Courtesy seating on public transit. Ask any frequent rider and you’ll hear an opinion and probably a story or two.
The stories that’ll be told are the low points of our day and stories that echo sad observations of modern society. It’s most often stories of incomprehensible rudeness and ignorance, all marked with a tone of disappointment.
Vancouver’s Translink does a meager job of informing the public of how to ride transit like a fully formed adult. Their website notes a good practice of taking one another’s “word for it” when someone requests a seat. They’re obviously discouraging the alternate choice of assessing the request based on your own set of predefined requirements and then approving as required.
I had my request for a courtesy seat denied the other day. While I’m not exactly disabled, I am six months pregnant. My joints are expanding as I write this, readying my body for the birth of a small human; but technically, I’m not disabled.
My request for a seat was denied for the following reasons, or so I was told:
- I have been recently spotted running upstairs therefore am ineligible for courtesy seating and
- The bus was almost full when I chose to board and therefore, since I require courtesy seating, I should have waited for the next bus instead of requesting a seat on this bus.
When I boarded the bus, I spotted no free seats so I asked a man as kindly as I could for his. He barked at me an affirmative, “nope.” I then did what any reasonable person would do and clarified that I was indeed at that very moment creating thousands of cells by the minute and growing a human being, but his arms remained firmly crossed and he smugly stated his reasoning:
“I saw you running up the stairs once. You can’t have my seat.”
Wait — what? You saw me? Running? Upstairs? Why are you watching me?
I said I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t give up his seat to a pregnant woman but by the time I got to the part about my fear of falling while on a moving bus that travels highway speeds I was crying.
At some point I was ushered into another seat by a Good Samaritan. Then, a woman spoke up.
I knew the woman, too. I see her on the same run as I see him. She’s middle aged, she might be a Mom, too, and immediately I assumed she was on my side. I was wrong.
She cited the aforementioned official reason number two that my request for a seat shall be denied today.
It appears that she too has been watching me. She tells the crowd that I “do this all the time.” She goes on to say that the next bus is only five minutes away and I should wait for the next bus rather than asking someone else to give up their seat. She adds for context that she herself has had three kids.
If I were less of an emotional person I might have offered the woman my congratulations for having three perfect pregnancies. All so alike that she can’t possibly understand this pregnancy has been harder than my first. I might have also asked her whether a disabled person should have to wait for the next bus or was it just pregnant women. I’d follow that one up with an inquiry: are pregnant women lower priority than disabled people, when it comes to courtesy seating? What about seniors? Maybe she has a pamphlet I might be able to reference.
What I really wanted to say to her was that she does not hold a position of authority here and cannot deem one person’s need for a seat greater than another’s. She cannot tell me to wait for the next bus. I wanted to tell her, you’re a Mother. You should understand. We are the same.
There are things I wanted to say to the man, too. I wanted to ask him what his disability was because from what I could see, he didn’t need a seat like I did. But I didn’t want to be insensitive. I wanted to tell him that yes, he might have seen me run up a few stairs once but what does that have to do with anything? Pregnant women are not insurance fraudsters afraid to be caught waterskiing. I wanted to ask him how he did he come to learn so much about women’s abilities when pregnant, enough to warrant such a strong opinion on mine? I wished I could have said I’m really concerned about falling but something tells me he wouldn’t have understood anyway.
Overrun by hormones the whole half hour ride in, I cried. Poetically, the overhead lights never turned off and I sat under the spotlights sniffling. I wondered if I was wrong. Was I the etiquette breaking, audacious rider?
I’m not. If a bus is not full then any rider is free to board. By creating rules around who can board and when, we’re discriminating against one another. We all need to get somewhere and it’s not for us to calculate someone’s abilities against our own biased checklist.
It’s easy to sit here and write that TransLink needs to do a better job of advocating for people with extra needs. I could come up with plenty of ways that they can improve courtesy seating, too. But I’d waste my ink. This a societal issue that spans much deeper than the likes of TransLink. This is about us.
I’ll be the first to agree that it’s a heck of a lot easier to bury my nose in a book than to stand-up for a stranger in need but now? Now I know how it feels. We can’t forget that we are all individuals with histories, hurts, biases, and values. Call me an idealist but we need to start demanding better behaviour from one another and we can do that by practicing advocacy. By doing the right thing.
I haven’t seen the two people on my commute yet but when I do I will treat them with kindness because I now know that they need it the most.
Photo Credit: Edwin Andrade