“Baby on Board” – Spatial Cultures on London Transport

Commuting via public transport in London can be an unpleasant experience: overcrowded trains, bad-tempered fellow commuters, stuffy air – not to mention all hell breaking loose when trains get delayed (for whatever reason).

2013-05-21 11.08.34So how does the daily commute feel when you are in special circumstances? To make life easier for pregnant women, Transport for London issue their famous ‘Baby on Board’ badge, which every Londoner mum-to-be seems to have. It tells others that you might be in need of a seat more urgently than it might initially look (especially in those first weeks when dizziness and sickness can strike any time and no bump is visible).

Being a scientist at heart and wondering whether the badge really works and how people react to it, I decided to run a little self-experiment and systematically categorise and count what happened to me while travelling pregnant on London Transport wearing the badge and then increasingly showing a bump.

My data is based on an (almost) daily commute from zone 3/4 in North London to London Euston. I started wearing the badge at 3 months pregnant and stopped commuting at 8 months. My normal route would start at Bowes Park Train Station and lead me via the First Capital Connect commuter train to Highbury and Islington (6 stops), where I changed into the Victoria line until Euston (2 stops). I was lucky enough to being able to avoid the worst crowding at rush hours by travelling into town slightly later and out of town slightly earlier than the masses. In total I counted 290 single events during my pregnant travels.

And here are the headline results:

  • 43% of the time I found a free seat;
  • 16% of the time the trains were so crowded that neither the badge nor my growing bump were visible to fellow travellers;
  • 25% of the time I was offered a seat (more often by females than by males, but more about gender roles and behaviours later);
  • in 10% of my journeys I was ignored;
  • and the remaining 6% were split among other events (for instance standing travellers asking others to clear a seat for me).

So overall I fared relatively well, one could argue: in the majority of my journeys (72% of the time) I was able to sit. However, this was mainly due to the luxury of being able to work flexible hours that my workplace affords and not down to the kindness of my fellow commuters or the magic of the ‘Baby on Board’ badge. So if we take out all instances in which I found a free available seat, the statistics look quite different:


Now only just about half of the time I was benefitting from people kindly offering their seat and the other 50% of the time I was either ignored, actively outrun, or trains were too crowded. As already mentioned, female travellers were more willing to give up their seats than males by a ratio of 1:1.4, so for every 10 men offering a seat, 14 women were getting up for me. I noticed that this ratio did not remain stable over time and it seemed to me that women were more sympathetic in the beginning and middle stages of pregnancy, while men were really catching up towards the end, when I was sporting a big bump. However, I did not capture this systematically, so I can’t say more on this.

2013-03-07 21.04.18-1Being ignored was not the worst bit, I have to say, although it was sometimes annoying, as I was craving for a seat, especially in the evenings, when I was more tired and people would just hide behind newspapers or even worse, would look at you and quickly look away again (maybe thinking someone else could get up instead of them). The worst bit in fact was being outrun and this happened to me 4 times in total, always by other females. So the situation goes like this: there is a free seat in the middle of a row of seats, I enter the carriage from one end and another woman enters from the opposite end and being big and slow I simply ‘loose’ the race. I was quite shocked when this happened for the first time and couldn’t believe it, but then not only did it happen again, it was also ‘featured’ in March 2013 in Time Out London in their section ‘Word on the Street‘ as shown in the snippet from the magazine. So this seems to be more common than we think.

Apart from being outraged, I found this interesting as a sociological phenomenon, because it somehow seems to imply that people feel entitled to a seat and simply take advantage of being fit enough to run for it (the four occasions I witnessed were never any older or frail women, but young and fit ones).

This ‘entitlement’ to a seat was what I actually thought about a lot, because me wearing a badge and expecting people to recognise my greater need to sit is somehow a similar phenomenon and therefore part of what could be called a spatialised culture, i.e. negotiating hidden unwritten rules with other people about what is deemed appropriate behaviour in a certain confined space. I didn’t find being outrun appropriate and other people didn’t either, because whenever it happened someone would in fact offer me a seat just after that. Essentially it seemed there was a hierarchy of ‘need’ or ‘feeling of entitlement’ in place, where generally women felt more entitled to sit than men (and would therefore more often run for seats); where older people felt more entitled to sit than younger people; and where people with bodily conditions (like me being pregnant or those with crutches) felt more entitled than able-bodied passengers. It then became really interesting, whenever those categories clashed and I remember a particular situation very vividly, where a middle-aged woman made her way through a crowded carriage to a seat from one side and I approached from the other side and at first she could only see my face, because the rest of my body was still hidden behind other passengers. So we were both feeling more entitled than the other (I being pregnant and she being older) and it was only when we both reached the free seat at the same time that we silently started negotiating with looks who would get the seat (I did, but you could see she was clearly annoyed…). Another interesting occasion comes to my mind, where the carriage was really crowded and I had waited several trains already before being able to board. I entered the train with my bump facing inside and obviously left some space for me to breathe. A man in suit came running for the train and tried to push me further in with the typical claim ‘I’m in a hurry, too’. I simply turned around, showed off my sizeable bump and replied straight out that my baby needs some space, too. He backed off quite embarrassed and apologetic, but again it became obvious to me that I’m only entitled to breathing space because of ‘special needs’ and not because we’re all humans.

So what’s the overall verdict? I think the ‘Baby on Board’ badge indeed makes life easier and a lot of fellow travellers are very kind and understandingly offering up their seats. However, the best strategy sadly still is to travel outside of rush hours and not everyone will enjoy the same freedom to flexible working hours as I did. So maybe we need more chivalry, as argued by Caitlin Moran in her column, not because women are weaker or pregnancy is an illness, but because we’re all humans and kindness feels good.

3 thoughts on ““Baby on Board” – Spatial Cultures on London Transport

  1. Pingback: Do unto others…… | Pontecarlo or Bust

  2. Pingback: Scoop Goddess » 19 Words That Mean Something Totally Different On The London Underground

  3. Pingback: Bébé à bord : un badge pour les femmes enceintes | Joyeux Magazine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s