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Don't read this sitting down

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VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR
The pregnant woman on the subway would dearly love a seat, yet riders don’t always offer them up. Should they?

The pregnant woman on the subway would dearly love a seat, yet riders rarely offer them up

As Francine Kopun discovered, it takes eye contact and, sometimes, a belly in a passenger’s face

Feb. 18, 2006. 07:53 AM
FRANCINE KOPUN
FEATURE WRITER

What is it like to ride the subway as a pregnant woman in Toronto the Good? If you’re busting at the seams and make eye contact with someone nearby, chances are good you’ll get a seat. Shy and retiring, too polite to ask? Fuggedaboudit, you’ll stand.

“I think it’s kind of despicable,” says Patricia North, a 35-year-old Bay Street lawyer who’s clearly pregnant at 5 1/2 months, and who estimates people � mostly women � offer her a seat about 20 per cent of the time.

On the Tuesday morning we ride the subway together during rush hour, no one offers her a seat, not from Pape westbound to Yonge, not from Yonge southbound to King. One 50-year-old man on the Yonge line even tries to beat her to a seat.

When I read back her quote about “kind of despicable,” she changes her mind. “Take out `kind of,’” she says.

Pregnant women in Toronto are mad and if you’re sitting down in the subway to read this, they are mad at you. Not that they’ll say anything. They have a baby to protect. But really, don’t you think you should be standing instead of that woman in front of you who’s due to deliver her first baby on Tuesday? And if you’re trying not to look at her, trying not to make eye contact? You may be fooling yourself, but you’re not fooling her.

Not even a woman in the final stages of labour can get a seat on the subway, as Sun Hee Paik learned last week when she began screaming for help on the Bloor line. Minutes before she gave birth on the Wellesley station platform, she’d been standing in a crowded subway car with her husband and three children. Does your water have to break before someone gives up their seat on the TTC?

To find out, I spent last week travelling the subway during rush hour, posing as a pregnant woman. I borrowed a pregnancy pillow from Rhonda Maternity in Yorkville, strapped it on under my old maternity clothes and prayed that it wouldn’t get knocked out of me in a crush.

Dr. Knox Ritchie, a specialist in maternal fetal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, says there are medical reasons why some pregnant women should be seated while riding public transportation. Fainting is a common complication of pregnancy. Carrying so much extra weight in front of them puts women off balance. And pregnancy is quite simply tiring, as anyone who has carried around 40 pounds of extra flesh, fluid and fetus can attest.

The pregnant women I spoke to had plenty of stories.

Standing outside the Queen’s Park subway stop near Mount Sinai Hospital, Melanie Frazer, 34, a health club manager expecting her first baby in seven weeks, said she has never been offered a seat, even though she is by now clearly pregnant.

“Yesterday, I had to push my way through a bunch of people and find a seat. A woman got on, obviously pregnant, and not one person offered her a seat. I was even going to offer her my seat, but it kind of defeats the purpose,” she said.

Emily Knight, 26, a child care supervisor due to deliver her first child next week, said she’s been offered a seat a maximum of seven times during her pregnancy, even though she rides the Eglinton East buses every day. Twice, teenage boys offered her a seat. She was overwhelmed. “I almost wanted to give them a little talk and call their mothers.”

How did this happen? How did a city where once drivers would stop to let pedestrians cross any street, any time (remember those days?) become a city where pregnant women can’t even find a seat on the bus?

The pregnancy pillow made me look ready to pop. I pulled my coat back to enhance the effect. I made eye contact. Riding the Bloor line at Victoria Park at 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday, Grant Bouchard, 33, practically leaped out of his seat for me.

“I’ve had three hip replacements and three kidney transplants and I’m testing for a fourth kidney transplant,” he said, by way of explaining his keen desire to help. “I know what it’s like when someone doesn’t offer a seat.”

The reaction was similar on all lines on different days at different times. Young men, middle-aged women, people of all races and cultures leapt up so I could sit. Sometimes women would nudge the men they were with to step up.

There were notable exceptions. It’s hard to get a seat on the Yonge line headed north at rush hour. On Tuesday evening, two men and three women played the “I can’t see you game,” though I stood directly in front of them. On Thursday evening, a Sir Galahad remained seated though my belly was inches from his face for several stops. He did make sure I got his place when he exited the subway. I suppose one should be grateful for small favours.

On the 88 bus from St. Clair station during Thursday evening rush hour, a silver-haired woman offered me her seat the moment I boarded, unleashing a domino effect. A man in his 30s gave her his seat. The man next to me remained seated.

The woman to my left tapped me on the shoulder. She looked incredulous, like she had just seen a magic trick. “Are you pregnant?” she asked. “Did she give you her seat because you’re pregnant?” She couldn’t quite believe what had happened.

I turned to the man sitting next to me, who did not offer me a seat. “I didn’t notice until after you sat down,” said Kerry Williams, 52. “I would have given you the seat.” I believed him. It’s true that men seem less observant than women, but they may also be more reluctant to ask.

Ritchie at Mount Sinai chastised me for declining to take a seat when men offer one up, even though I was only pretending to be pregnant. When a woman offers her seat to someone who declines, she doesn’t think twice about it, he said. When a man offers up his seat and it’s declined, he feels like an idiot, and may not offer again.

“Women don’t understand how it affects men to be turned down,” he said. “It’s a kind of public rebuff. People are listening and they’re watching. I think men are more sensitive about that kind of stuff.”

Not everyone is so gentle on men who won’t give up their seats. Driver Colin Abernethy has seen a steep decline in chivalry among men in the past 28 years. Not only do they not give up their seats to women, they push to get to the front of the line while waiting for the bus.

Amy Mullin, a mom of three, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and author of Reconceiving Pregnancy and Child Care, says a deeper change might be in order. “I would like to see in general more attunement to others around us and more willingness to make small sacrifices for each other.”

That means put down the newspaper, look around, and maybe, just maybe, get up. Before that woman’s water breaks.




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