The MBTA is trying to stop ‘manspreaders’ with cute GIFs

Talking to a person on speakerphone. Eating smelly foods. Clipping nails. Littering.

People riding the MBTA do strange things sometimes. And typically, passengers aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with their fellow passengers when it comes to violating social norms — just take a quick scan through Twitter and explore the angry messages that get lobbed at the transit agency’s social media account.

But two complaints stand out more than others, driving commuters mad as they pack onto crowded trains each day: people wearing large backpacks that bang around and take up space, and those who sit with their legs wide apart, a macho move that’s commonly called “manspreading.”


Now, following a string of complaints and pleas from passengers that the MBTA take action against these egregious behaviors, officials Friday rolled out a new digital campaign aimed specifically at reminding riders they’re in a public space.

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Using a series of GIFs — short, animated images — T officials hope to catch the attention of commuters while also lightening the mood.

One features an obese orange cat rolling around on a chair, its rear legs spread.

The accompanying message: “Only take the seats you need. Please don’t take seats that you don’t need, and give up your seat if you see someone who needs it more. Courtesy counts.”

A second GIF shows a dog wearing a backpack stuffed with puppies. That message is in regard to taking off backpacks when on a crowded train.


“Remove your backpack,” it says. “Backpacks take up space and hit people — please take them off when riding the train. Courtesy counts.”

The T worked with its advertising partner, OUTFRONT Media, to launch the new digital campaign. It will roll out additional messages in the weeks to come.

For now, riders will only see the video messages on the inbound side of Copley Square station, where eight high-definition digital displays are housed along the tracks and near the fare gates.

“Working with our advertising contractor, we are pleased to roll out these unique public service messages that address frequent comments from our customers,” Steve Poftak, interim MBTA general manager, said in a statement. “Courteous behavior makes the transit experience a more pleasant one, and we hope these fun and friendly reminders will increase public awareness.”

The MBTA is in the process of upgrading existing advertising screens at other busy transit hubs on a rolling basis, and adding even more. Once they’re installed, riders can expect to see the cheeky messages displayed there, too.


The digital campaign comes at no cost to the T, officials said.

Transit agencies in other parts of the world have also gone after the act of “manspreading,” an action that some consider both rude and encroaching on the personal space of fellow riders. (Note: You could always just ask someone to close their legs, but that could lead to an awkward exchange that no one wants to have in public.)

In Madrid, for example, officials announced last month that new signs aimed at preventing people from spreading their legs would be plastered on buses and its Metro system, reminding riders to “respect the space of others.”

In 2016, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority went after those with their legs splayed using informational signs throughout its transit system.

And in 2014, Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority launched a “courtesy campaign” that addressed riders taking up more than one seat. That push fell short of actually using the word “manspreading.”

The MBTA itself has launched courtesy campaigns in the past using sign boards on buses and trains.

Backpack complaints:

“Manspreading” complaints:

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.