Calls for civility in a savage system

New York City’s transit authority is going to be spending money trying to make our subways more civilized towards pregnant women. A button reading Baby on Board’ is being made available to women who are pregnant, in hopes this will encourage more people on public transit to give them their seats. Another button reading ‘Please Offer Me a Seat’ is available free online also.

Our trains and buses are not kind places. My wife would go entire journeys without being offered a place to sit when she was visibly pregnant. A friend’s wife who is an expert photographer created a running series of shaming photos when she was carrying their first son, posting snapshots she had taken of men who had seen her very obviously with child and declined to offer her a seat.

I’m a firm believer in adhering to traditional etiquette. I’m one of the few people my age that knows to walk closest to the street when walking with a woman on the sidewalk. That made for some awkward dating moments but I’m a stickler for the rules of proper etiquette, at least if I can remember then.

I don’t even attempt to get a seat on the subway anymore. When I lived at the end of the A train in Inwood and knew I’d get a seat and be able to sleep most of my commute, I did that. But now I ride the 7 train and the 6 train, two of the most crowded and miserable lines in the city. I don’t want to fight with people at the Main Street-Flushing stop when I can be close to the door that’s going to open at Grand Central for my hurried dash to the 6 platform. And what would we be fighting for? The privilege of sitting on a hard plastic seat where a homeless guy jerked off a few hours before? I have more room to breathe if I stand anyway. Besides, I’m a sedentary office worker for more than 10 hours a day, why add to that sloth during my commute, where it pays dividends to be on your feet? But if I do happen to be sitting in a seat and I see a pregnant woman or elderly person, I’ll offer them my seat.

There are a myriad of reasons the subways and buses are not models of civility. One of them is the fact that a large city is impersonal and New York in particular is designed for only the most aggressive and determined people to succeed at anything.

But a leading reason that transit riders are not civil towards one another is that the subways and buses are cauldrons of misery plagued with inadequate services and rising fares for decades. Why, in one of the most forward-thinking and progressive cities in the world, is anyone anywhere in the five boroughs waiting more than 10 or 15 minutes for a subway or bus? Why are we trying to run a 21st century subway system with 19th century era signal systems?

How about fixing our failing system so that those deserving have a better chance of getting a seat without asking someone to move? How about better handicapped access at all stations so it doesn’t take a guy in a wheelchair five hours to buy a bagel? These things are a lot harder to do than hand out free buttons, but they need doing.

I hope that there is some benefit to the button campaign. But subway and bus service is so sub-standard for a major, industrialized world city that any resources not directed at a needed upgrade is putting lipstick on a pig. If by some chance this campaign succeeds and more pregnant women and sick and elderly people have seats, this only means they will be more comfortable when getting screwed over by the MTA.

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