Subway Surfing

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It's rush hour. You're surrounded by people on all sides. Somehow you've ended up in one of the safety dead zones on every tube1 train where you're unable to reach any helpful guard rails or handholds. It's an all too familiar scene for regular commuters.

Then the carriage2 lurches, and you find your body in embarrassing contact with something. Maybe it's another passenger's possessions, now crushed beneath you. Maybe it's some part or parts of the anatomy of a neighbor you've fallen onto. Or perhaps the other passengers have anticipated your spill, so instead it's the carriage's dirty floor. Funny, you could have sworn there wasn't room down there for a prostrate person.

In any case, you're suitably embarrassed. Yet some other seasoned passengers standing in similar safety dead zones seem to have had no trouble keeping their balance. It's so unfair. How do they do it? Surely they're not all practiced tightrope artists, skateboarders, skiers, and gymnasts. No, but they are likely practiced with the public transportation equivalent: subway surfing.

Please note that while much of this entry discusses the tube in particular, similar surfing habits occur on all manner of public transportation. There are certainly transport surfers on crowded buses, trams, ferries, and so forth. For practical purposes, we'll stick to tube terminology and let you use your imagination from there.

Extreme subway surfing

Anybody who enjoys action movies is familiar with the most extreme form of subway surfing, the kind done outside and on top of the tube train. This special effects favorite actually dates back to the 19th century, when the only equivalent to the tube was the steam locomotive. During theatrical melodramas, the villain would tie the heroine to the train tracks and challenge the hero to save her in time. This was always a trap, and the inevitable result was a climactic fist fight on the locomotive's engine carriage.

Silent motion pictures took advantage of differing camera angles to move their characters out of the engine carriage and on top of the passenger carriages, where they risked a deadly collision if a tunnel approached. In 1903, The Great Train Robbery explored what might happen if more were at stake than a single screaming heroine. Since then, actors like Clint Eastwood and Jackie Chan and characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones have been duking it out with the bad guys while trying to stay upright. Scripts set in modern urban locales have naturally switched over to the tube train for movies like Speed (1994) and Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Needless to say, this form of subway surfing is exceptionally dangerous and not recommended. In addition to foregoing handrails, the fighters must look out for each other and any coming obstructions. The loser falls to the ground below at tens of kilometers per hour, and it's possible the remainder of the train will run over him. Highly trained stunt men are used to shoot such scenes, perhaps with the aid of suspension wires or concealed body armor. Shots featuring the actors are usually taken inside a movie studio in front of a blue screen.

Despite what you may have seen on screen, today's tube trains often don't have accessible ladders to climb onto. But they do have open areas between carriages. There are stories of recreational subway surfers taking advantage of this, since the junctures between carriages twist and turn in challenging ways when the tube train goes around bends. In no way does this article condone such perilous sport.

A practical guide

This, then, is a guide on how not to fall over when riding normally inside a tube train. I'm afraid we must start with the basics, since so many people fail even there. Then we'll slowly go up the scale of complexity.

1) If a seat is open, sit down.

Standing is one thing when the carriage is largely empty. It's quite another when the carriage is packed as tight as a sardine can. There's really no need to be a rush hour daredevil. Seats left open cause unnecessary crowding in the standing areas. So you're not just doing yourself a favor. You're giving the remaining passengers more breathing room.

Someone unfamiliar with tube riding might be intimidated by the seemingly solid wall of people between them and the nearest seat. But one shouldn't be afraid of slowly shuffling over, uttering the occasional 'excuse me' or 'pardon me' along the way. If you want to sit, you'll find that everyone else wants you to sit as well. From the perspective of those still standing, you'll present less competition when it comes time to exit the tube train.

If a seat is not available to start with, you might still get one at a later stop when someone gets off the train. Since people tend to crowd the areas next to the doors, the best strategy is to stand as far from all nearby doors as possible. This means you will be nearer the seats, will be able to maneuver around people better, and will have less competition when a seat finally opens. Stay alert when reaching new stops, as the slightest hestitation will cost you a seat.

2) Even if no seat is free, you may qualify to get one.

This goes if you're elderly, pregnant, injured or otherwise physically challenged. If you're very young, you also qualify assuming you're with an adult whose lap you can sit on. Most carriages have seats designated for priority passengers like yourself. Use them. If the crush prevents you from getting to a designated seat, place yourself in view of those seated near you. Look uncomfortable and forlorn, and someone may give you their seat.

This is not selfish of you. It's practical. Standing only areas are designed for people within parameters that you happen to lay outside of. Not your fault.

In a similar vein, you may be able to appeal to your seated neighbors if you're drunk or motion sick. Either one makes you more likely to fall. You'll also be less likely to hurl if seated. Threatening to throw up if you don't get a seat usually works.

3) Barring seats, use the poles, rails, and handles provided for you.

Trust me. This is priority over your perusal of today's newspaper. Your brain is capable of complex real-time triangulation between the motion of the floor detected by your two feet and that detected by your hand at a higher elevation. Without your hand on anything, you lose the all-important third dimension. Your brain's 2D solutions to 3D problems may not work. So you'll fall over.

For similar reasons, don't hog a pole or rail by leaning full body onto it. Your neighbors need a triangulation aid just like you do. Don't deprive them of it. If they fall, it could cause a domino effect, making you fall too.

4) If no obvious assists are nearby, touch anything that's fixed in place.

Tall folks can often touch the ceiling. Those near the doors can place their palm on one. (Don't lean fully on the doors, however.3) If you can touch a passenger's seat without bothering anyone, that works too.

You don't have to actually grasp anything to triangulate. Grasping is for last resort attempts to stay up after you've started falling. Hopefully it won't come to that.

Under no circumstaces should you use people or their possessions for this purpose. They move in reaction to the carriage but not exactly with the carriage. This will confuse the primitive part of your brain that's responsible for maintaining balance. You may also instinctively grasp at the person or thing if you start falling and take them/it with you. This is generally considered rude behavior.

That said, you may be able to better position your own possessions for added stability. A rectangular piece of luggage, wheels locked, could act like a third leg. A heavy bag might be slung between your legs, acting similarly to the weights photographers put on their tripods for added balance. And if all this is simply too terrifying, there's always the floor. It's quite bearable down there once you lay a newspaper down.

5) Stand facing the front of the tube train with your knees slightly bent. Spread your feet at hips' width diagonal to the tube's forward motion.

In this stance, your knees can react to bumps like a car's shock absorber. Locking your knees inhibits this natural mechanism. And if you spread your feet much further than your hips' width, your knees will tend to partially lock when you're not paying attention. Plus you will likely be impinging on others' leg space. Very uncool. So keep things nice and springy.

Keeping your feet apart and diagonal ensures that you will receive maximum information from your feet in both the forward/back and side-to-side directions. Traditional wave surfers often use a similar stance and do it for the same reason. It's also why this whole exercise in balance is sometimes called subway surfing.

Looking towards the front of the carriage, you will witness a phenomenon similar to Star Trek scenes where the ship is experiencing turbulence. People in front of you will sway in response to bumps and jolts that you haven't come across yet. Though you needn't pay much attention, your brain will process this information and make predictions about when to expect those bumps and jolts yourself.

6) Lean slightly towards the front of the carriage just after the doors close. When you sense the tube train stopping, lean slightly back.

During departure, you can safely anticipate forward momentum that will push you backwards. Gently leaning forward provides you with a head start on fighting the inevitable push. Just don't lean too far, or you'll start off unbalanced. Since most spills happen during or shortly after departure, that would be a big mistake.

Obviously, the same tactic works (though in the opposite direction) when the tube train stops. For this, it helps to know when that might be. So...

7) If you keep riding the same tube line or lines, learn the quirks of the journey.

How long is the ride between each stop? Do the tube operators tend to speed up or slow down at certain junctures? At what points does the carriage list to the right or left side? Is there a particular event in the journey that tends to distract you just before a serious jolt? What may seem like prescient corrective action by other passengers is probably just familiarity.

You too can lean gently in the direction opposite the next expected lurch. Or you can adjust your feet in advance to provide better stability in that direction. You just have to know roughly what to expect next.


It's all very easy when you consider it. Anyone prepared can avoid a spill. This helps to explain why little kids used to the tube are no more likely to fall than adults. It's mostly a matter of giving the hindbrain's sense of balance all the information it needs to do complex math that the conscious mind needn't keep track of in the least. Staying flexible enough to react and being considerate to others also helps.

Give it a little practice, and you'll see.

Public Transport EtiquetteThe Ultimate Guide to the London UndergroundThe History of Wave Surfing
1Americans can substitute the word subway for tube.2Americans similarly call carriages cars or train cars.3In London, this can cause the train to stop. In New York, the doors may open on you.

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