Metro Campaign Reminds Riders to Give Up Seats Reserved for Seniors, Disabled

Jane Sheehan and her guide dog Nugget ride the Metro from Petworth to Fort Totten.
Jane Sheehan and her guide dog Nugget ride the Metro from Petworth to Fort Totten. (Ricky Carioti - Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Metro riders routinely scold out-of-towners for disobeying some of the subway's most basic rules, such as standing to the right on escalators. But even the most seasoned commuters have a lot to learn about etiquette.

Just follow Jane Sheehan, 54, who is blind, and her guide dog. After getting on a Red Line train at Fort Totten, she turned left to check whether the seat closest to the door was empty. But a woman in a red coat was sitting there. The woman looked at Sheehan, then went back to her newspaper. The adjacent seat was empty. But Sheehan didn't know that, and the woman said nothing.

Sheehan stood in the aisle, right hand holding a pole, left hand wrapped around the leash of Nugget, her yellow Labrador retriever. Several minutes later, the other woman reached her stop, got off and told Sheehan, "the seat's empty now."

Sheehan says that 95 percent of the time, she is on her feet for the 15-minute ride to Glenmont because no one offers her a seat or tells her where empty ones are. She doesn't ask for help because she doesn't like calling attention to herself. If her feet really hurt, she sits on the floor, Nugget by her side. "People are so self-absorbed," she said. "They just don't think about other people."

Metro hopes to change all that with a new campaign that began last week. The manners movement coincides with the start of warm weather, Metro's busiest season. The transit authority is reminding riders that the four seats near the center doors of each rail car are reserved for seniors, the disabled and others in need. More visible signs with arrows pointing to the seats are being installed in the cars. Ads are also going up inside the cars and Metrorail stations. Metro is making announcements in stations and on trains. There's even a YouTube video.

The message: If you sit in one of those seats and you're not a senior or someone with a disability, it's your responsibility to give the seat to someone who needs it. Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates likened it to sitting in an airplane exit row: "If you don't want to take that responsibility, don't sit there."

That's good news for riders such as Kelly Parsons Lai, who is 32 and more than seven months pregnant. She commutes on the standing-room-only Orange Line between Arlington County and downtown Washington. She can count on one hand the number of times she's been offered a seat. (Those who offer are mostly "middle-aged" people, she said.)

To be fair, she's on the "Orange Crush" when it's the most crowded, boarding at the Court House Station about 8:30 a.m. Lai is 5-foot-8 and obviously pregnant. But trains are so crowded that people sitting in priority seats would have a hard time seeing her.

One recent morning, two men were in the seats closest to Lai, who was standing in the aisle directly in front of them. Neither man looked up. One was in his 20s, wearing an American Eagle striped polo shirt, reading a newspaper. He mumbled that he was new to Washington when asked why he didn't offer his seat. Next to him, a man with graying hair and mustache, flag pin on his lapel, was deep into a David Baldacci novel. "I didn't notice," he snapped in an annoyed tone and went back to his book. Lai found a seat elsewhere.

Social scientists say commuters are so goal-oriented that they tune everything else out. That might be a way for people to "protect their own integrity" from too much outside stimuli, said Arline Bronzaft, a retired psychology professor at the City University of New York and a former consultant to New York City transit.

People are also more rude today, said P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor and author of two books on civility. Established forms of deference and respect, including giving up seats, have declined. That's especially true in anonymous environments, such as the subway, he said. "In generations gone by, we had a strong incentive to behave in 9public in ways to conform to social norms," he said. "If we didn't, there was shame."

Not anymore.

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