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Inspired by Can I use a priority seat if it is vacant?

Many trains, buses and subways have seats that are marked as "priority seats", meaning that the people who are in greater need of a seat, such as the elderly or pregnant women, should have preferential access to those seats. However:

  • In many locales, including my own, it's totally ok for anyone to use one of those seats as long as no one else needs them.
  • Also in my locale at least, the idea that people in greater need should be given preference applies, by common sense, to all seats. For example if a frail person boards a full train, someone will get up to let them seat, no matter if the seat is marked as priority or not.

What I don't understand then, is why some specific seats are marked as priority and others are not, since I fail to see any difference in practice. More often than not the seats in question are identical and equally accessible. What's the reason for this distinction?

Edit: to clarify, I'm primarily referring to the case when the seats that are marked as priority are, at first glance, not more convenient than the other seats in any way. Not bigger or with more room around or even nearer to the door.

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    @fkraiem If you think that the reason some seats are marked as priority is that whoever took that decision expected that only users who really need them would use them, that would be a valid answer to my question, feel free to post it. I based my question on the premise of what I perceive as accepted behavior where I'm from, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. – abl Jan 4 at 1:52
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    @fkraiem - that's a poor argument in real life. Take the average London tube train. 6 carriages, each with 3 doors; 16 priority seats per carriage, nearest to each door. That's 96 seats that would be left empty all the time just in case anyone needed one. The reason there are so many seats is that someone in need of one doesn't need to find the only available seat of a more accurately-devised number, they can get on any door. – Tetsujin Jan 4 at 9:19
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    @Tetsujin "that would be left empty all the time" How so? If the people that need them use them, they won't be empty. In fact, if the proportion of priority seats matches the proportion of people needing them, they will be just as filled as the whole carriage. A London tube carriage has an average capacity of 140 people (70% standing, source), 16/140 is just above 10%, I'd argue that there is at least 10% of people that needs those seats and if the proportion seems right, they will be filled and should be left empty. – zakinster Jan 4 at 11:05
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    I'm revising my figures - it appears the priority seats are in pairs, not 4's other than some specialist carriages - but I still see no argument that an empty seat should be left empty 'just in case'. 40 minutes with your face pressed into some big guy's armpit & someone else's rucksack shoved in your back every rush hour is no-one's idea of fun; why make it worse by essentially designating some of the available space as 'no-go, unless'. – Tetsujin Jan 4 at 11:31
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    @zakinster Even if the proportion of priority seats matches the proportion of population that needs them, those people would somehow have to evenly distribute themselves among the carriages in order to maximize the use of the seats. The "correct" proportion of seats doesn't fix the problem, you'll still wind up with sometimes having too few priority seats and sometimes leaving them vacant. I agree with Tetsujin that it's likely they put in more seats than needed so that some can be made available, with the understanding that usually they'll be treated as regular seats. – Nuclear Wang Jan 4 at 13:50
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As well as Johns-305's excellent answer there is another good reason for designating some seats as priority seats.

It enables the operators to enforce the 'give up your seat for someone who needs it' rule, without either having to make it a formal universal rule, or have the driver decide who has to give up their seat. It may seem like 'common sense' that people give up their sets to those who need it, but people don't always do the common sense thing.

Let's imagine a situation where there are no designated seats, the bus is full, and someone needing a seat for real, medical reason gets on. Nobody voluntarily gives up their seat. The person is left with either standing (which may be literally impossible for them) or asking a random person to give up their seat. It's possible that person might say "I don't want to, get that other person to give up their seat instead. They are younger/fitter/carrying less.". That person may think a third person is better able to stand. Now you've got an argument and no way of resolving it.

With a designated seat it's easy. The person needing the seat asks the one occupying the designated seat to give it up. They may grumble, but the sign is there, they knew they might have to do this when they sat in it. The driver can even enforce it without seeming arbitrary.

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    This is especially important if the argument for who should give up their seat is going to end up involving some other sort of power imbalance. – R.. Jan 3 at 23:25
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    Excellent answer & explanation, only thing I would add is that priority seats are often left empty slightly longer than normal seats (if a person can choose for a non-priority or a priority seat they will often choose the non-priority one), thus leaving priority seats near the entrance open. – David Mulder Jan 4 at 8:50
  • Plus, priority seats rarely conflicts with wheelchair space, so if you need to kick someone from his seat to fold it and maneuver wheelchair, it won't be another disabled person. – Mołot Jan 4 at 11:08
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    It also works the other way - if you're healthy but don't want to be asked to vacate your seat (eg. afraid of the social interaction or don't speak local language), you simply pass the priority one and keep standing. Designating priority seats is a win-win scenario. – Agent_L Jan 4 at 12:37
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    Relevant source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect That's why in an emergency you don't ask "somebody call the ambulance", you pick one bystander and say "you call the ambulance". Designated seats are basically saying "you vacate the seat", thus removing diffusion of responsibility. – Agent_L Jan 4 at 12:40
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Here are some reasons for this. To be clear, the exact reasoning would vary by operator or agency.

  • The Priority seats are often next to the door allowing easier access when boarding, exiting, and in case of emergency.
  • The Priority seats are often dual-purpose and can be folded/stowed to accommodate mobility devices.
  • Designating seats as Priority is an extra push to make them available. Yes, you should relinquish any seat to a rider with a broken leg, but you really, really should relinquish the designated seats.
  • Accessibility is a major issue in developed nations. Having designated Priority seats is beneficial operationally (as above) and in public opinion for the operator.
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    An addition to bullet #3: designating a specific seat helps to avoid the bystander effect: if you take the priority seat, you are the one who should give your place up first. – molnarm Jan 4 at 8:23
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    Also an addition to the #1: These seats are almost always at the same elevation as the bus "floor", so that you don't have to climb up or down on the bus. Especially important for elderly with weak knees and pregnant women. (in comparison, most other seats on our buses in Turkey are elevated for some reason or another, usually due to technical limitations of the bus design) – John Hamilton Jan 4 at 9:35
  • It also encourages people to take non priority seats first since people know they are much less likely to have to give up their seat if they take a different one, so less mobile people won't struggle to a free seat in the middle of a carriage instead of having to ask someone to move from a priority seat. – James Jan 8 at 15:49
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The designated priority seats are "better" for people with various disabilities, in various different ways:

  • As @Johns-305 points out, they can be folded to accommodate mobility devices.
  • They are next to a door, so a person with a disability needn't go far.
  • Guide dogs are often trained to guide a person to particular seats. Those seats might also have more room, to accommodate the dog.
  • On a bus, the window seat isn't too accessible, nor is the seat that's on top of the wheel (and is a bit higher). Various seat configurations in buses exist, but in all cases not all seats are equally accessible. The designated-priority seats are the ones that are accessible.

Thus, a person taking a priority seat is aware that the seat he's taken is the one that would be needed by a person with a disability - another seat won't be an acceptable substitute.

And in the same vein, requiring trains and buses to have designated seats implies requiring seats that would fit the various needs of people with various disabilities. "Any seat" just won't do.

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    That makes total sense in those cases where it's true. I asked the question because, if I recall correctly, I've seen quite a few trains where the reserved seats don't appear to be more convenient in any respect. Often the seats are in groups of four, two facing two, and in every carriage a seemingly random group of four is designated priority seating. In the infrequent case where there are four people with reduced mobility, it seems it would be actually a bad idea to seat them together, since the ones on the aisle have to get up to allow the ones on the window to take the seat or hop off. – abl Jan 4 at 1:08
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    @abl Can you say where you've seen this "random" placement of priority seats? For instance, on all the UK trains I've seen, they've been near the doors (or, possibly, the toilets). – TripeHound Jan 4 at 1:39
  • @TripeHound In Barcelona and surroundings. I can't say for sure that the placement is really random, but I remember wondering why those were chosen as priority seats and not finding an obvious reason. I'll pay better attention next time I board one of those trains. – abl Jan 4 at 2:01
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    It seems rather counterintuitive to me for priority seats to be foldable in order to accommodate mobility devices (and indeed this is not something that I’ve ever noticed in the U.K.): what if an infirm person were to occupy such a seat, and then a wheelchair user subsequently boards? The infirm person would really have to vacate the seat, and seek to find another. Surely better that the foldable seats be occupied by able-bodied people? – eggyal Jan 4 at 5:25
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    Your point about more room isn't just about guide dogs, but walking aids, or simply more space to get in and out rather than having to twist and bend at the same time. The extra space is a major reason for designating specific seats. (I was going to add an answer to that effect, but you've mentioned it already) – Chris H Jan 4 at 10:02
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Those seats are there to ensure people who needs to seat will find an available seat.

Yes, people may give up their seat to people needing it, but it doesn’t always work in a real world for multiple reasons :

  1. It is not always obvious when people need them (one may not look that old but have trouble standing, one may be pregnant without showing much, one may have a hidden medical condition, etc)
  2. One may not dare to offer its seat when in doubt for fear of offending ("I'm not that old thank you!", "No I'm not pregnant thank you!")
  3. One in need may not always ask (they don’t want to disturb or they don’t know, maybe you need it too)
  4. Even when asked, some may not give their seat arguing there's not obligated to

To address all those issues, designated seat reserved to people in need exists and they always should be given up when needed but ideally and depending on culture, they should be left empty.

Then you may think « that’s a lot of wasted seat », well yes and no. The thing is that the number of priority seats usually match the proportion of people needing them.

Example : Let's assume that 5% of the population need to be seated (elderly, disabled, pregnant women, etc.). If a transport has a standard capacity of 100 people (30 seated, 70 standing), there may be 6 priority seats. This is 20% of the available seats but only 6% of the capacity. They won’t be empty, they will be just as filled as the whole carriage.

Then, if nobody uses the priority seat without needing them and the carriage is 30% full, there may be 26 people seated (24 on normal seat and 2 on priority seat), 4 people standing and 4 available priority seat. Now this is a waste of seat but is necessary to ensure that people needing them will find one available.

If you really want to seat in that scenario, you may use one of the priority seat with the following rule of thumb :

  • Never use the last priority seat
  • If you’re on a priority seat and there is no other one available, give up your seat even without being asked, someone in need may be silently waiting
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    +1 for mentioning the obvious test for when to vacate a priority seat. Always leave one open and you will never be asked to vacate one as there is always one for a genuine need case. This should be taught every year at every school everywhere. – KalleMP Jan 8 at 9:42
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Certainly, any citizen of competent parentage should cheerfully give up his seat for a person in need. Meanwhile, in the real world...

It's a (planned) knock-on effect of ADA or similar laws

ADA stands for "Americans with Disabilities Act" but the EU and most civilized countries have a similar law. It requires accommodations be built-in when facilities are new or remodeled, assures medical privacy, etc. Some laws such as California's Unruh Act also provide consequences for discrimination.

A keystone of ADA etc. is that providers must always "do what is easy".

The very picture postcard definition of "What is easy" is giving the seats nearest the door to the mobility-limited. This is a mandate, so it is required for staff to do this, and the mobility-limited or any ADA lawyer can raise all manner of hell if they don't.

No seat markings are required, so far. Staff must do this regardless. It's mandatory, not a maybe or a suggestion.

But try to explain that to the public

The driver can't really move the bus until the wobbly mobility-limited person is seated. However, she may collide with the manners-limited hoi polloi who frequent transit buses. If she can't get a seat easily, the driver has to intervene. The citizen may retort "But why should I give up my seat?" "Because ADA" will get a blank stare and a digging-in of heels.

So by adding the signs, it preloads the driver's argumemt. "Because you chose to sit in a seat in which those with disabilities get priority, and here's one." Problem solved.

Also: When the grumpy refuser boarded, that there were seats available in the back of the bus. Now, there are not. The refuser could argue "therefore, you should bump one the latecomers in the back so I can have their seat, since I boarded before them". This too gets defused by the sign. "Your eyes were wide open; you knew when you sat down that these seats came with risk of eviction."

What I've said so far applies to all vehicles, even magic vehicles with equal access to every seat (which I don't quite believe).

Indeed, this "priority seating" signage assists with the endless challenge faced by every bus operator: To get people to stop millimg around the doors and move to the back of the bus.

Seats are not equal

On buses I ride, about 30-40% of the seats on the bus have these "priority seating" signs. That's more than you are likely to have mobility impaired people.

In many cases, the seats aren't even slightly equal: it is a kneeling bus, which can deflate its airbag suspension to put its front entrance about 8" off the ground. That is a great aid to the mobility impaired, and it makes the frontmost seats most desirable. This also allows them to board/leave in view of the driver so he can observe or assist.

Furthermore, some seats (4-6) typically "flip up" to create an open space where there are wheelchair tiedowns. Those are in specific locations, and absolutely, get those signs.

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    For those of us not conversant with legal terminology & its abbreviations, or perhaps who live in a different jurisdiction or even speak a different native language... could you explain what ADA is? – Tetsujin Jan 5 at 14:38
  • [just for info] In the UK most buses are double-deckers with 2 or 3 doors (3 only on the new Routemasters) with the easy-access generally between the front & centre door area. Even with entry & exit doors being separate, there's still a tendency to hang around in that area unless obliged to move on. Signage does help, of course, until they're near capacity. Standing-room is downstairs only, not upstairs, for obvious safety reasons. These also can 'kneel' to kerb height. – Tetsujin Jan 5 at 17:08
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    The European law you link to "The European Parliament and the Council came to a provisional agreement on [..] on 8 November 2018.". I doubt it's the cause for something that has been (at the very least where I live) that way since the nineties. There may be some other law that's relevant (though perhaps not an EU-wide law) but the one you linked to does not seem to be that relevant. – Jasper Jan 6 at 21:17

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