A man and woman cling to subway straps while standing on a moving subway train in Tokyo.
Lee Jae Won/Reuters

In Tokyo, new technology matches expectant mothers looking for a seat with passengers willing to give theirs up.  

Debates over priority seating on the subway can get contentious. The question of whether able-bodied riders should relinquish their seats to pregnant women, for instance, prompts squabbling online, as well as in real life.

A good many people will offer a seat to a visibly pregnant woman, but there are enough who don’t to prompt expectant mothers around the world to complain about the lack of civility they experience from fellow riders—especially men. One woman in New York City even carried around a 7-inch trophy honoring the “#1 Decent Dude” who offered her a seat. The dude didn’t appear until the eighth month of her second pregnancy. The opposing camp’s arguments often center on how pregnancy is not a disability, or that it’s a woman’s “choice,” so she should bear it with fortitude.

Some subway authorities have gotten creative in their attempts to secure seats for those with child. That includes specially marked seats, buttons declaring “Baby on Board,” and even a pink light that glows when a pregnant woman with a sensor enters a subway car—all meant to spur fellow passengers to hand over their seat.

And now Japan may have come up with a better solution: an app that matches pregnant women requesting a seat with riders who have agreed in advance to give them up upon request.  

The service is a collaboration between the Tokyo metro and Line, a popular Japanese messaging app. When a pregnant woman enters a subway car, she can push an “I wish to sit” button in the app. Nearby riders who have registered as willing participants will then get a message on their screens, prompting them to stand up so the pregnant passenger can take a seat. And it’s important to note that this feature is within an app that many riders already use—it’s not an entirely new, single-purpose app that will face long odds just to be downloaded.

This is something of a clever hack, using a cell phone to facilitate an interaction when it’s normally an impediment. Transit users are often buried in their screens, oblivious to their surroundings, including the pregnant woman standing right in front of them. The deliberate linking of passengers through the app also eliminates interpersonal awkwardness, a particularly important feature in Japan, where speaking on public transit is frowned upon.  

But people everywhere find this kind of exchange to be difficult. A research study in New York in the 1970s—and updated in the 2000s—showed that people given the task of requesting a seat from fellow passengers on the subway felt anxious about the assignment. “I was afraid I was going to throw up,” one study participant admitted.

The Tokyo metro tested the service last week on a busy downtown route, so it’s not yet clear whether it will be rolled out more permanently. If it’s successful, authorities say they would also like to use it to aid the elderly and those with disabilities.

As my colleague Linda Poon pointed out last year about the pink light technology, such strategies are particularly helpful for those with hidden or invisible conditions. Such passengers might be more reluctant to ask for a seat for fear that others will balk, not believing they actually need it.

This applies to women in their first trimester of pregnancy, when morning sickness is most likely to strike. That makes each train trip a battle against a churning stomach—and a seat a most welcome comfort.

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