Guest Author: Dr Sarah O’Toole, Senior Research Fellow, University College London
Public transport in the UK has priority seating for those who are less able to stand, including those who are pregnant. Providing a seat for those who are in greater need of one during their journey has been found to make the difference between a safe and unsafe journey (TfL, 2019). However, although public awareness of priority seating is often high, 30% of passengers who need a seat report experiencing situations where another passenger does not voluntarily vacate a priority seat (TfL, 2016).
Not being able to sit during the commute to work may represent a challenge for expectant mothers. Pregnancy is a time of significant physical and psychological change and a negative commuting experience may induce stress and impact the health of the mother and baby (Hobel, Goldstein, & Barrett, 2008). Transport for London (TfL) have introduced a ‘Baby-on-board’ badge for commuters in London; a badge that can be worn by expectant mothers to indicate that they may need a seat while traveling. The effectiveness of this badge, though, has not been evaluated.
UCL Research Project
Dr Sarah O’Toole and Professor Nicola Christie from the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London conducted a research project to explore the impact of commuting on pregnant women and their wellbeing as well as exploring the effectiveness of the TfL ‘Baby-on-board’ badge.
A survey of commuting to work including questions relating to attitudes and behaviours towards pregnant commuters was completed by 295 participants. This included 104 men and 186 women. Following this, 15 women from the survey were interviewed about their experiences of commuting to work while pregnant. (The full research article is available here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jth.2021.101308).
The project highlighted the following challenges experienced by pregnant women commuting to work.
Being able to sit while commuting
‘I generally didn’t ask if there wasn’t a seat available because a friend of mine had had a situation where she had asked for a seat and the guy looked at her, he was sitting in a priority seat, he looked up at her and said, ‘Well, I didn’t knock you up did I?’Participant interview excerpt
Despite 80% of survey participants saying they would offer a pregnant commuter their seat, only around half of women (47%) who wore the ‘Baby-on-board’ badge and under a quarter of women who did not wear the badge (23%) were offered a seat most of the time.
This was echoed in women’s interviews. Although women reported they were generally offered a seat when commuting, women felt passengers were often too distracted by phones or tablets to notice them / the badge or were assessing whether they were pregnant enough for a seat. Women also felt uncomfortable wearing the badge as it was advertising their pregnancy. There was an underlying culture of pregnant women not being entitled to a seat more so than other commuters.
Being able to sit during the commute was felt to ease the symptoms of pregnancy such as morning sickness or exhaustion. It also prevented more serious incidents such as women falling or fainting. Most women did not feel they were able to ask for a seat if they were not offered one and would instead stand, sit on the floor, or change trains. The main concern was around confrontation; many women reported knowing of someone having a negative experience when asking for a seat.
Half of the women surveyed (51%) had to make adjustments to their commute during pregnancy. In their interviews women discussed altering their journeys to less busy times or changing mode of transport due to negative experiences (e.g. feeling unwell or vulnerable, overcrowding, or seat availability). On occasions, pregnant women chose to drive instead of taking public transport or would take the train or bus instead of the tube. Some women chose a slower train service because it was less crowded even though this would lengthen their commute time. The adjustments many pregnant women are making to their journeys is an indication of their exclusion from public transport.
‘…I think my baby might be an only child unless I don’t have to go to work anymore…I’ve said to my husband if I still have to continue working, which at the moment that’s the situation, I couldn’t get pregnant again because I just couldn’t do that commute anymore.’Participant interview excerpt
The commute impacted pregnant women’s physical and psychological well-being. Issues, such as overheating and overcrowding on trains and platforms and in stations led to pregnant women feeling sick and claustrophobic. Women reported worrying about the commute beforehand and felt the commute was ‘traumatic’ and associated with ‘mental stress’. Their commute required more planning and unforeseen circumstances could impact their well-being. For example, for one expectant mother being stuck on the train led to a panic attack.
In their interviews, women who were able to work flexible hours or from home felt they were more productive. Flexible hours allowed women to commute at times of the day that reduced the stress of their commute and working from home reduced tiredness. In contrast, some women stated they had to start their maternity earlier than planned due to the stress of commuting.
Commuting to work may be a major source of stress and anxiety for pregnant women and can have detrimental effects on women’s well-being and work. Although, there is the TfL Baby-on-board badge to support pregnant commuters in being able to sit while travelling, its effectiveness in getting other commuters to offer their seat is limited and women do not always feel comfortable indicating to others their pregnancy. An approach that signifies to other commuters a woman’s pregnancy, may not be the most effective solution to supporting pregnant women during their commute.
A multi-agency approach is needed to improve pregnant women’s commuting experiencing and to improve their well-being and productivity at work.
While a Baby-on-board badge may be desired by some expectant mothers, some prefer not to reveal their pregnancy. Including pregnant women in the ‘priority seating badge’ scheme – that states a passenger needs a seat without indicating why – could benefit commuters who do not want to expose their pregnancy. An expansion of a badge approach could enable commuters outside of London to benefit. However, badges are sometimes not visible to other passengers. More effective methods may therefore include providing more priority seating or priority carriages designed for a more diverse range of passengers requiring seating. Further research is needed to evaluate the most effective approach to providing a more inclusive public transport system.
Working from home at least part of the week was found to be most beneficial in reducing physical symptoms and anxiety. Where this was not possible, flexible working hours to allow pregnant women to travel outside of peak times was also beneficial.
Routine antenatal appointments could include discussions of how commuting is impacting pregnant women as well as raise awareness of available support or advice on how women can improve their commute.
Thinking about how we can provide a more inclusive public transport experience for women during pregnancy will not only improve the commute for this group of women but will also have broader benefits for those using public transport.
The research article ‘Pregnancy and commuting on public transport’ by Sarah O’Toole and Nicola Christie is available in the journal of Transport and Health: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jth.2021.101308
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Hobel, C.J., Goldstein, A.M.Y. and Barrett, E.S., 2008. Psychosocial stress and pregnancy outcome. Clinical obstetrics and gynecology, 51(2), pp.333-348.
Transport for London (TfL) (2016). Action on Equality: TfL’s commitments to 2020. Retrieved from http://content.tfl.gov.uk/action-on-equality-tfls-commitments-to-2020.pdf
Transport for London (TfL) (2019). Travel in London: Understanding our diverse communities 2019. Retrieved from http://content.tfl.gov.uk/travel-in-london-understanding-our-diverse-communities-2019.pdf