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Comfort and your commute — why public transit can hurt and how to prevent it

Public transit can be a real pain in the neck.

According to Statistics Canada, 595,000 Canadians spent at least 60 minutes each day commuting on public transit in 2016. Whether it’s jostling in a crowd to reach a grab bar, balancing between fellow commuters on the subway, or knocking knees with a fellow manspreader, assuming these daily positions on public transit can harm our health when repeated consistently. 

Comfort is one of the leading factors in determining satisfaction in public transit — and without it, public transit ridership starts to plummet. 

Dea van Lierop, an assistant professor of Human Geography and Spatial Planning at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, is the co-author of a 2018 literature review on public transit satisfaction. She found that one of the top factors for overall satisfaction in public transit is comfort — but it’s subjective.

“It’s difficult to measure what that means — for some people that means seat comfort, for others that means air conditioning or crowding,” she said.  

Satisfaction and customer loyalty

Satisfaction is linked to customer loyalty in public transit. If it doesn’t live up to expectations, van Lierop said, ridership retention decreases and commuters consider alternatives like driving. Public transit agencies will then start pivoting to on-demand transit models.

And some public transit users aren’t shy to complain about comfort, either.

“I have long legs and I can’t fit into the seats that face forwards and back, because my knees end up pressing into the metal part of the seat in front of me. I can only comfortably sit in the sideways facing subway seats,” wrote one TTC user on Reddit. A GO Transit customer on Twitter called the new GO train seat “the single most uncomfortable seat on the planet.”

Rebecca Armstrong, a physiotherapist at Myodetox, a private clinic in Toronto, said she hears from clients complaining of pain after their long commutes. 

“If you have a sedentary job and you also have a long commute on top of that, you’re just adding to your sedentary day,” she said.

When sitting for long periods of time, especially on rigid seats, the front of the body — such as the pecs and hip flexors — tighten. There’s also a weakening of muscles in the back of your body, like trapezoid and gluteal muscles and the hamstrings.

‘Who do you design for?’

“The big challenge is: ‘Who do you design for?'” asked Kathy Kawaja, the principal ergonomics consultant at Human Factors North in Toronto.

“We don’t design for a small female and it doesn’t make good business sense, or design for the large male because then we’re taking up too much space and we could have additional seats.”

Most manufacturers design their seats for what they see as their average commuter — an adult male, six feet tall, weighing around 160 pounds, said Kawaja.

But it can be hard to please everyone when it comes to seat design. Last summer, Ontario’s GO Transit solicited commuters’ feedback on its new railcar seats, including cushion softness, headrests and armrests. When poll respondents were asked to rate headrests, the design that garnered the most votes also ranked low on comfort.

Other public agencies have had to backtrack on new designs because of complaints about comfort brought up by commuters only after installation. In May, Montreal’s STM hosted a public consultation to install straps to its grab rails. (The STM’s AZUR cars were criticized by shorter commuters in 2016 because the grab bars were out of reach.) In Halifax, opposition to hard plastic seats on Nova Buses was so fierce that Halifax Transit has now planned to install some cushioned seats on its buses.

A TTC spokesperson said in an email to CBC News that its surveys suggested TTC customers don’t care as much about seat design and more about whether there’s a seat available to them in the first place.

Next stop: ergonomics

Transit agencies across the globe are experimenting with how to make their commuters more comfortable. In Seoul, subway seats are heated in the winter months, while New Jersey Transit has decided to add extra wide seats.

But Ann-Marie Carroll, general manager of York Region Transit, said there are only so many modifications that can be done since the vehicles are built around the seats themselves. YRT said it replaces the foam pads in its seats as they break down over time.

In Australia, transit systems can’t get the green light for vehicles without a thorough ergonomic assessment. Some countries in Europe are slowly catching on, but Canada isn’t quite there yet, said Judy Village, president of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists.

“It’s hard in a transit situation to provide adjustability,” said Village. “We can do that in an office, but it’s harder to do in transit.”

If your commute allows it, Rebecca Armstrong suggests using handrails to squeeze in a stretch on the subway. (Submitted by Myodetox)

Physiotherapist Rebecca Armstrong has some suggestions for how to make your commute more bearable for your body:

  • Do cat-cow in a seated position: round the back and chest forwards then stick out your chest out and tilt your head up.
  • Bring a rolled-up shirt to put against the seat back for lumbar support.
  • Don’t use your phone or tablet to avoid neck strain.
  • But the best thing you can do for your body when commuting? Get up and move around.

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