The MBTA Etiquette Handbook

I was tweeting back and forth (well, one tweet back, one tweet forth was the extent of it, really) with a high school acquaintance turned train friend recently. You know, the person who’s on your train every morning that you talk to every so often. The short conversation resulted in an idea that I immediately thought would make a good blog post: MBTA Etiquette.

Sure, normal etiquette rules apply in most situations on the MBTA, as they do in the rest of everyday life, but there are a few unwritten rules (some that maybe only I know about) that need to be plastered onto the walls of MBTA stations and subway cars.

On the commuter rail:

The classic 2-seater/3-seater setup in the MBTA commuter rail.

I realize that many MBTA users never ride the commuter rail, so this won’t apply to them. However, given that long commuter rail rides can be over 60 minutes long, etiquette is of utmost importance.

1. Finding a seat

If you’re the guy who jumps on the rush-hour train just as the train is leaving North Station, chances are that finding a seat is particularly difficult. There is a correct way to finding an empty seat.

Use your judgement. If it seems like the train is packed, then there will be limited options available. However, if you’re getting on mid-trip, you may find a situation where there are some options. In general, all seats should be taken in the following order (I’m assuming we’re dealing with a classic 3-seat/2 seat setup, and that you’re alone):

A. Inside (window) seat, either row
If possible, take the inside seat. This makes it easier for someone to sit beside you if necessary. Don’t sit on the aisle if no one is sitting with you, and don’t put your stuff all over your seat, making it awkward for other passengers to sit down. Everyone likes a private seat but that’s not always realistic. Whether you take the inside seat on the 2-seater side or the 3-seater side is your preference. Generally, the side facing away from the sun is best, as the glare can be brutal. I tend to favor the 3-seater side since you’re less likely to have someone sitting directly next to you.

B. Outside (aisle) seat on the 3-seater side
If you’re on a train with two 2-seat rows, disregard this. Otherwise, it’s best to take the aisle seat on the 3-seater side if all the inside seats are taken. This provides the maximum buffer zone between you and the person you’re sitting with. The commuter rail seats aren’t spaced enough for tall males (read: me) to sit comfortably without sitting on the diagonal a little bit, so do everyone a favor and acknowledge this.

C. Outside (aisle) seat on the 2-seater side

Okay, we’re running out of room here. The next natural step is the aisle seat on the 2-seater side, for obvious reasons: It’s easier to access than the middle seat on the 3-seater side, and you’re ruining one person’s trip and not two.

D. Stand

Honestly, I’d rather stand than sit in the middle of the 3-seater side, but that’s just me. Disregard if you wish (especially if you’re not overweight or tall). Sometimes not an option depending on the conductor.

E. Middle seat of the 3-seater side

Only if you must. Use judgement here, if you’re larger than the person in the aisle seat, ask if that person can slide over. If they’re larger than you, ask for the middle seat. Make it the least uncomfortable situation possible.

F. Special Circumstances

If a group of people come in and want a 2-seater to themselves, and there’s an aisle seat in the 3-seater side available, give it to them. Same goes for the 3-seater side. It is also acceptable to offer the window seat to a new passenger if you’re getting off within the next 1-2 stops. Finally, I’ll bend the rules somewhat if you have the opportunity to sit in a recently-renovated seat, that actually has, you know, padding.

2. Changing your Seat

Changing seats is encouraged as the train empties out when traveling outbound. As a general rule of thumb, it is the responsibility of the person sitting on the aisle to move to an empty set of seats, if available. It is also acceptable for someone sitting on the aisle in the 2-seater row to move to the aisle of a 3-seater row, assuming no one is sitting in the middle seat at that point. The goal is to minimize the number of strangers sitting directly next to one another.

3. Conversation

Conversation is generally discouraged. People use the train to get work done, read, listen to music, play games on their phone, nap, etc. Always err on the assumption that whoever is sitting next to you does not want to talk to you. This is not necessarily because of noise (although that is a factor), but because you could ruin someone’s train ride by talking to them the whole time. If you must make small talk, learn to take a hint and shut it after a few seconds of silence.

According to female sources, it is extremely uncool to chat up the cute girl that you “happened” to sit next to for the entire ride. Don’t hold people hostage because they’re being polite.

4. Personal space

The seating priority list is primarily to conserve as much personal space as possible. As I mentioned, larger people don’t fit in the seats as well as smaller people. Don’t exacerbate the situation by disobeying the seating priority list, by putting your stuff on the seat, shifting around too much, etc. Larger individuals should try not to encroach on the seat of the person next to him/her.

On the bus:

The onset of live tracking apps such as “Catch the Bus” and the Google Maps app have really opened up a new world for me in terms of public transit. I took the bus about three times in college, and about 300 times since I graduated under two years ago. The bus is really a different animal when it comes to public transit. A few tips to consider:

1. Where to sit

Do it.

If possible, take this seat.

If the bus is empty enough that you’re able to sit, do so wherever you want, but remember to always try to minimize the number of people sitting directy next to one another. Most MBTA buses have five seats at the very back, facing the front, and three seats facing one another directly in front of the back seats. In the case of the 5-seater in the back, always try to sit on either extreme (the “window” seats) or directly in the middle. Only take the window seats if you’ll be on the bus for a while, since people will need to stand to let you out if there is anyone next to you. The 2nd priority is the middle of the five seats, since you’ll have a one-seat buffer between you and the window seats. As is the case with all three-seaters, do not take the middle seat unless absolutely necessary.

2. Where to stand

If you need to stand, it really depends on how packed the bus is, and if it’ll get more packed at the next few stops. Consider your experience and make a judgement. If you anticipate the bus will get full, stand in the back of the bus if you’re not getting off for a few stops. If you don’t think the bus will get much more full, stand wherever you want, but be prepared to push back if necessary. If you’re getting off at the next stop, stand as close to the back door as possible.

3. Getting off the bus

Unless you’re sitting or standing at the very front of the bus, always get off using the back door. People will be looking to get on using the front door. Riders that exit through the front door slow things down. I once saw a woman that was outraged that people tried to board the bus 5 seconds after the doors opened; she was walking over to the front door to get off. She was wrong. Get out at the back door unless you’re eagerly waiting to get off at the front as soon as the doors open. I’ll let you slide if you’re in the front in a very packed bus, but then again, if you’re at the front, you were probably close enough to walk anyway.

If you get off at a minor stop, when it’s unlikely anyone else will be getting on or off, and there is a major stop nearby, where it’s more likely people will be getting on and off, be a sport and just get off at the major stop. Don’t delay everyone for 15 seconds because you need to get off at your own stop, 500 feet from a major intersection. Go for a walk, it’s good for you. Obviously more acceptable in inclement weather.

4. Volume

Look, I’m on the bus. Therefore, I’m not having the best day. Assume I hate your music. Playing music from a boombox, or playing it so loud that I can hear it through your noise-cancelling headphones, is unacceptable. I really shouldn’t need to write this.

5. Courtesy

The bus driver is probably the unsung hero of the MBTA world. A commuter rail conductor doesn’t have to drive the train, and subway conductors don’t really have to deal with customers. Bus drivers are responsible for making sure people get on and pay, making sure no one gets on through the back door, making sure people move back if it’s standing room only, etc. They also have the most stressful job; they actually have to drive, on a road, in BOSTON, in a bus. It’s not easy. Treat them with respect.

On the subway 

1. Seating

Because of the nature of the cars, seating is much more of a free-for-all on rapid-transit lines (Red, Blue, Orange) than buses, commuter rail trains, or the Green Line. On rapid transit lines, you should remember to sit in a seat that minimizes the number of people sitting directly next to one another. If the train is empty, you should sit on an edge seat or a seat two seats over, or a seat two seats over from that, etc. Sitting next to one of these seats when it is not necessary may lead to fewer-than optimal available seats without anyone sitting next to someone. For example, if there are seven seats in a section, you can sit in seats 1, 3, 5, or 7. If someone’s sitting in seat 6, this means the maximum number of people sitting in that section without anyone sitting next to someone is 3 (people sitting in seat 2, 4, and 6). In this situation, sit in seat 1 or seat 7, if necessary, since this way you’re only inconveniencing one person.

The green line takes on similar rules to the bus, except there are more single seats on the Green Line. If you’re alone and this seat is available, take it.

And, for god’s sake, give up your seat next to the door (or any seat for that matter) for a disabled, elderly, or pregnant person. Another thing I shouldn’t have to write.

2. Standing

Sometimes you gotta stand. When standing, use the space available, but be mindful of others. Don’t lean on the pole you’re holding onto, since that means no one else can use it.

Never use the hanging loops that hang from the horizontal bars; they suck and they will not keep you steady once the train moves or stops.

Pay attention and anticipate sudden stops and go’s. No one likes that person that repeatedly gets thrown into other people because the train stopped.

3. The doors

Do not stand directly next to the doors if possible. This makes it difficult for people to exit/enter the train. If you are standing at the door because the train is too full, get off the train and let people leave. You will be the first one back on and you’ll be able to get a better spot to stand, or maybe even a seat. The train won’t leave without you if you get off for three seconds.

It is acceptable for people to move closer to the doors while the train is moving only if they are getting off at the next stop. People pile into the train once it seems like no one else is exiting (often once the doors open), so it’s actually good to get close to the door to keep things moving. However, don’t do this in an overly crowded train; you’ll annoy people by pushing past them when there’s no place to go.

Beware of your bag. The conductors get in trouble, to the tune of unpaid suspensions,  if they close the door on your backpack because it was sticking out. Treat it as an extension of your body and get it inside the doors. And if the door closes and crunches your bag, take responsibility.


This needs to be posted at every escalator ever.

4. Escalators

This cannot be stressed enough. In peak conditions, especially rush hour, do NOT block the entire escalator. Stand on the right if you must stand so that people in a rush can walk to your left. The escalator is meant to speed things up, don’t slow things down for everyone.

5. Performers

This won’t apply to nearly anyone reading, but here it goes anyway. I tend to dislike performers in the subway. Chances are, I’m listening to music or a podcast. However, I will admit that there is an aesthetic/cultural plus to street performers and subway performers. You don’t find people playing violin in public spaces in suburbs. However, it does get annoying when you quite literally can’t escape the sounds you’re making. So here are some rules for subway performers:

A. No amplifiers

Chances are, you don’t need one. The subway can be pretty quiet when no trains are entering/exiting the station, and when they are entering and exiting, it’s hard to hear anything. Amplifiers aren’t necessary most of the time. If your instrument requires one, keep it to a reasonable level. If i’m not interested in your music, I’m not going to tip you, regardless of its volume. I’m certainly not going to walk the length of the platform to tip you if I can hear you from 80 yards away.

B. Keep it classical

Classical music is generally unoffensive. It’s relaxing and pleasing to the ear. It’s exactly what I want to hear in a subway station, when I’m tired in the morning or stressed going home at night. Folksy music with some singing is also OK in some aspects, just don’t go too crazy. The vocals, if included, should NOT be the focal point. And again, if vocals are included, no microphones.

C. No cliche covers!

If I hear Dirty Water one more time on the subway or in Downtown Crossing, I’m going to vomit. Seriously, you’re a musician, play something interesting.

Anything else? 

If I missed anything, be sure to let me know!

21 thoughts on “The MBTA Etiquette Handbook

  1. Good blog. I wish the commuter rail conductors were more proactive in enforcing things like no bags on the seats, no lying across 3 seats, etc. They did when I took the Providence train.

    One point regarding not using the overhead straps on the subway (or bus). Yes, that’s a great thought but when you’re only 5 feet tall like I am, sometimes you have no choice if you aren’t near a seat back to hold or a pole. I can’t reach the overhead railing without standing on my tippy toes which doesn’t make for a very comfortable commute.

    • Good point on the overhead loops! I wish the MBTA would provide a better solution. I find the only way they work well is if you grab two of them on opposite sides of the train and lean back like you’re about to get launched out of a slingshot. But chances are, if you have that much room, you don’t need to use the loops anyways.

      • I believe I’ve seen on other cities’ trains movable metal “loops” that will swing from up to down so you can grab onto them, but will not move side to side. Works much better than silly, bendable plastic.

    • Overall, I found Your subway etiquette blog fairly good. I mostly disagree on what you say about performers, but that’s a subject for another day.
      I noticed that one of the subjects you skipped is odors. Too many people who are wearing perfumes or colognes forget that the brain shuts down a non-life threatening odor to the wearer. Our sense of smell is mainly for smelling danger. The first time one applies perfume, the brain says, “What’s THIS?!?” The second day, it says, I guess that’s o.k., since everything is working.” The third day, the brain shuts the smell down so that the wearer can smell more important things, like fire. Some people end up putting more and more on, as the days go by, ’til finally they’re just a moron. I often have to get off buses, subway cars, or elevators to get away from these idiots.
      I’ve got a hilarious story about a stinky fellow who ended up causing a Green Line train to be taken out of service, but that’s a story for another day.
      On one of your performer comments: I’m a retired performer who graduated from going on tour, playing clubs, etc., to the more lucrative subway busking. Of my fan clubs, the strongest were Japanese, German, and Spanish. Speaking English was not necessary, as anyone with a musical ear can get the message through the music. Sometimes, great song writers can have two opposite messages in a song. A great example is in the song “Yesterday.” Lyric-wise, it’s “My girl dumped me.” Music-wise, it’s about optimism and wonderful new beginnings. It’s why it’s common to hear the song played instrumentally at weddings. Those who are deaf to the musical message don’t get it. Too bad.
      Well, enough. Again, overall I think your comments on subway etiquette are excellent. Yours, RO’B

  2. When you are at the station platform and the train has just arrived, DO NOT stand in front of the door. Stand directly to the sides of the doors and let everyone exit before entering the train. Nothing’s worse than being blockaded from exiting the train at your stop, or better yet, someone entering a train while you’re trying to exit.

    Same goes for exiting the train. Do your best to keep your timing right so that you are ready to exit that train at your stop as quickly as possible from the moment the doors open to ensure there are no exiting/entering conflicts.

    • One time I was singing at Government Center on the westbound Green Line when a huge fellow got off a train coming from Haymarket and stood facing the track waiting for his D or B train. As another train pulled in, I noticed that this giant was blocking the door. I announced through the microphone, “What, are you blind? Get away from the door!” He turned to face me. He was holding a blind man’s cane. WOOPS! That was more embarrassing than forgetting the lyrics to one of my own songs. RO’B

  3. Your rule about not taking an aisle seat when a window seat is empty on the commuter rail applies to the bus as well. Drives me insane when there are 20 people standing and some dude defiantly sitting next to an empty seat that no one wants to bother asking if they can sneak past him to occupy.

  4. On the subway- if you are seated on the aisle & the person in the window seat needs to get out please stand up to let them out. I can’t stand when people do that quarter turn into the aisle so you have to squeeze past them.

    • On the bus (applies to trolleys in Boston as well I’m sure) in Cambridge, I’ve noticed a newer thing that seems to occur among mostly college students and post-grads. Not only not getting up to let a person on the inside exit or not turning their legs a quarter of the way:

      They wait until the bus comes to a FULL STOP before moving *at all*. Drivers have shut the doors on me and nearly pulled away as I yell for them to stop while these tortoises take their time.

      this “not getting up until the bus is at a full stop” is rationalized (according to a millennial colleague) for the sake of balancing and not looking the fool, evidently. When I pointed out, uh, who cares how you *look*? and if you do, try getting up at the stop before you need to get off and stand by the door, she was like “oh”. I know others who tout security, but seriously, c’mon.

      Kids at least used to “surf” on trolleys/subway, hands-free, for fun when there were few to no passengers. If you don’t have the balance to get up before a full-stop, I would suggest you may have sort of disability & should perhaps be using allotted disabled seating.

      Not getting up until at a full stop: Rude. I’ve also noticed folks who employ this behavior waiting until the full stop, then head to the front to exit.
      Before boarding, I always look to see if anyone is heading to exit. with the delay these individuals have in exiting, I am often already scanning my charlie card when they’ve reached the front. and that is with me LOOKING to see if people are coming.

  5. If you’re getting on the bus and need to put money on your Charlie Card, go to the back of the line. It saves everyone time because the driver can take off while you futz around doing something you should have done online.

  6. Another etiquette thing I would like to add when ridding on the green line especially is to stand facing the windows. With your feet spread shoulder length apart and not facing the front. You are less likely to fall all over everyone. You are more easily able to transfer your weight from side to side and maintain stability than fall all over everyone.

    • Great comment! I always give that advice to newcomers who are falling all over because they’re facing the wrong way. One time I was on a Green Line train that was particularly jerky. A crowd of South Koreans got on, and it was obvious that they use the trains often in Korea. They all were standing facing the windows while talking. Not one was holding on to anything. When the train made a sudden stop, they all just stood talking without the need to grab onto anything, as if nothing ha happenned. I thought I was good, but they had an incredible knack for being unaffected by the jerking train. RO’B

  7. For heaven’s sake, move to the back! I love it when the green line is so packed around the doors that no one can get on….but then get to see the ample amount of standing room in the back as the train passes you by!

    • Yes, yes, yes!! One of my major pet peeves. Also – if you force someone who is standing to squeeze forward into the seat in front of them so you can go behind them, DO NOT then stand directly behind them forcing them to remain in that position for the rest of the ride! Used to happen to me a lot on the subway.

    • yep. I tweeted the T about this regarding bus 69 because the Rindge students were taking up the space of 2 people when standing on the bus. One driver the next week announced to take off backpacks. No one did. but it was an effort, once. It used to be a natural thing to do things to share space with others in public. I don’t get why something like this escapes people’s consciousness.

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  9. Don’t face your back to a performer unless they are really bad. Facing one’s back is the opposite of a standing ovation. Sometimes it’s just cultural ignorance or upbringing, like facing one’s back towards another on an elevator when there’s no need for it. It’s incredibly insulting. You are telling the person behind you, “You’re lower than shit.”
    In my 23 years performing in the subways, NOT ONE Hispanic person EVER faced their back to me. There was a problem that they would stay to listen for hours, so I had to make sure I never repeated a song unless it was requested. Never had Japanese tourists turn their back, except Japanese teenage girls, who can be as ignorant as American teenagers that way.
    Enough, RO’B

  10. I agree with the aspect of treating the driver with respect. But that is a two way street.

    There were a lot of mix-ups this past year when the Salem Depot station had to be rearranged so the construction crews could get in and out of the site where the garage is currently being built. As such, sometimes a driver would make the mistake of leaving the marquee for one destination until after he pulled out. You can imagine what happened as a result of this.

    Did he apologize for the confusion after taking us several stops in the opposite direction? No. Okay, so knowing this confusion happened once, I made it a point to always ask the drivers if their bus was definitely the one going to where I needed to go. And I’ve gotten more than my fair share of snotty looks from drivers who thought I was asking a stupid question when I really just didn’t want to be late for work by getting on the wrong bus again.

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  12. As a regular user of the commuter rail out of Providence to points along the Red Line I have to say most of what you’ve written makes sense. I do think the Red Line needs some serious upgrades though. THe 015 series of cars needs to be retired. The bearing noise when they enter a station is horrendous.

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