Recognition of Privilege on the Bus

I recently rode a bus with my girlfriend from my house to the Science Museum of Minnesota. When we boarded, she went first using a transit pass, while I opted to go last since I paid in cash and would not hold up the bus since it could start moving while I paid. When I had finished paying, my girlfriend had already picked a spot and I sat next to her; she was on the outside of the bus, next to the windows and I was next to the aisle. I looked up and down the bus and noticed that only one woman was sitting in a forward facing seat, next to the aisle. A small sample size for sure, less than ten women on the bus the whole ride, but through the entire ride I noticed some striking ways in how people seemed to choose their seats.

A few women boarded the bus during the journey and all either stood or sat near the front of the bus; if they sat down they seemed to try to get a seat in the sideways facing seats. The one woman who sat in a forward facing seat on the aisle had a small child who seemed very excited to do anything at all. Any woman riding with an adult male sat on the outside of the bus, while her companion for the journey sat on the inside, next to the aisle.

Streets Photo, Privilege

Articulated bus, leaving the University of Minnesota Campus, only 3 people who I believed to identify as women sat behind the red line drawn on this photo.

I did not survey riders and why they sat in the positions they did, but I speculated and thought of two reasons for seat choice.  These are only my thoughts;  everyone has specific reasons and I am surely not including everyone here.

Women tended to stay closer to the driver and either were buffered by a male companion sitting on the aisle or sat in a seat not constrained by another row. The woman with a child who sat facing forward in the constrained seats seemed to do so intentionally to keep her child from running around the bus, and keeping the child in a space where activity wouldn’t bother anyone, nor would anyone have access to the child.

Janne Flisrand said on why she chooses her seats, “It’s not ’cause I feel scared or vulnerable, it’s more like staying out of the way or visible to ‘authority’ because the odds of being bullied/hassled are lower there.  I think about it in the same way nerds in a high school are likely to avoid the most aggressive jocks — not because every time they go there they get shoved in a locker, but if you remain unseen then you remain unhassled.”

While these are only conjectures, it seems that women had to think about their seating arrangements, maybe not consciously, but at some point a seating “strategy” had been ingrained. More women had to think about what they would do if someone started bullying or harassing them.  Generally, I don’t have to worry about being threatened with sexual violence, or not being left alone, or simply being ogled uncomfortably, all things I have witnessed – towards women, minorities, and people who identify as LGBTQ – in various spheres of public life, including buses.

This suggests that over half of the population might be uncomfortable in public spheres. No matter how we are born or identify, we should not have to feel wary in public places, we should not have to think about seats on the bus in terms of when the creeper gets on or if someone makes an inappropriate remark or an unwelcome advance. Ensuring all people are welcomed in the public sphere is part of having any public sphere at all. If any portion of the population feels like they cannot fully utilize the service or the space or have to do extra work to be comfortable using the space, it is no longer truly public, but a space or service for those who are not likely to be bullied.

Everyone can step up to combat harassment. By ensuring friends know, recognize and understand when they say something objectionable and that you are opposed to that behavior, to intervening (please don’t be a white knight, but ask if someone would like assistance) you play a role toward ensuring everyone’s comfort in public spaces.

Please comment with your experience on buses, why you sit where you do, and anything else to expand this discussion.

I would like to thank Janne for proofreading this, as well as leading discussions on privilege for, I would like to thank L.K. for a post that allowed people to express their own experiences with unwanted attention on  transit, and Cassie for explaining in the comments how to intervene without being a white knight. Bill also has a good MinnPost article on street harassment.

I would also like everyone to read this article about how bicycling provides a great lens for how to view what people mean when they say privilege. I would encourage everyone to also read Cards Against Harrassment, and watch the YouTube channel, for what really opened my eyes to some instances of street harassment I didn’t recognize before watching her videos, but now notice fairly often.

Joseph Totten

About Joseph Totten

Joe is a graduate of Civil Engineering-Transportation and Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a masters degree from Portland State University. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Joe has worked with nonprofits and public agencies in MSP and Portland.

36 thoughts on “Recognition of Privilege on the Bus

  1. Janne

    Thanks for being observant, Joe, for thinking about it and what you can do, and of course for writing it all up here. I’m looking forward to your next observations.

  2. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    After many years of watching how people distribute themselves on buses, several rules of thumb seem to hold true. As the bus fills up, it’s unusual for anyone to sit next to someone else until all but the seats in the rear of the bus have at least one occupant. The rear of the bus has a well-deserved reputation for teenagers who can be rowdy and other potentially anti-social types. Even when there is a standing load, seats in the back may remain empty.

    As the seats fill in with second occupants, I’ve noticed that women tend to sit next to women if they have the choice. They’ll also sit farther back in the bus during the rush hour when the riders in the back are more likely to also be commuters.

    Of course the elderly, people with mobility issues, parents with kids and the anyone with luggage or shopping bags usually stay up front for ease of entrance and exit. Also, there’s more room to store the strollers, bags, etc.

    1. Janne

      Aaron, men ALSO prefer to sit by women. Men will always take an empty seat next to a woman before they’ll take an empty seat next to a man.

        1. Ryan

          Imagine I’m saying this in the most polite tone ever, because I know it’s going to sound defensive and aggressive and I don’t want it to, but– I personally know that not all men are pigs/rude to women in public, but enough men engage in problematic behavior in public towards women that it’s a problem. It’s cool if you’re nice to people in public, but you’re in the minority. Summary:

      1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

        I usually avoid sitting next to women honestly, if only because I’m trying to avoid looking like I’m sitting next to them just because they were women.

        1. Janne

          Thanks, y’all, for intentionally choosing to sit with men rather than next to women. Keep it up. Encourage your friends to do the same.

          (Of course, as Nick would tell you, it’s better to sit in the last empty seat than to stand, also when that seat is next to a woman.)

      2. Rosa

        this seems highly raced, to me, at least in Minneapolis (and it’s different by time of day too) but I’ve had men of color sit down next to me and then *apologize* – “there aren’t any other seats!” I’m not super friendly but I’m not that pissed-off looking, either.

  3. Casey

    As a woman, I prefer to sit near the front of the bus in view of the driver as I have had plenty of harassment in the past. One example: It was a fairly empty bus, maybe 6 people total and I chose to sit in the second forward facing seat by the window. A man got on a few stops later and sat in the seat right next to me while there were plenty of totally open seats. He sat with his hand resting on the seat in front of him, essentially creating a barrier. Uncomfortable! Thankfully my stop was next and I could get away from the situation quickly. Men will never understand fully the daily choices women make to feel comfortable in this type of environment.

        1. Joe

          I second Adam. Also, even if it wasn’t, it’s clear it was an uncomfortable situation. Stopping criminal level, easy to convict harassment shouldn’t be a goal, the goal should be anyone can use the system without feeling uncomfortable, trapped, etc.

      1. Casey

        “Harassment – aggressive pressure or intimidation.

        synonyms: persecution, intimidation, pressure, force, coercion

        Harassment is an action that is meant to or happens to cause discomfort for the victim.”

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    It’s interesting to compare the dynamics of urban buses to the dynamics on the first buses I ever experienced in our system — coach bus express service from the suburbs, before I moved out on my own. I can’t say what it’s like to be a woman on those buses versus urban routes, but I could feel a difference. Curious to hear what women think about suburban express services on coach buses.

  5. Bill Dooley

    On the #5 or #19 runs to and from North Minneapolis, the rowdies are in the back and the women with small children with strollers are clogging the front with most of the other folks huddled in the middle most often standing. I am always up front with the strollers because I want to keep an eye on my bike on the front rack.

    1. Rosa

      it’s so funny how soon boys learn they “belong” in that loud group in the back, too – mine started running straight back there when he was 7 or 8. Usually I follow him, sometimes I make him come up farther with me. One of the times I told him he had to come sit with me a teen said to him “Yeah, your mom won’t sit back here, kid.” Of course that only made him want to be there more.

  6. Andrew B

    If either are open I’ll grab the window seats on the back bench of the bus. I get the impression that some big middle-age guy sitting back there helps keep the teenagers from getting too rowdy.

  7. Ryan

    May be more to do with white women? I’m sitting in the far back of a bus right now, and there’s equal ratios of men and women behind the steps, but all the women are people of color. I see this all the time, and I also see white people get on the bus and crowd the front when there are plenty of seats in the back. Seat choice may not be just a gender thing, but a gender and race thing.

  8. a_tribe_called_chris

    This is an interesting examination. In the morning I sit on the back of the bus. In the afternoon I sit towards the front to get off quicker. I mostly take an express bus from Brooklyn Park but have taken the Green and Blue lines with my family and we sit wherever we can find. I suppose if I took the 5 I would bring my pistol since some of these youngsters are OK with popping an adult.

  9. Walker Angellwalker

    You got my curiosity up. I ran this by some friends and this would seem to be somewhat localized. Completely a non-issue in London, an occasional issue in NYC and Amsterdam, and Alabama sounds much like you described. One comment:

    “Buses in MN might be different, but I can tell you that I have never felt threatened or intimated on a NYC bus in any way. I love taking the bus in Brooklyn; the environment is very respectful. I never even sit toward the front–that’s not necessary. Harassment certainly happens, but I’ve never seen it in a bus.”

  10. Kam

    I was born and raised in the Bronx and was always taught to sit where the driver can see you. This goes for the subway too, I usually choose the car with the conductor or motorman regardless of where I am going in NYC. I am a woman of color if that helps. I have been in dicey situations on NYC buses although in my youthful stupidity they weren’t scary to me at the time. Transplants might not have been taught these “rules”.

  11. Chava

    It’s interesting, my wife understandably prefers the front of the bus in MN, but wasn’t concerned with this when we lived in Chicago unless some threat presented itself. We both noticed a marked difference in the way people interact and act on the buses here. In the larger city everybody sits together and minds their own business. Here, we have noticed that the buses are far more segregated, and when you sit outside of this self imposed segregation there is some tension and hostility.

    Also noticed that drivers here don’t seem to exert any control over their buses. I’ve seen people refuse to pay fares, break every posted rule, and generally act like total fools with barely a glance from the driver. Wonder how a driver might respond to a woman being harassed.

    1. Rosa

      I wonder if we have a higher percentage of people who didn’t grow up riding the bus, or only ride the bus to work and never any other time. I grew up in a small town that didn’t have a bus system at all, and I bet that’s not uncommon for people who move to Minneapolis. Especially compared to Chicago or New York (where I’ve taken transit some, and the seat-sorting doesn’t seem to happen as much – but that might just be because all the seats are more likely to be taken, too.)

  12. Angela

    I’ve noticed this here in MN and to a lesser degree in the Seattle area. I haven’t noticed it in Chicago, though in part I think it’s because Chicago’s bus drivers are more confrontational, both about people misbehaving and about people moving back to make room in front.

    I try to sit near the front of the bus here for a variety of reasons, of which safety is one. I don’t necessarily think the driver will intervene — I’m more likely to call the transit police than the driver is — but it’s easier for me to get away if someone grabs me, and there’s the possible deterrent of the camera, which isn’t blocked by seats as much in that area.

    Other reasons I prefer the front are that it’s where the few cargo areas are, and that especially in winter, buses don’t pull up close enough to the curb for a person of my height to be able to safely exit through the back door. Similarly, on a crowded bus, my standing location options are limited by the height of the grab bars, so that affects where I stand.

    I do think my comfort level in choosing a seat anywhere on the bus has a lot to do with how likely I feel bystanders are to call out other passengers’ inappropriate behavior, and I’m generally not confident that Minnesotans will do so.

  13. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Millsap Rasmussen

    It is interesting to read other people’s thoughts on where they sit and why. I notice more men on buses than women most days that I ride. For me, I usually just want a seat, so I’ll sit where ever one is available. If I have a choice of abundant seating, I’ll sit in the back beyond the back door. This offers two advantages to me. 1- I can get out the back door more quickly without moving through a sea of people in the aisle (if the bus becomes full) and 2- I likely won’t have to give up my seat for someone with a wheelchair, cane, walker, kids, etc because usually those people never try to get to the back, thus guaranteeing I’ll have a seat for my entire ride.

  14. Cedar

    My choice of seats depends so much on the situation. In a quiet bus, my preference is always in the middle by a window. Too close to the front and I feel like I’ll have to be more on alert to make sure I’m not hogging a seat from someone who might need. I like to get on, read by book, and not move until it’s time to get off. In a crowded bus, I prefer to be as near to the rear back door as possible, as that way it’s easier to get off when we get to my stop. I prefer not to sit in the aisle seat if there are any other options, mostly because then I will probably have to move at some point when the person on the inside gets off. If someone is loud, drunk, or otherwise looks a little “off” I prefer not to sit by them, and yes, I am more likely to sit by a woman than by a man. My preferences really haven’t changed by city, although I have noticed very different bus riding norms varying by location (although honestly, I think the differences between routes in this metro area vary more than they did in other places I’ve lived.)

  15. Jim Poven

    I’m a white male. 6 ft 1, healthy BMI, not a creeper.

    When I ride the bus, I tend to go for a front-facing window seat in an unoccupied set of seats – I try to go near the back door when possible. When I can’t do that, then I usually will opt to sit next to a woman since we both will be able to sit comfortably. I’m certainly no “pig”.

  16. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit

    So much depends on the context – uncrowded bus, I sit by the window because I like to watch what’s going by. Bus in an unfamiliar city, I sit by the driver and the window so I can see and ask when to get off. Crowded Tube, I’ll sit or stand where there’s space available including in the armpit of the next person of any gender/race/clothing style. Long ride, I like to settle in (by the window); short ride, I’ll choose what’s close to the door.

    I am uncomfortable, however, with the speculation that I feel vulnerable (I’m 5’3, 53 years old, thin, white, and female). My presumption is you all are not creepers until/unless you demonstrate definitively otherwise and you’re just trying to get somewhere.

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

      Thanks for saying so, this helped me in re-reading my post and it did leave a lot open to extrapolate. I don’t mean to say all men are pigs as much as all non-pig men should be aware that some people (more likely to be femme/minorities) may have to think about their spots based on other’s actions.

      But again, thank you for posting this and clarifying.

  17. Hamza Musse

    I’ll be honest I do try to scan the bus before taking a seat. Maybe I’m too young to get how this all works but I’ve been riding alone since 6th grade (8 years) and I find this discussion odd. I don’t think you can quite speculate on something like seat choice unless a real study is done, because just about anybody can say one type of person is more privileged on the bus than another (African-Americans, women, blue collar workers, hispanics, Asians, disabled persons, etc, etc). What we can go off is common etiquette such as giving a seat to a woman or elderly person (I hesitate nowadays because I get mixed responses–it might have something to do with my race….but I digress). And obviously there’s the old segregation practices, but I’m not at liberty to explain its relevance today. I also can’t say if it’s just white women who are threatened with just about anybody sitting next to them, although they are they only group that I ever think twice about sitting next to.

    I’ll also like to echo what some other travelers have said about other cities. I’ve never had any uncomfortable moments in Chicago, New York, or even Milwaukee. People get on the bus/train, sit down, wait for their stop and leave. I’m not saying there is not harassment but I’m gonna guess to be hyperconscious about it every time on Transit has got to be a Minnesota thing.

  18. Casey

    “The MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) recently launched a sexual assault page which asks women to name their complaints about sexual harassment specifically on the subway. Or that two weeks ago the MTA announced 940 subway cars will be outfitted with cameras to combat sexual attacks. In fact women filed more than 3,000 reports of sexual assault and forcible touching between June 2008 and June 2013, according to the NYPD’s Transit Bureau.”

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