Eating on the Subway: Gross or No Big Deal?

In some cities it's illegal and others just don’t get the taboo – where do you stand on eating on the subway?

People do some crazy things on the subway, this we know. Spend just one afternoon browsing the web, and endless videos and stories about fights, song-and-dance routines, and full-on meals breaking out on the subway are sure to pop up. But of all the controversy that haunts public transport, food is almost always the one that sparks the most fired-up debates among citizens. Everyone has a story about seeing someone eat something truly gross on a subway car, whether it’s sushi or a full family meal, and everyone has an opinion about how "appropriate" it is to eat anything at all on public transportation.

Just last month, a fight broke out on a Hong Kong subway train between a mainland Chinese tourist and a local about eating on the train. Of course, it was caught on video and sparked heated debates. The tourist was eating noodles and the local was quick to point out that it’s illegal to eat on the train in Hong Kong. Fighting words were tossed around, with the local threatening to delay the train by holding doors open until the tourist either stopped eating or got off the train. Eating on the train is illegal in Hong Kong, where you can be fined HK$2,000 (US$258), though it’s rarely enforced.

And while it’s not illegal to eat on the subway in New York City, it’s so taboo that getting caught sneaking a bite of something by fellow passengers is almost as bad as getting fined. (Check out this CNN video on what New Yorkers really think.) South Korea also adopts the same mentality as New York City — while it’s seen as a courteous gesture to not eat something that is smelly, noisy, and messy, there’s no law that forbids someone from eating on the subway. (But there may be dirty looks and probably someone filming with their phone.)

Plenty of cities have official no-food policies on their train systems, like Chicago, Washington D.C., and Shanghai, while other cities like Paris and Toronto have adopted a sort of citizen's-arrest type of attitude. However, New York's laissez-faire stance may end soon — a bill in Albany is aiming to forbid straphangers from eating on the subway. If passed, violators will be fined $250. But the new chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Joseph Lhota, is not yet keen on the bill. He is concerned that the if the bill were to be passed, it would hurt the minority community and children

most, who often don’t have time for a meal except during their long commutes to work or to school on the subway.

Last year, a video of two women fighting on the subway over eating spaghetti in New York City went viral, igniting a firestorm of stories and comments on what’s appropriate, who was right, and why exactly it grosses us all out so much when we see others noshing on their commute. Trolling through the comments, we found one amazing story on The Globe and Mail about a passenger who sat next to a "gentleman who ate an entire roast duck out of a plastic bag… it was crunchy and stunk up the whole car." (Photo courtesy of Flickr/VeloBusDriver)  

So what is it that so upsets people about watching fellow commuters chow down on the train? Of course, there is the general lack of hygiene underground to think about — do you really want to expose that snack or meal to the uncleanliness of a subway? But then, there is how that food adds to the uncleanliness of the subway, namely how it contributes to the ever-growing rat population. Then, common consideration used to hold that eating in front of others that aren’t eating is just plain rude. But on the flip side, some think it’s absolutely OK to eat on the train, as long as you clean up after yourself, particularly if you’re trying to squeeze a meal into an otherwise hectic day.

So what about you? Do you eat on the subway? Is it taboo to eat on the train in your hometown? Have you seen something really incredible ingested on the train? We can’t get enough of this fascinating topic and are all ears.