Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

There’s a Better Way to Date Online—If You Like Trains

Inside NUMTinder, a Facebook dating group exclusively for people who are really into public transit.

A heart made out of schematic subway lines
Paul Spella / The Atlantic

As a single person wandering through the world, it can be difficult to find someone who loves all the right things: parks, subways, bike lanes, human-scale buildings, high-density housing, debates over the ideal length of a city block. Even on a dating app, you can’t always tell from a profile who might be thinking, behind a smile, I hate cars.

But if this is exactly the sort of partner—or friend or fling—you’re looking for, there is a solution: Join the wildly popular Facebook meme group and leftist community NUMTOTs (“New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens,” which isn’t really just for teens) and request access to its private spin-off group, NUMTinder. With about 8,000 members living mostly in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, NUMTinder is a makeshift dating environment for those who consider liking public transportation to be a core part of their personality, or those for whom a lack of interest in urban planning is a deal breaker. Almost everyone in the group posts at least one selfie with a bike or a subway entrance to demonstrate commitment to the lifestyle, and when a new member introduces herself, it’s not uncommon for her to brag about the fact that she doesn’t have a driver’s license. (A second spin-off group, called NUMThots, is for sharing the spiciest seminudes that Facebook’s content moderation will allow. But transit-themed!)

Most NUMTinder users came of age with dating apps and don’t associate them with any kind of stigma, but they still consider this a better way to find love on the internet. “I think there’s something romantic about public transit,” says Morgan Godfrey, an administrator of the group and a 24-year-old community social worker in Chicago. “There’s this want to have these magic public-transit moments with someone you really care about.”

Rachel Murphy, a recent graduate of Temple University’s community-development program, used to go on Tinder, which she says was popular among her classmates in Philadelphia.

But when she found NUMTinder at the beginning of the pandemic, she switched allegiances. Tinder, she told me, is too cold and uniform—the app pushes everyone to present a bare-bones profile, and makes swiping feel like a chore. “They all kind of look the same after a while,” she said. By comparison, NUMTinder is colorful and welcoming and full of life. It’s an active space for the most earnest (and self-righteous) meme makers—people who use popular image templates to imagine tree-filled cities without parking lots (e.g., Drake turning away in disgust from “add a lane to 4-lane road,” but pointing approvingly at “add ten tracks to 30-track station.”)

Users can post collections of photos and whatever personal information they want, as often as they want, and then you have to ask permission in the comments before you’re allowed to send them a friend request or message them privately. These rules of engagement help prevent the casual harassment one might endure on traditional dating apps, where women tend to receive more messages than they care to, as well as sexually explicit messages they haven’t asked for. Also, not every private conversation has to be romantic—plenty are simply about … trains! On “TOT Tuesdays,” members are encouraged to post pre-pandemic selfies taken on their favorite form of public transit. Sharing news and memes and jokes about what it’s like to date as a person with this particular obsession is common. Recently, one user shared a photo of a stretch limo captioned, “It’s bullshit that this is a romantic gesture. But me getting a city bus (WHICH IS LONGER BTW) to bring us to dinner isn’t.”

The group members’ language around their adoration of buses and trains, particularly in the broader NUMTOT group, is deliberately over-the-top stan lingo with a wink. Perhaps as much as these people have been brought together by a shared passion for improving urban life, they’ve been brought together by a shared aesthetic, sense of humor, and political leaning. In a dating context, this could translate to that all-important metric of “getting it,” or “He gets me.” Nobody here is that serious about anything. Still, nobody is completely joking either.

Even the premise of the group is only half-sincere. Plenty of members aren’t expecting to get a real match when they post, just a bit of attention or a short distraction. But some end up finding love anyway. Murphy shared her first post at the beginning of quarantine, when the group had a huge influx of posts. New members were joining, old members were putting up new profiles, everyone was looking for virtual friends and flirtations. “Everybody was bored,” Murphy said. From there, she ended up chatting with someone from Portugal, with whom she was obviously never going to meet up in person, but who served as a fun fantasy during lockdown. She also learned that several of her Temple classmates were in the group, and ended up dating one of them. They’ve been together for nearly a year now, but she said that if they were to break up, she would post in NUMTinder again. “It worked once,” she said. “I wouldn’t only post in NUMTinder, but I would give that more weight than a match from a regular dating app.”

Others in the group have given up on dating apps altogether. Tasmyn Ong, a 21-year-old law student at Queen Mary University of London and a NUMTinder administrator, has never tried any other form of online dating. “I’ve always been a bit too chicken to go on actual Tinder,” she told me. “I’ve had friends who have had some very terrible experiences.” When she first joined NUMTinder, she lurked for a while, reading the posts and seeing how people responded to them. “I saw that it was such an inclusive, welcome, friendly environment, so I decided to make a post,” she said. That was in April 2019, and she’ll soon be celebrating her two-year anniversary with a boy who responded, offering to teach her how to ride a bicycle. (She’s embarrassed to admit that she still doesn’t know how.)

Ong said the group’s moderation makes it a reliable alternative for people who don’t want to wade through creepy messages on Tinder. Godfrey, her friend and co-administrator, agrees. “On the dating apps, if someone is really douchey, you can report it and unmatch them,” she told me. NUMTinder heads off this behavior by cultivating community norms for public conversations and relying on human moderators who are well known and trusted within the group. “There’s an understanding of mutual respect that’s already established,” Godfrey said. As is the case in many Facebook groups, NUMTinder members are discouraged from using the site’s built-in tools for reporting bullying or harassment on the theory that it’s better to deal with problems internally, rather than risk the group getting deleted (“zucced,” as it’s called) for producing too many reports.

NUMTinder was created in 2018 by Nigel Tate, a construction-project manager and pizza-delivery driver from Flint, Michigan. (He says that he started it as a joke, but people took it seriously almost right away.) In the past few months, Ong and Godfrey have taken over as the lead moderators and admins. They’ve changed the questions that prospective members are asked upon entry to make them more specifically about transit, so that newcomers are aware of what the community is really about. They’ve encouraged members to post about virtual dates, and announced a policy against any posts that promote using public transit as a way to travel long distances during the pandemic.

“Me and my friends don’t really go on any other dating sites,” Ong said. “I’m not sure I will [now that] I’ve experienced how friendly NUMTinder is. I’m just really happy to be part of the community.”

NUMTinder started as a joke, but there has been at least one NUMTinder wedding and countless success stories. I recently checked in with a woman I interviewed at the beginning of the pandemic, who had been embarrassed at the time about her choice to start dating a fellow NUMTinder member during lockdown, in spite of stay-at-home orders. They’re still together, and she said it’s the best relationship she’s ever been in. Ong and her NUMTOT boyfriend are planning to travel to Denmark and Switzerland as soon as it’s safe to do so, because they’ve heard about some “really, really nice trains” they can ride there, she said.

The group is for extremely online people, but it also comes off as a reaction against certain elements of online life. Tinder feels terribleeveryone knows that. Dating apps tend to be about an individual, alone, looking for something specific that she can’t quite name, in a sea of indifferent sameness. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Americans who had used a dating site or app in the past year said that the experience had left them feeling frustrated. Thirty-five percent said it had made them more pessimistic about dating.

A group like NUMTinder can solve a lot of those problems. The fact that it’s based on a meme culture that has been percolating for years provides meaningful context to each profile. Memes are a form of folklore, and “one of the core uses of folklore is building community,” says Bobbie Foster Bhusari, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland who studies internet culture. A group built around memes will use that format to communicate its values and mark a boundary around itself. “I kind of describe it as like when you go to a theme park and it says, ‘You must be this tall to ride this ride,’” Bhusari told me. A lot of memes convey a message of, “You must be into this thing, or you must be X amount of knowledgeable about that thing, to enter this space and really engage in what’s happening here.” Every member of NUMTinder, for example, could be expected to laugh at a take on the recent “trolley problem” meme that presents an empty set of tracks: “There is no trolley. America killed it in the mid-20th century in favor of suburban sprawl and the personal automobile.”

This is an even more modern approach to dating than the apps. The ratio of irony to sincerity isn’t easy to discern, which seems appropriate for a year in which the country’s most-talked-about novel is centered on a woman who gives thanks for meeting her husband, saying they were “something even better than being soulmates ... They were exactly, and happily, and hopelessly, the same amount of online.” The NUMTOTs really do love public transit, and they consider it a faithful proxy for a broader worldview based on equity and optimism. They want to date people who think and feel the same way—but they also want to date people who are at home on the internet, and in on the joke.