Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A BART rider blocks four seats with his bicycle in July. Photo by Dan Brekke/KQED.

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?

We put those questions on Facebook and received more than 400 comments from followers of KQED, KQED News, KQED’s Forum and NewsHour. Some of their answers:

Chivalry 101: When Do You Give Up Your Seat on Public Transportation? 16 August,2012

  • We have a great forum here that addresses issues like this!

  • i wonder if most people have the sense to give up their seats for someone more in “need” of one, but maybe they don’t want to be the first one to offer… and waiting on someone else to make that gesture.

  • kerry

    How about asking people to give up their seats? People love to hate on their fellow commuters rather than just talking to them. If you really need to sit, ask instead of getting angry. Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  • It seems manners have gone the way of the VCR! I’m ALWAYS very vigilant about giving up my seat to the elderly, disabled, pregnant women, women or men with small children or babies, someone with groceries or anyone else who looks like they need it. I’m always amazed at the blank looks I get from people around me. I’ve never seen many people giving up their seat for any reasons. God forbid you might find a man who gives up his seat for a woman! I think I might faint if I saw that!

  • It seems manners have gone the way of the VCR! I’m ALWAYS very vigilant about giving up my seat to the elderly, disabled, pregnant women, women or men with small children or babies, someone with groceries or anyone else who looks like they need it. I’m always amazed at the blank looks I get from people around me. I’ve never seen many people giving up their seat for any reasons. God forbid you might find a man who gives up his seat for a woman! I think I might faint if I saw that!

  • Addie

    I think it’s funny that so many people say they’d give up their seat for a pregnant woman. I think someone offered me a seat on the bus three times during my entire pregnancy. I even had someone literally push me out of their way to take the last seat from me. People just pretend they’re busy on their iPhones and Kindles and don’t see you, but they do.

  • karemama

    In 2011 when I was pregnant, I was lucky to get a seat near the doors on my way from South Hayward to SF. After some stops the train ran out of seats. At another stop and elderly woman came on the train and no one offered their seat. I was already at 8 months and 70lbs heavier than usual so it was tough to stand. I watched as this elderly woman had trouble standing and looked very tired. I offered my seat and she smiled and said no thanks. And still no one else got up.

  • Joe

    Can we be a little rational about this? It’s not a case of good/bad manners, it’s a case of good/null manners. No biggie if you don’t offer, but its a kindness if you do. It should come from compassion, not obligation. Being pregnant isn’t special. Look at how many people there are in the world. There would be plenty of seats if not for the selfish desire to procreate, so if you look at it from a bigger picture, a pregnant woman is creating the lack of seats. What an ouroboric irony.

  • I usually stand while on MUNI or BART, but it seems unsurprising that many people
    choose to remain seated even when other people may need it way more than they
    do. When I say that, I mean, I don’t think seats should be vacated for people
    who don’t need it more than someone else—this would mean then that active,
    relatively healthy people, irrespective of their age, gender, or any other
    “relevant” criteria, should vacate their seats for those who need it more than
    they do. That being said, whether one actually does this seems, from personal
    experience and the relative consensus above, to be a different issue.

    The problem seems to be not so much that chivalry is dead, but rather, I think,
    that basic social psychological phenomena are at play and not being accounted
    for. Diffusion of responsibility seems to be rearing its head in these types of
    situations more than one might expect.

    Here’s an analogous example to drive home the point of diffusion of responsibility—It’s
    a quiet night in your neighborhood at around midnight and all of a sudden, as
    large sums of people on your block are in their respective beds about to fall
    asleep, a loud, horrendous car crash is heard nearby. The car crash sounds like
    it was a pretty bad one, so bad, in fact, that it probably necessitates the
    help of some emergency crews. But since it’s late at night and you expect few,
    if any, cars to be on the road passing by the accident, you have the urge to
    dial 911. But, since it’s a quiet night and all, and doubtless everyone on your
    block has heard the same, horrendous sound you did, you expect everyone else on
    your block to dial 911 themselves. Since everyone on your block who also heard
    the crash expects this, virtually no one dials 911, and, while this is all
    transpiring, the people in the car accident are left unassisted.

    Put simply, the larger a group gets, the less personally responsible each member of said group feels regarding any particular issue.

    I think the principle force at work in the car accident example above is likely
    at work in this situation here. With that said, let’s get back to the public
    transit issue. Even though signs are plastered on nearby exits stating that
    people should vacate their seats if someone such as a disabled individual,
    senior citizen, pregnant woman, or parent en route to point B with her/his very
    young kids in tow needs it and no other seats are available, oftentimes most
    people fail to vacate their seats for those who technically meet the relevant
    criteria, because everyone expects everyone else to do it.

    Since policies often change at a glacial pace (indeed, probably
    slower), I would advise, though somewhat, for lack of a better word,
    embarrassing and, in some ways, uncalled for, given the fact that some might
    feel that people should know this already and just vacate their seats when the
    moment arises, if someone needs to sit down because, well, they need to, the
    person who needs to sit down should just pick someone and ask them to get up.

    Ambiguity leads to inaction. The more explicit one can be, the more personally
    responsible someone will feel in a large group of, in this case, public transit
    passengers. While it’s not obvious that the person who is asked to get up from
    their seat isn’t suffering silently in some way, it also doesn’t hurt the
    person who needs to sit down to simply ask them. If they are suffering silently
    or just don’t want to get up, then they can choose not to. Chances are, though,
    someone will get up, if you simply ask them to.

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