Where riders stand on Metro seating

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 5:24 PM

For some reason - maybe the heat generated when people get pushed together inside a metal container - the topic of how to place yourself aboard a Metrorail car gets the steam rising in many riders. Quite a few responded to my column on priority seating that appeared in the Local Living section Thursday.

On the face of it, we're talking about the use of those inward-facing seats near the center doors. But the exchanges have evolved into issues about how people relate to one of the few places where we're confined for a while with a bunch of strangers.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

At 78, slowed by a hip replacement, I try to avoid Metro at rush hour. My reasons include cost, pressure to move fast on platforms and stalled escalators, and fairness to those who have no choice but to travel then. But at those times when I must board a rush hour train, I've found that younger people readily relinquish priority seats when asked to do so.

I just say, "May I please claim one of those senior seats?" Perhaps "claim" is the motivating word, perhaps it's the tone of voice or smile that eases the transaction. Perhaps those seated recognize an old lady in danger of toppling into their laps. Whatever the reason, someone always stands so that I may sit. In return, I express my thanks and try to pay their kindness forward.

And no, I'm not at all embarrassed to request a seat, knowing that I paid my standee dues in years past.

Carol McCabe, Reston

It's hard to imagine that a rider sitting in one of the seats marked for seniors and people with disabilities wouldn't yield on sight to our writer, but don't you like the tone of the request? It's a "transaction," between two people, rather than a demand. Yet it is reinforced with a polite reference to the rules governing the use of the seats.

Making choices

Others wrote in to explain their choices of seating on transit.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Years ago, before Metrorail came to my area, I would sit in the inward-facing seats on Metrobuses, for the sake of ease of entrance and exit. And I felt safe. A suddenly stopping bus could throw one forward toward the stainless steel bars at the back of the seat in front.

There were no signs directing riders to give those inward seats to older people or people with disabilities.

When Metrorail was available to me, I used the same seats for the same reason - and still do. I hope I see needy riders, or that they announce themselves. But I still prefer those inward-facing seats and wish there were more, for those who don't need them but do prefer them.

Donald Schwab, Arlington County

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I'm writing because no one in your discussion has mentioned a reason, which I expect is common, that people other than the elderly or disabled sit in priority seating: It has nothing to do with convenience; it has to do with pain.

I am tall. If I sit in the forward- or backward-facing seats, my knees are jammed painfully up against the seat in front of me, unless I'm lucky enough to bag the front-row seat. So, yes, I tend to sit on the sideway-facing seats and take my chances that someone will come along who needs it, in which case I offer up the seat.

Lisa Daniel, Bethesda

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

One explanation for people sitting in the inward-facing seats that I have not seen in your column is that those of us who tend to have motion sickness do better in the middle of the car facing inward so we don't have the passing scenery in our peripheral vision.

I sit in those seats, though I don't take the ones with the priority sign if I can avoid it, and try to watch at every stop to see if someone coming in should be offered mine.

Sitting there allows me to read on my 35-minute ride. The next best option is to sit in a forward-facing aisle seat and angle myself inward, so I don't get the view from the window on the side. I don't ride backward at all; I stand if that's all that's available.

Maida Schifter, Silver Spring

A guy thing?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I couldn't resist passing along my own story of riding Metrorail on crutches - with a broken ankle - for six weeks. As a male in my early 40s at the time, I was offered, without fail, a seat by female riders spanning the age range every single day I rode to work downtown.

Not once did a male rider make such an offer.

Casey Dinges, Fairfax

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: drgridlock@washpost.com. His blog: washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

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