One of the few things I enjoy about riding the subway in New York City are the occasional moments of grace demonstrated between passengers. These typically come in the form of someone giving up their seat to allow the less able-bodied to sit—usually an elderly person or a pregnant woman. Witnessing such acts always suffuses me with inner warmth toward humanity; a rare sense of kinship in a divided, hostile world. It inevitably ends a moment later, when someone rams their baby stroller into my shins or sneezes directly into my face, but it’s a nice 15 seconds!
But starting today, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced a new pilot program that will allow certain straphangers to be more overt about their need for a seat, offering buttons to those whose legs should be prioritized for a rest. The pins come in two varieties: ”Baby on Board!” and the more general “Please offer me a seat.” No proof of any sort of condition is required.
“Pregnant riders, seniors and those with disabilities often need seats more than others but their condition may not always be visible,” MTA Interim Executive Director Ronnie Hakim said in a statement. “We hope this campaign will help their fellow riders to be more willing to offer them a seat without having to ask a personal question first.”
The buttons are inherently optimistic in premise, suggesting that what’s really coming between seats and the people who need them isn’t simple obtuseness, but an abundance of caution. I admit I struggle with this—will that otherwise spry-looking graybeard be offended if I offer him my seat? Is that woman pregnant, or just using her coat to shield a container of prized leftovers from the rain? (I have done this.)
As a resolute non-monster, I never fail to offer my seat when there’s a cane involved or clear evidence of a baby bump, but more often than not, the correct social protocol dwells in a tricky grey area. If I don’t offer up my seat, it’s not because I’m an asshole. It’s because I’m genuinely concerned my bumbling overture will just make everyone feel worse, so it’s best to stay put. In this specific way, the buttons will help.
But idiots like me comprise only a small fraction of the much larger problem of public transit rudeness. The MTA has long waged a campaign against bone-headed behavior, like its 2014 crusade to stop manspreading. Despite my own heavy involvement in that movement, I’ve seen very little evidence to suggest that anything has changed. A modicum of self-awareness is a key ingredient in any sort of behavioral shift, and neither a sign nor a button can manufacture what doesn’t already exist.
If anything, the buttons seem like a recipe for awkward confrontations, if not outright terrible ones. In London, which employs a similar program, a man once asked a woman wearing a pin to prove she was pregnant. Visions of even more awful encounters swirl in my head, and my god: What will happen when the teens get ahold of them?
Moreover, the buttons place the burden of enforcement on the last people who should be shouldered with that role: The pregnant, the old, the infirm. If the onus is on them to beg for a seat, what’s the point of having a button at all? Wouldn’t they be just as likely to ask for a chair with or without a button announcing their condition?
There’s nothing wrong with passively encouraging transit riders to be courteous toward one another. But attempting to mandate empathy where none exists is a recipe for ugly encounters.
Also, if we’re making any improvements, how about focus on fixing the trains? After all, no one would have to give up their seat in the first place if everyone had one.