Friday, 17 June 2011

Taking up Space

An Auckland public transport blogger - I'm not going to link, you should be able to google it if you want - has just posted about teh horrorz of fat people on busses, taking up seats from thin people. I pretty much headdesked all the way through, not knowing whether to be very, very slightly relieved or really fucking angry that the pictures of Random Fat People on Busses actually included faces. I thought of my own commute - I'm fat by any estimation, and I've had people larger than me sit next to me, and neither of us have been uncomfortable, because the bus I get is the one that eventually goes to the airport, and has larger seats, and wondered - again - why it is so much of an ask to expect busses, buildings, anything to be designed round people, rather than asking people to fit it. I remembered how at my previous bus stop the seats were replaced with ledges that were too high for me - a shorter than average woman, but not unsually so - to sit on (great article about gender and town planning here).

But what really got me was a comment (yup, I read the comments section - many of them are horrendous):

I am very conscious of this issue on the bus, and I make an effort to take up as little room as I can – I put my bag on the ground between my feet when standing, or on my lap when sitting. I move over as close to the edge as I can, and I keep an awareness of my surroundings. I move to areas where I have more room to get out of the way and I genuinely think that my girth does not impact negatively on those around me in most cases.

...realise that some of us know perfectly well how large we are, and that we attempt to be as considerate as possible.

I'm not against consideration in public spaces. I've squashed up to help other people on, or given up seats on trains to those with clear difficulty standing (I have a level of difficulty myself, but I usually found I could sit on the steps with no problems). I'm wary of judging how people are positioned, because I don't know the reasons for this, but I have no doubt that some are just being plain inconsiderate.

But it's much more than that. I've recognised this tendency in myself, and in others, to apologise for your size, to make yourself as small as possible. Clearly if a seat is too small for the people sitting on it, in the short term both are going to be in some discomfort and, all else being equal, it's up to both of them to absorb some of that discomfort - but it should be about just that, a mutual effort to deal with a problematic situation, not the onus being on one to not inconvenience the other. But I've myself as small as possible to try and prove I don't need the whole seat, even when there is plenty of room. I've been reluctant to spread myself out on long haul flights when there's been a vacant seat next to me, in case someone thinks I can't fit in the seat.

Consideration for other passengers is one thing, but this isn't about that. It's entirely about self worth and whether we feel we have the right to expect public transport that accomodates the size and shape of our bodies. Or our disabilities. Or doesn't take the average male body as the default. Maybe if those who feel squashed on bus seats could recognise it as a design issue, and become allies, they'd achieve a whole lot more.


stargazer said...

great post anthea. transport provides have been making increasingly smaller seats over the years so that they can cram more people in & improve their profits. they should be the ones taking responsibilty & the blame for that - not the people who use the services.

[edited because i got your name wrong - duh!]

katy said...

Good post (though somewhat depressing!)

I have seen the issue of accommodating diversity in body size written about in the context of flying and there the question has been framed as: are you paying for passage (in which case you should be able to expect to be accommodated, however much space you need) or are you paying for a certain, defined space? I always thought that when you bought a transport ticket you were purchasing passage.

anthea said...

Katy - interesting way of considering it. I agree that you're purchasing passage when you buy a transport ticket, but that's not why I have a problem with this. For a start, most methods of defining and measuring space are really problematic - just one example, airline seats are measured by whether someone can fit between the arm rests, not the width of their shoulders or if their knees are digging into the seat in front. Guess which one of these is more likely, on average (and I do understand this is just an average with many exceptions) to affect women? And as long as space is defined as a x (which is a seat) and your choice is to buy x, 2x or 3x - rather than exact dimensions measured in mm - what size you make x carries a lot of weight (no pun intended).

The wider point is perhaps impossible to make without going into an anti capitalist rant, but essentially I do believe that transport is a right, and should be provided as a service to accommodate everyone.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Not sure why I read the "other" blog or the comments - just so angry-making.

It really pisses me off how people launch into such fat-phobic attacks. And seeing all the "oh but he's making perfectly reasonable comments" crap.

Yes - there are health issues associated with morbid obesity. But then there are health issues associated with pretty much everything in our lives. We deal with those as health issues.

Society as a whole is getting bigger. I commented on "that" blog that it is ludicrous to expect services provided to society to remain static when the nature of society changes.

And I wonder - if there were a few All Blacks or someone like David Tua on the bus, would they say the same thing? Or is their size somehow different?

David said...

Well, I have just had an interesting experience..... Off the topic of transport but similar issue.... I went shopping today, needed a new pair of jeans. Now I'm 6ft guy, about 105kg fairly solid build, not fat but in no way skinny. I'd be way above average fitness for my age (mid 40's)as I go to the gym & workout most days of the week. Anyway Im looking for a pair of jeans reasonably fashionalbe, money no issue (not boasting here, just a fact)only to be told by the skinny (male)sales assistant that they really didn't do my size and suggested I try Farmers as they do large sizes, aparently I too "large" to be fassionable!

Katherine said...

I've always maintained that it isn't fat people that are the issue, it's people that leave their bags on the seat because they want an entire double seat to themselves, or men who have no concept of letting you have some personal space. I know, it's a bus, but really your legs do not need to be at a 90° angle, and if they do, stick one out into the aisle rather than into my legroom thanks.

And you're right, if some famous large-ish sportsmen got on the bus noone would mind how much space they took up.

Carol said...

Well, I think the main problem is the way public transport doesn't provide enough for the wide diversity of actual bodies that exist. My problem is not people's sizes per se, but that public transport has a tendency to cram a lot of people into too small a space, and often one that is warmer than it needs to be.

I don't travel on buses a lot, using trains more often. Like many menopausal women I have been getting hot flashes for a few years now. Public transport, like many public and work spaces are not very menopausal friendly, usually being too warm and poorly ventilated. And I notice in the article that Anthea linked to on women and town planning, that women seem to no longer exist in publc spaces after they are too old to bear children.

It's very unpleasant and embarrassing to be up close to someone in the usually too warm (for me) public transport. There's not only the embarassment and discomfort in breaking out in a sweat while squashed up against people, but the heat surges can also result in quite a claustrophobic feeling.

Fairly recently, I did have the experience of sitting on a train next to a largish but not over weight guy. The heat generated from his body, being quite close to mine in the smallish seat space, set off a hot flash.

I have developed a few strategies to try to avoid these uncomfortable situations. I try to travel at off peak times if at all possible. I try to position myself near the doors, where I can get the benefit of cooler air at stops, even if it means standing when there are empty seats. And I have put something on the seat beside me, when there are a few spare seats, and some much younger people are doing the same. I'll remove the bag when the seats start to fill up, but my guess is that I need the space and air more than most of those younger people.

So, I guess there's actually no telling what discomforts various people are dealing with on public transport, but the people who design them do seem to make the mistake of planning based on a very idealised and narrow idea of the diversity of real bodies.

Moz said...

Hmm. With my kinda-an-engineer hat on, buses are a little tricky because they don't have heaps of width to play with. Trains can have nominal-3-wide bench seats which allow more flexible arrangements, but with a bus it's generally two seats each side of the aisle, plus a wheelchair/standing zone at the front if you can get away with it. Two wide means it's either one larger person and a bag or two people, where three wide lets you have combinations of two wider people, kids, whatever. The engineer who suggested a wide aisle with three on one side instead of 2+2 would probably be taken outside and spoken to firmly.

Here in Melbourne the "solution" is often to take the seats out altogether. Trams and trains have hang rails and straps with wide aisles and large-ish open spaces. This massively boosts the number of people you can cram in, so they've been taking seats out of trains. They need to do this because number of users has jumped 50% with no extra trams/trains added...

Sorry if this is a bit "justify the ugly", but I think it's a reasonable counterpoint. Wishing someone would rebuild the whole rail system with wider carriages, or allowing 2.5m wide buses on roads that struggle with 2m wide is hard.

Carol said...

Moz, removing seats is fine by me for short journeys. But what you indicate is a need for more public transport, and buses and trains that are comfortable.

On the days I work in the city my journey takes at least an hour each way, with a 30-40 minute train journey in the middle. Often I like to make productive use of the time by working on my netbook. But that requires a seat. If I have no work to do, I'm happy to stand for the train journey, usually listening to RNZ.

Which brings me to MY biggest peeve: people on trains who listen to music on their mobiles, without headphones, and even sometimes, people with headphones so loud I can hear it about my radio.

Moz said...

Carol, my point was more that sometimes a poor solution is the best we can do. Most things are compromises in multiple directions, and the "want bigger seats" discussion is being had in many industries, but it's not as trivial as "just install bigger seats then". Some airlines have tried to do "get a bigger seat, pay more" thing but got howled down so they call it business class instead. My grandfather had issues which meant that he could only fly if he could stick his legs out straight, which meant first class or nothing. So they didn't fly much. "long leg" economy seating would have meant we saw more of him.

A return to real bench seats would probably work for this case, but would lead to a lot more squishing together and westerners typically don't like that much. But it is how the same bus that in Christchurch seats 75 can seat twice that when in Ho Chi Minh City. Well, and the average Vietnamese is about 2/3 the size of the average Christchurchian.

katy said...

In terms of train design, the trains I took in Japan had bench seats that ran along each side of the carriage (ie, you sat with your back to the window, facing the people sitting on the other side). A troupe of sumo wrestlers on the train? No problem, all sizes accommodated. In the middle of the carriage people could stand and hold rails/straps and you could safely cram heaps of people in during busy times while still allowing those who needed a seat easy access to one.

Moz said...

katy: and for the 30 minutes to an hour trips? In Melbourne 20-25 minutes on the train is the "inner city" zone, and that's the official limit for expecting people to stand. For trams and buses I think it's 10 minutes because of the extra jostling.

Here, the outrage at removing ~5 seats from a 70 seat carriage was mostly from advocates from the disabled (viz, those who can't easily stand for an hour). So catering better for those who can stand at the expense of those who need to sit is probably not a win for the PT operators.

I don't think we're able to talk about a situation where the fat people get to sit on the few remaining seats, because most PT users are not at that level yet. I've seen visibly very pregnant women, people on crutches and really elderly people stand while large numbers of able-bodied users sit. And we're still working on "stand away from the doors to allow passengers to exit the vehicle before trying to board", which is getting people to recognise their self-interest.

anthea said...

@Moz The airport bus I mentioned has two seats, aisle, two seats that are significantly wider than other buses. I'm not only not an engineer but have impaired spatial awareness, so I can't tell you how it works, but I think it does show things can be improved.

The point of this post wasn't a call for all buses to be redesigned immediately - I know that's not practical (and accommodating everyone perfectly is likely impossible). But our public spaces have been designed with a narrow range of people in mind, and I think recognising this as the cause of the problem is not only a first step in what will admittedly be a very long term and imperfect design process, but also reconsidering our attitudes in themselves.

anthea said...

@Carol I share your peeve!

@Moz Please don't assume (unless you have some way of knowing that I don't) that people who are not visibly disabled are not disabled.

Willuknight said...

"Pictures of Random Fat People on Busses actually included faces."

He has already said multiple times that the photos are from a published study in the USA. Why should he blur them if they are already being used for the purpose of this discussion? Also your editorializing about the tone and content of his comments "teh horrorz of fat people on busses, taking up seats from thin people." is just as gross bias as the people that say fat is caused by lazyness. Finally you didn't hesitate to link your blog in the comments on that article, but you're not linking back? Pretty sad.

Julie said...

anthea didn't write the comment at AKT, linking back to this post, Willuknight. I did, as I read AKT regularly, not sure if anthea does.