A Law to Deal With BART Seat Hogs Such as My Former Self

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Seen on a BART train: passenger lying on a seat with leg luxuriously stretched up to window.  (AgentAkit/Flickr)

In perhaps my most perverse BART moment ever, I once stood in the aisle of a crowded train so my suitcase and bags could have my seat.

It was maybe five years ago, on my way from SFO to Berkeley at the end of a long, miserable day of travel that had started on the East Coast. I was sitting in an aisle seat on an evening train, at the tail end of rush hour, and my full-size suitcase and a couple of other bags were in the window seat beside me. As the train filled up in downtown San Francisco, a fellow rider stood in the aisle and glared at me.

I got up and gave my seat to her. My bags, which I thought would be a headache to manage in the aisle, stayed put.

Then another rider approached and looked askance at the suitcase-filled seat. She asked me to move them in tones I felt to be a bit too demanding.

Here comes the perverse part.

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I asked the passenger in the aisle seat to get up so I could move my bags. She did, then she scooted back in and took the window seat when it was clear. But then, instead of letting the second rider sit in the now-vacant seat or sitting myself, I put my bags there. My luggage would get a relaxed trip back to the East Bay. My demanding fellow rider and I would stand.

Fury ensued, and the rest of the trip was very uncomfortable.

All I can say now for my behavior is that it was angry and spiteful and that, in the moment, I was incapable of imagining that my Demanding Fellow Passenger might have been at the end of a hard day herself. Whoever and wherever you are, DFP, I am still sorry for being such a jerk.

Maybe by way of atonement, and definitely in response to the new jampacked reality of BART, I have a different approach today. If I get a seat, I always carry my bag -- usually a backpack -- on my lap and make sure the seat next to me is clear. And no, I don't manspread.

A BART seat hog enjoys a quiet moment Tuesday afternoon on Pittsbrugh-Bay Point train. Under a proposed ordinance, those who occupy more than one seat and force other passengers to stands could face a fine beginning at $100.
A BART seat hog enjoys a quiet moment Tuesday afternoon on a Pittsburgh-Bay Point train. Under a proposed ordinance, those who occupy more than one seat and force other passengers to stand could face a fine beginning at $100. (Cameron Jones)

But that reconstructed behavior -- please, exalted fellow rider, enjoy this empty seat next to me! -- will become the law if BART board member Joel Keller has his way.

Under a Keller proposal to be considered by the BART board Thursday, riders who take up more than one seat on crowded trains could face fines that would start at $100 and top out at $500 for slow learners.

"It is hoped that this ordinance will encourage patrons to be considerate of their fellow riders," the ordinance says, "and, if voluntary compliance fails, to authorize BART Police to act with the legal tools necessary to fulfill this ordinance's objectives."

Keller told the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Cabanatuan the ordinance grows in part out of concern for patrons who face marathon standing trips to and from work and in part out of direct experience with seat hogs:

Keller represents residents of eastern Contra Costa County, who face long BART rides that can seem interminable when they’re standing. He said he was motivated to draw up the ordinance when he boarded a train and found a sleeping young man sprawled out over four seats near the door. He realized that even if he summoned police, they could do nothing but rouse the seat hoarder and ask him to sit up.

The ordinance would give police the legal leverage to force the greedy passenger to slide over or sit up, he said.

“In the past, when we had plenty of seats, it was not as serious an issue as it is today,” Keller said. “But with ridership growing and seats becoming a much more desirable commodity, we have to make sure they’re available and avoid them being taken up with backpacks, luggage or someone using two seats to lie down.”

Keller added that the ordinance is not designed to be enforced on mostly empty train cars and that the law would not be used against homeless people who often take refuge on BART.

The proposal exempts "those who by virtue of their soma type or physique must occupy more than one seat" and "those who may suffer from medical ailments or other physical limitations that warrant the reasonable use of more than one seat."

The proposal would become law only after a second reading of the ordinance, which could happen later in March.