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Standing up for what is right when Metro seats are scarce

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 11:40 AM

My exchange with a traveler about access to the priority seating near the center doors on Metrorail cars [Dr. Gridlock, Jan. 6] sparked quite a few responses.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Your point is well taken that if there is any doubt about a standee's "eligibility," the seat should be vacated. But this should go for all seats, not just designated seats, because there are far more "eligible" folks on the trains than there are designated seats.

I am grateful to all the people who have given me their seats on trains and buses over the years. I am glad there are some who are not so immersed in a hand-held device that they are oblivious to their immediate environment.

Alice Markham, Reston

DG: Markham makes the point that courtesy doesn't stem from an act of Congress. Metro is required by federal law to set aside certain seats for senior citizens and people with disabilities. It plasters advisories about that above the designated seats. But the need might be greater, especially in rush hour.

In one of its public education campaigns about priority seating, the transit authority offered some tips for riders. I like the phrasing of this one, because it doesn't refer to legal categories: "If someone needs a seat more than you, give it to them."

Other advice also is relevant, but a bit difficult to carry out in a car crowded with multi-taskers: "Pay attention to your surroundings" and "Don't get distracted by electronic devices or reading material."

Ask and receive?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As an octogenarian who, along with my wife, occasionally uses public transportation, including buses and Metrorail, I find that my wife can accurately predict who will give us a seat and who will blatantly ignore us for the coveted priority seats. I would suggest that young women are most likely; both younger and older men least prone to surrender their seats.

I often wonder whether able-bodied young people, for convenience in being close to the exit, sit in priority seats, while others do so only when no other seats are available. In either case, common courtesy dictates, whether required by law, that they relinquish their seats for the obviously elderly and disabled.

Nelson Marans, Silver Spring

DG: I suspect that people sit in the inward-facing seats because they are easy to exit when riding a crowded train. You don't have to say excuse me to the person in the aisle seat as you rise to leave. And you know we Metro riders hate to talk to one another if we don't have to. Riders can complete a rush hour trip without hearing any words other than "doors closing"!

The priority seats create a rare situation aboard Metro in which we must talk to one another. Someone either has to offer a seat or ask for it. Asking is the difficult part. "If you need a seat, don't be afraid to ask for one" - that's Metro's guidance to riders. But I often hear from the standees, deserving of a seat, who just wish that the able-bodied wouldn't sit there in the first place so they wouldn't have to ask.

Who's the sturdiest?

Many in this situation fear they're about to get into a conversation about who is more entitled to the seat. This writer, referring to the Jan. 6 letter from an older standee, points out something that the standees should keep in mind.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I just wanted to caution people against judging those occupying priority seating, much as one should not judge apparently able-bodied people using parking spots reserved for people with disabilities.

Disabilities, permanent or temporary, are not always visible and obvious. Moreover, they might be made more difficult for someone on a moving, jerky train or bus. A "sturdy-looking 20-something" might not be so sturdy.

R. Estes, Stevensville, Va.

DG: Good point, and it also explains why the law on priority seating is unenforceable. You won't see police conducting any sting operations to oust people from the seats, just as you won't see riders forced to wear placards or plates that mark them as disabled. Seat negotiations must be worked out rider to rider, with a little help from Metro's education campaign.

The right thing

These negotiations won't always work out perfectly. The good news, as the next letter shows, is that riders do think about their relationship with other riders.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I try not to sit in the priority seats if there is any alternative. For one thing, I can't relax if I think I might miss someone who clearly belongs in that seat. Also, occupying a regular seat, you might still find good reason to offer a seat to an elderly person standing, or one with crutches or a cane.

I have, however, backed off from offering a seat to someone of the age of the letter writer [59], who happens to be close to my own age. I have at times seen a commuter who appeared to wish for a seat, yet didn't seem especially old or disabled.

I could offer to stand but wouldn't want to insult someone by suggesting they are a senior before their time. Some days, I might be grateful for a seat from a younger person, and other times, I might feel like it means I look tired and old.

I would err on the side of vanity, ridiculous as that might sound to those who don't worry about such things. In the same way I have held off offering a seat to a very heavyset person, clearly my reason would be that they looked like they had trouble standing, but they might very well take offense at my offer.

Harise Poland-Wright,

Silver Spring

DG: Two good issues raised here on Metro etiquette. First, why sit in the priority seat if you don't have to? (I think many riders don't even look at the sign behind them.) But whether you're sitting or standing, how much profiling of your fellow riders for age and infirmity is reasonable?

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