There are unwritten rules when riding the New York City subway.
No eye contact. No blocking doors. No hogging seats.
Three years after the coronavirus nearly wiped out ridership in the nation’s largest transportation network, millions of travelers are reacquainting themselves with transit’s informal customs. The pandemic had suspended these protocols as many passengers stayed home. But now, in a sign that normalcy might be returning, old subway tensions are creeping back as more riders pack into the system.
“We’ve sort of lost that muscle,” said Khalid Ahmed, 35, a data scientist from Brooklyn who was riding into Manhattan last month to meet friends. “It is a little bit more surprising now when the trains are packed like sardines. It used to be a fact of life four years ago.”
New Yorkers must follow a long list of standards and practices in order to manage the crush of people they navigate each day, said Jay Van Bavel, a professor at N.Y.U. who specializes in social psychology.
“It’s probably the place in New York where you’re pressed up against humanity more than any other place,” Mr. Van Bavel said. “It would be insane for me to press up against a stranger’s body for, like, 10 minutes in the street, right? Like, they would freak out. But how many times have you been in the subway and people are grinded up right against you?”
Although the transit system, operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is not yet at full capacity, it is still used every weekday by roughly four million people — a total that exceeds the population of some states. And when riders do not obey rules, official or not, tempers can flare.
During a morning rush hour at Grand Central Terminal last month, one woman cursed at another for lingering on a staircase. That afternoon, two men at the Times Square station quarreled in Spanish after one of them complained about people blocking his path.
Huma Khalid, 30, a bank teller from Brooklyn, said she was frustrated by riders who are loud and rude. A woman sitting next to her shouted expletives and insults at fellow passengers during a recent train ride into Manhattan. Ms. Khalid rolled her eyes as she looked away.
“I cannot take it anymore,” Ms. Khalid said. “This is horrible.”
The woman, who declined to give her name and didn’t explain why she was agitated, said that she had just moved to New York from Atlanta.
While everyone has individual pet peeves, many seem to agree on the top, unwritten offenses. Riders, for instance, should never spread their arms or legs, because that can crowd or trip up fellow passengers.
“Sometimes there are people laying down, and there’s people standing everywhere,” Ms. Khalid said.
And then there’s the traffic jam getting on and off the train.
“Let the people get off the train first so that it could make our commute easier,” said Maykon Reyes, 30, a security guard who lives and works in the Bronx.
Another common source of frustration for New Yorkers are people who play loud music from their cellphones or Bluetooth speakers. The noise is not only irritating, but can also drown out subway announcements.
Those who ride while standing must be mindful not to hold onto a pole in a way that prevents others from grabbing it. Transit riders get particularly upset at fellow passengers who lean on shared poles.
And no matter how packed a train is, no one should ever come close to a stranger in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
Other leading blunders include putting backpacks or purses on empty seats, stuffing bicycles and scooters into crowded cars, and eating stinky food.
Mr. Van Bavel said those core offenses are especially frustrating because they show a lack of respect for fellow riders.
“It signals that you’re not a nice person,” Mr. Van Bavel said. “You’re not fair, and you welcome or create chaos.”
But the pandemic has eroded standards of behavior. At the height of the crisis, many commuters avoided the system and fell out of practice. The coronavirus also created new rules, such as social distancing and a stronger need to shield others from coughs and sneezes.
At the same time, recent arrivals have not assimilated as easily as prior waves of people because there have been fewer New Yorkers to model their behavior after. And when people interact in places with uncertain norms, they can experience anxiety and conflict.
that while customer satisfaction rates have improved overall, they have slipped in recent months, dipping to . The M.T.A.’s stated goal is 70 percent satisfaction systemwide by next June. In the latest survey results, many riders said they would come back if fewer people behaved erratically in the system.
Still, some New Yorkers said the pandemic had brought benefits. Pat Golden, a film and theater director who lives and works in Manhattan, said she enjoyed the quiet while traveling in sparsely crowded trains. Ms. Golden said people today seemed more mindful about not sitting too close to each another.
Jennifer Meeker, 53, a digital producer who lives in Long Island and works in Manhattan, said people also seemed more vigilant.
“It has changed a bit as far as just, like, general courtesies,” Ms. Meeker said. “I have noticed just a little bit of difference in the general population being a little more protective of each other, which I think is lovely.”
Of course, there are official transit rules, and some of them are punishable by law. Fare evasion, smoking and lying down over more than one seat can all trigger police action. To make riders feel safer, transit officials have focused on issuing summonses, which arefrom January through September compared with the same period last year.
On Sept. 20, subways recorded roughly 4,180,000 paid rides, setting a new daily high since the start of the pandemic. Those numbers have largely held steady. Responding to climbing ridership, the M.T.A. is also trying to make the system more inviting throughurging riders to be polite.
Introduced last month, the signs feature cartoon drawings emphasizing good behavior, such as refraining from littering or applying makeup.
“Hearing feedback from New Yorkers, we sort of encapsulated a lot of the things that drive people crazy,” said Shanifah Rieara, who oversees rider satisfaction efforts for the authority. She added that vaping on trains had become a problem.
The authority has tried similar marketing campaigns in the past. A previous versionfor clipping their nails, wearing backpacks and manspreading — a widely loathed sitting style that involves opening one’s legs in a V-shape, crowding others in nearby seats. In 2017, the authority offered pregnant women blue-and-yellow buttons with a message asking fellow passengers to offer them a seat.
The latest campaign comes as the M.T.A. is under pressure to improve service and win riders back, in part because the state has mandated that it do so as part of a budget deal. Transit advocates have said that the authority would need to focus on communicating effectively with riders to keep them happy, and its new marketing campaign aims to do that.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some New Yorkers were quick to snub the idea.
“I think it’s foolishness,” Mr. Reyes, the security guard, said. “People don’t respect the rules.”