Are priority seats a solution?

Priority Pictograms

I noticed a problem with priority seats when i was in Singapore.

I had just arrived to Singapore, dead tired, didn’t have a chance to eat all day, i was trying to figure out the way to my hostel following the red, green lines of the MRT. I entered the train, had a seat and took out my map and at the same time i started texting my address to a friend. It took me two stops to realise that i was sitting on a priority seat and that the woman in front of me was pregnant! I picked up my backpack and offered her my seat. I expected a Thank you but instead she complained about people -me- being heartless these days.

I stood the remaining 20 minutes of my journey wondering about two things:

– How come it took me two stops to realise i was sitting on a differently coloured seat, that has a label above it clarifying that it was a priority seat?

– How come no one during this period offered a seat to the pregnant lady?

It appeared to me that priority seats no longer serve their purpose.

Priority seats are designed to stop passengers passive behaviour and start a positive behaviour of giving up one’s seat to other passengers in need. These behaviours might be influenced by some social factors as Social Proof and Diffusion of Responsibility. Priority seats address these two influences by identifing certain people – elderly, pregnant women, injured and people with kids- and emphasising that they do need help, while highlighting the right – or socially accepted – way to act, it also directly adds responsibility on the passengers.

However the major problem with priority seats is that it only adds the responsibility on the few people sitting on them. Hence, in my opinion, no one else gives up their seat when a person sitting on a priority seat doesn’t, well it’s not their fault, the person sitting on the priority seat is the one to blame, it’s not their responsibility after all… Or is it? It also starts a rights issue, notice that i said i gave up ‘my’ seat for her, but she might have thought that any priority seat is hers by right, regardless of what priority really means.

Priority seats might look very obvious in an empty train, but in a crowded busy city like Singapore, when almost every seat on the train is taken, how easily can you spot the colour coded seats? And if you enter a subway in countries where people enjoy a good quality of life, you’ll notice that the majority of people have their heads down, staring at their phones vigorously texting, or playing angry birds. The changes in technology that we have seen in the last few years have heavily influenced the way we interact.

I was born and raised in Egypt, and studied and lived in Malaysia for 3 years and a half. I did notice a difference when it came to Diffusion of Responsibility, in terms of helping someone when they fall, giving a stranger change if they are out of any, informing an approaching person that that ATM machine is not working, or as in the case here giving up your seat for someone in need (all these examples happen without the person in need asking for help).

I can think of few hypothesises on why the level of diffusion of responsibility might differ from culture to culture, by comparing Malaysia and Egypt some social rules or cultural norms can be identified that might have an influence on this phenomenon.

Perception of Equality: Especially gender equality. In Egypt it is believed that a man is higher than a woman in terms of physical strength. It is socially unacceptable for a guy to walk empty handed while his girl friend or sister or any female is carrying something heavy, it also applies between strangers -but more in cases when theft risk is low- for example, it is socially unacceptable for a guy to sit down in a waiting room while a woman is standing. So in situations where different genders interact, it’s the responsibility of the man to take on any physically demanding actions.

As for differences in age, Egyptians don’t have a physically healthy culture, unfortunately we are not the exercise type, so Egyptians don’t age well and elderly in Egypt really really lose their health and need a lot of help and attention. On the other hand, Asian countries have a great fitness culture, you can see 60 year old asian men jogging and stretching. The number of men who can do that in Egypt can be counted on the fingers of one hand. So this might be an influence when certain age groups interact with each other.

Perception of Privacy: The level of privacy in Egypt is very low compared to Malaysia, people mind other people’s business on a much deeper acceptable level. For example if you buy a new car you have to inform your family and friends about it or they’ll get upset. Another point is that you can easily strike a conversation with a stranger and it’s considered acceptable. For example, a waiter can come converse with you while you are in a middle of a discussion with your friend, it’s not considered rude in Egypt, it’s expected to happen. You can easily find a stranger conversing with you while waiting in line without giving them any cues -eye contact, smile, etc- to start up a conversation. And you might want to avoid sitting next to an Egyptian during transit, even if you are reading a book, it will not stop them from sharing their life story. This lack of privacy increases the interaction between people which might affect the level of responsibility they feel towards one another.

Corruption: The vast amount of hardships that one can face in Egypt might actually increase the level of empathy or sympathy between people. Either you have probably been in their position before and you try to help others out because you’ve been there and it wasn’t such a pleasant moment. Or you know you might be in their shoes tomorrow or the day after because you can not control anything in Egypt, there are flaws in the system, if there is a system, so you feel responsible for others so that when tomorrow comes others would feel responsible for you. It might be a karma way of thinking, but you can observe this behaviour in certain situations, especially when it relates to a government malfunction. For example, people would help you or react to your fall down the street saying ” I am sorry, all the roads are not paved” or people will run after a thief and beat him knowing that the police is corrupted and might not be much help in situations like this.

In the next post, i’ll share some design concepts that address these social norms and might provide another solution other than priority seats.