Are Priority Seats on Transit Necessary?

Pamela Chan/

Have you ever been on a bus or train and watched as passengers in need of priority seating remained standing?  What happened next?

When I was five months pregnant with twins, I had a 1 1/2 hour commute via transit to my workplace.  I walked to a small commuter bus, hoped the bus would stop for me, got off at a SkyTrain station, transferred to a train, rode a short distance, walked and transferred again, rode a longer distance and then took a bus up a mountain to my office.  From the final bus stop I would walk down a hill to my department and hoped that I wouldn’t slip on ice or snow.

The hardest part of my commute were the first and last bus rides.  On the first bus ride I boarded a small commuter bus.  It wasn’t unusual for me to have to stand while everyone sat and looked at me.  If I was offered a seat, it wasn’t necessarily a person who might have some personal empathy with my situation based on their own experience. On the last leg of my trip I often found myself on a crowded bus and couldn’t get a seat.

I found the lack of consideration on transit – especially considering my visible pregnancy – to be upsetting.  At this time I was experiencing frequent twinges that made it difficult to walk. I really DID need a seat.  By the end of my fifth month, my Director in my department arranged for me to go home on sick leave.  I was very grateful for his initiative because it really was becoming a challenge to move around.

When people think about priority seating on transit, they might not think about pregnant women.  Some of the stickers that I have seen on buses and trains don’t even mention pregnancy as a topic.  For that reason, I was pleased to see that pregnant women are included on stickers placed on buses and trains in Toronto.  Since my twins were born five years ago, we’ve moved outside of Vancouver and have seen parking lots with priority parking for pregnant women.  This consideration does make a difference and I would have appreciated having it when I was pregnant.

When I was a school girl, my father used to take transit into work in Ottawa from a suburban city.  One day he was seated at the back of the bus and noticed that a pregnant woman had boarded.  None of the other passengers on the bus – who were mostly men – stood up to offer their seat.  My father told the person next to him to hold his seat.  Walking towards the front of the bus, he asked the woman to accept his seat.  She accepted. It was, after all, a long time to stand.  While returning to the back of the bus he addressed everyone and reminded them of their obligation to offer their seats in this type of situation. (As an ex-member of the military, he also reminded them that they should be removing their military hats while they sat on the bus.)

It’s easy to think that a lack of consideration for people who need a seat is a recent problem.  I shared this story to illustrate that it has been an ongoing problem for some time.

Priority seating means that a segment of the population has priority access to identified seats.  That doesn’t mean that other people can’t sit down on the seats until they are required.  The difficulty with this approach, however, is that sometimes we can’t tell if someone has a physical disability.  A person with heart problems could have difficult walking but you wouldn’t know by looking at that person.  Over ten years ago I had a health condition that impacted my ability to walk.  (I do not have this problem now and I do not require access to priority seating on transit any more.) At that time I could only walk short distances and unexpectedly my ability to walk would be curtailed.  It was a very trying time but my eyes were also opened to the challenges of people around me who had even more difficulties.  In particular I noticed people in wheel chairs and with walking canes.  Without naming names, I can say that I remember times when others were not very patient with these individuals as they tried to board transit and get settled.  Seeing their daily struggle from this vantage point was humbling and revealing.

With the cold, rainy season upon us, taking transit can become a messy affair.  Commuters are jammed onto buses and trains sporting wet clothing, bags and umbrellas.  This is a good time to look up from our electronic devices and scan transit regularly to make sure that there isn’t someone in need who is standing on transit.  Sometimes when you offer a seat, that person might say “no”.  It is always best to ask.  When the priority seats are full, commuters that are seated towards the front of the bus can also think about offering their seats.  On a train anyone could be a candidate to offer a seat as there are multiple entry points.

Let’s talk about this topic at the water cooler and bring it up at family meal time.  We can all play our part to help make transit a more comfortable experience for everybody.

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