It's 7:12 a.m. on Wednesday, and there are still about a dozen empty seats in a car on a BART train pulling out of Dublin. The train rolls past cloud-topped hills and suburban shopping plazas, picking up more passengers along the way.
By the time it has reached San Leandro four stops later, all the seats are filled. A pregnant woman gets on and grabs a rail, standing as the train begins to move. I'm the first to offer her my seat; she accepts.
I'm not sure how many other passengers might have given up their seat if I hadn't stood. But I know that the question of when to give up your seat - and to whom - is something every train or bus rider has faced.
And commuters might be dealing with those questions more frequently now, as recent policy changes made by Bay Area public transit systems may have made trains and buses more crowded. BART, which typically prohibits bikes in commute directions during rush hour, is experimenting by making an exception on Fridays for the month of August. And changes are coming to Muni policies that are expected to allow more unfolded strollers on buses.
In April, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Heather Knight reported that she took her pregnant sister on crowded Muni buses around San Francisco to find out how many riders would be polite and chivalrous enough to give up their seat. She didn’t find many:
A woman with her purse sitting on an empty seat next to her looked right at [my sister] Beth and did nothing. Several other people looked straight at her belly and then straight at the floor.
When the driver of the 45 Union-Stockton headed toward the Marina seemed to think he was actually participating in the Indy 500, a woman put her hands up so Beth, who lost her footing, wouldn’t fall on her. And then the woman remained in her seat.
On the 8-Bayshore headed back downtown, two hippy-dippy women had a long discussion about rainwater collection, volcanoes and the glory of Mother Earth. That wonder certainly didn’t apply to actual mothers-to-be, as they pretended there wasn’t one standing right above them.
Final tally? One well-mannered rider out of several dozen who had seats. I asked Beth to describe the attitude of her fellow Muni riders. “Mostly indifferent to mildly annoyed,” she said.
Giving up your seat to a pregnant woman may seem obvious to some. Of course, that’s not the only unspoken rule of etiquette on public transportation. SFist offered these guidelines and others in May:
Stay to the Right on Escalators and Stairs
Do Not Audibly Groan or Otherwise Protest When the Bus Stops for a Disabled or Wheelchair-Bound Person
Take Off Your Damn Backpack Or Enormous Purse
Singing Is Never Allowed
Always Offer Your Seat to a Lady Of a Certain Age or Elderly Gentleman
So would you offer your seat to a senior citizen or a pregnant woman? If you're a man and a woman is standing on a train or bus, does chivalry still demand that you offer her your spot?