Mamarama: Taking Our Seats

Priority Seating PATH Train

Jersey City PATH riders have been increasingly disgruntled with each passing year. We’ve just learned that all weekend service to WTC will be suspended for nearly all of 2014. Receiving news like this tends to make Jersey City residents feel like an unwanted stepchild.

However, my gripe with the PATH does not start or end with this recent development. For years I’ve been collecting information about traveling on the PATH as a disabled rider — by the growing belly and instability of pregnancy or by a less obvious disability. Though the MTA and the PATH trains are required by law to provide “priority seating” for the disabled, it’s not surprising that most commuters are unable to locate those seats. Pregnant women report that they are rarely offered a seat, even when pushing their burgeoning belly not-so-subtly in the faces of their fellow commuters. It’s not entirely the fault of the commuters either – the seats certainly don’t scream out their “priority” designation and the conductors are not instructed to announce their whereabouts over the intercom.

While the seating concern also includes elderly and disabled riders, for the sake of this blog we’ll focus on the countless stories told by pregnant women. Over ten years ago, I was a pregnant PATH rider with the same experiences and seemingly nothing has changed. In fact, the situation has worsened. We now have a denser population and commuters carry gadgets and devices that create bubbles of oblivion.

I started my complaints to PATH in 2008 and have voiced them through my public access show, my blog, and emails to PATH authorities — all to no avail. Recently, I asked members of parent forums to email me their pregnancy and the PATH stories, and I was inundated with negative experiences.

Karen Spangler, longtime Jersey City resident, recounts a typical scenario from her first pregnancy. “Wobbling onto the PATH car after a day on my swollen feet, and watching all the faces sink into their papers or phones, I involuntarily came to tears, then declared my opinion of the people within earshot, telling them just what I thought of their inconsiderate behavior. It was worth looking crazy. Actually, I think a little shame would go a long way.”

Regina Joskow, a Jersey City mother of two, says, “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten on the PATH and seen a very pregnant woman standing while countless others looked right past her. I don’t have any shame about marching over to them and asking loudly ‘Can anyone please give up their seat for this pregnant woman?’” Joskow remembers the discomfort, and while she is more than willing to speak up, many pregnant women are less inclined to be as vocal.

The problem of not relinquishing seats is symptomatic of three issues coming together for a perfect storm of disassociation:

1) We don’t get on and off: The PATH train is unique from the MTA in that when most folks board, they stay seated until arriving at their stop. If you’re getting on at 33rd Street, and you didn’t get a seat when you boarded, you can count on not getting one at all. Almost no one takes the PATH train to go ten blocks while in New York.

2) Lack of Empathy/Awareness: Let’s face it, if you haven’t been pregnant or you haven’t watched your partner endure the discomforts of pregnancy, it’s unlikely that you’ll have an understanding of why the lady with the giant belly is uncomfortable and could really use your seat. In some cultures, young people are taught reverence for the elderly and for those bringing life into the world — not so for the average American. In addition, as a modern phenomenon we have become accustomed to isolating ourselves in crowds by plugging into our devices and shutting out the world. Seems reasonable — but this lack of awareness can turn the corner into apathy.

3) Feminist ethic: There is a possibility that our urban and contemporary culture has done such a thorough job of training men and women to be equals that we’ve turned against gestures of traditional courtesies for fear of insulting women. This may be a stretch, but we don’t often see chairs pulled out for women or men running around to the passenger side to open the car door either. Offering up a seat could be construed as sexist behavior — why should anyone assume that feminist notions of gender uniformity might go out the window during pregnancy? (Not to mention the faux pas of assuming a woman is pregnant when she is not.)

The PATH train, as mentioned, does in fact have one seat per car designated for “priority seating” and federal law mandates that a rider must vacate that seat when asked. But asking is precisely the problem. In an effort to avoid appearing weak, people typically will not call attention to themselves by asking for a seat — even when they desperately need one. To require special attention when you’re used to being a part of a crowd feels unsettling.

Two-time mom, Jennifer Wai says, “We live in a city and time where people just don’t make eye contact, plus use headphones with their devices or smart phones. When I was pregnant I would just make it easy for everyone and announce that I needed a seat. Direct communication always worked.” Most people, when forced to address a car full of stone-faced commuters, are reluctant to speak up. We are a culture that likes to remain anonymous; drawing attention to yourself on a crowded train, and then calling attention to your difference can be humiliating or simply uncomfortable.

I propose that PATH train authorities compel conductors to remind passengers about priority seating. If the priority seating arrangement is never pointed out, riders will be less inclined to follow it. I’d like to believe we are not a calloused and indifferent population of urbanites. Often, when a woman with a stroller attempts to carry her cargo up a flight of stairs, passersby will frequently lend a hand. There’s a leap one makes between noticing a baby on the inside and a child on the outside. The willingness to help a mom in need reminds us that we are not, by definition, a hardened and apathetic culture — we just have a perception problem. With a PATH campaign geared toward awareness of passengers who need a seat — whether by pregnancy or injury, seen or unseen — we might have greater harmony for that five to twenty minute ride underground – swaying this way and that.

photo by Melissa Olivo

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.