints of public transport are quite limiting (in an economic sense). So alternative seating layouts would benefit from:

  • Seat demarcation through the use of props such as adjustable arm rests and small tables, or even markings or indentations on the seats indicating appropriate spacing
  • A greater use of social seating layouts, with seats facing each other (probably across the aisle) or L-shaped seating (even just if in one carriage)

Anything done to increase the perceived control of passengers on trains and buses will reduce social discomfort down to a more tolerable level (similar to that of aeroplane travel). For example:

  • Clearly partitioned seats
  • Additional controls (such as a localised temperature control or a call button for attention)
  • Providing staff with the resources to improve passenger comfort

Public transport is a socially active travel mode, with at least a quarter of passengers talking. Smiling and making eye contact make you appear friendlier to other passengers. Always greet and thank the bus driver or ticket collector, as this encourages other polite behaviour.(Why don’t we do this to the train guard when we exit?)

If you want to avoid conversation with other passengers but maintain a friendly appearance, engage in activities. Non-visually engaging activities are best, such as listening to music (as this still allows you to acknowledge other passengers).

If you want to avoid people sitting directly beside you, placing a bag on the adjacent seat, sitting in the aisle seat or taking up more than your share of the seat will work, but be aware that you may be viewed as rude or unfriendly, especially when the vehicle begins to fill.

If you want to be social and promote interaction with other passengers there are several small adjustments you can make and trial for yourself to see what is most successful:

  • Maintain positive body language, such as eye contact or smiling (but do not openly stare)
  • Leave enough space beside you on the adjacent seat, or even make an active show of moving over as passengers approach looking for a seat
  • Acknowledge the person with a brief positive gesture or short verbal greeting
  • Attempt to sit beside people you recognise as other regulars, particularly if they have positive body language
  • Look for someone with obvious commonalities, as you may lead similar lifestyles or have similar interests (e.g. similar clothing style or age group)
  • Avoid people that are engaged in an activity or taking up more than their half of the seat
  • Conversation initiation techniques are perhaps the most difficult choice, as you do not want to come across as weird. You could try asking for the time, offering a stick of gum, or even a light-hearted comment about the weather.

Remember that you need the other passengers if you are to have a successful, efficient, enjoyable transit service.

The seating situation in public transport causes social discomfort comparable to a crowded elevator.

Staff friendliness impacts strongly on the enjoyment, perceived quality and perceived ride quality of the trip. Encouraging simple things like greetings and farewells have concomitant benefits such as:

  • Friendlier passengers, that are likely to respect and be polite to the driver/ticket collector
  • More tolerant passengers (i.e. they won’t be as upset with journey delays)
  • Consideration of targeted refurbishments with specific user needs in mind, especially seat layout.

Good public transport providers already monitor the performance of their service on instrumental factors. Consideration should be given to include social influences, for example measures of:

  • Attitudes towards the other regular passengers
  • Interaction with other passengers and staff (frequency count or even verbal noise level measurements)
  • Interpersonal distance discomfort or privacy measures
  • Use of defensive behaviours

Marketing campaigns could be targeted to improve the perception of other public transport users by pointing out the similarities amongst passengers.

  • The removal of negative stereotypes of public transport as “second class” travel should be targeted. For example, the use of celebrity endorsement.
  • Advertising focussed on success stories of positive social contact on buses and trains could reduce the barriers to social interaction and increase the feeling of community.
  • Use of positive public transport advertising at bus and train facilities where there are captive audiences.
  • Improving affective links to public transport and making the service seem more personalised will likely benefit use. For example, the advertising of local community events on board trains and buses.
  • More stimuli in the environment, such as posters or local art, particularly if it helps form personal associations (such as the use of advertising of local events, as mentioned above).”





  1. George Darroch says:

    The sharp acceleration on buses is definitely a problem, and particularly so for parents of young children, the elderly, and mobility impaired.

    There’s plenty of research that shows that heavy acceleration actually cuts very little (<5%) time from travel. It's a problem, and one that better bus scheduling and more considerate drivers would solve. And more electric and hybrid buses, which have smoother take-off.

    Buses are definitely the worse of the two options as far as personal space goes, and I'm not sure how you'd solve that, other than to make the buses more spacious….

  2. Andrew says:

    Agree with George. Comfort of a bus ride can depend a lot on the driver’s driving. There’s a couple of drivers on my home route that insist on approaching bus stops fast then breaking heavily which is uncomfortable for everyone.

    Do drivers receive training with respect to driving methods for passenger comfort?


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