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Alaina Woodford

Honors 212 C


The Gendered Space of Buses

I once had a gender studies professor claim she could guess 90% of

the time who would sit next to whom on the bus. That was the basis of this

project, and our research question was this: How does gender, race, and

class affect ones use of space on public transportation? My findings focus on

the gendered decision of choosing a seatmate: a particularly rich source of

observations of spatial decision-making. My observations support the

assertion that the choice of whom to sit next to on the bus is always


As part of our research methods, each of my group members chose a

bus route that we believed would make for diverse and interesting

observations. We each rode our buses for approximately one hour, writing

down all of the interactions we witnessed. I rode Metro Route 2, going from

Madrona Park to West Queen Anne, and passing through the Central District

and Downtown Seattle.

We discovered three significant limitations to our research. First,

determining a strangers gender, race, and class is a very flawed exercise.

These categories are social constructs, which vary across our locations in

time and space, and are therefore subjective in nature. We are often

assigned to these groups by others, not by ourselves, such as when the

doctor exclaims its a boy! at a childs birth. That child may grow up to

identify as a boy, a girl, a nonbinary person, or something else; but for most

of their life, everyone around them will refer to them as a boy, because of a

decision that was made for them. Nevertheless, we are all raised in a society

that treats race, class, and gender as essential categories, distinct and

important and determined from birth. As part of that upbringing, we are

taught what it means to belong to those categories, and how those people

look and behave. No matter how wrongheaded these definitions are, we

continue to use them in categorizing the people around us. This is an

unavoidable product of our society, and our only method to counteract it was

to acknowledge our own biases involved in determining the social

categorizations of perfect strangers.

As an off-set of that research limitation, I wish to point out that our

group was made up of four people with different backgrounds and biases.

Since we couldnt control for the differences in our backgrounds, we tried to

pay attention to how those biases might influence our observations. My

personal background is this: Im a cis, white woman, belonging to the upper-

middle class. As such, I have my own personal set of experiences that led me

to expect certain outcomes from this experiment. For example, as a white

person, Im primed not to notice how white people make up the majority of

people I interact with in my daily life. Therefore, its possible that I could

have viewed the racial makeup of the bus as normal when primarily white,

and abnormal when more racially diverse. But as a woman, Im very aware
of sexism I experience on the bus, and therefore could be more in tune to

sexist occurrences I witnessed. For example, when I see a man sitting next to

a woman, I often check to see how much space he is taking up by spreading

his legs, to determine whether or not hes invading her space.

Second, we could not determine whether someones choice of

seatmate was intentional or unintentional, and biased or unbiased. Our

observations rested on the assumption that there is no such thing as a

random choice of seatmatethat some factor, noted consciously or

unconsciously, causes someone to choose one potential seatmate over

another. Since the thought processes involved in choosing a seatmate are

invisible to us, we were forced to speculate in order to draw conclusions from

our observations.

Third, each of us took our observations from a single hour-long bus

ride. Three of us rode at rush hour on a weekday, and only one rode on the

weekend. Our sample size of observations was extremely small. If we were to

expand upon our observations, its probable we would have chosen to ride

the same bus at several different times of day, to observe the changes that

occur. We also would have ridden the bus in both directions, instead of just

one. So, due to the limitations of our own schedules, our observations were a

one-off case study, rather than an actual quantified, data-based study.

Many of my expectations were proven inapplicable, inadequate, or

incorrect upon making my observations. For example, I originally intended to

study class, but found myself unable to guess class categorizations, and
ended up leaving class out of my observations almost entirely. The one

notable exception is this: I factored class into the population of bus riders as

a whole, not as individuals. This means that prior to my observations, I

considered that public transportation is usually reserved for working class

and middle class people, since it is assumed that the upper class and upper-

middle class have cars and can afford the expense of parking downtown.

Additionally, while I was somewhat able to observe race, I chose to leave it

out of this paper for the sake of a concise focus.

One expectation of mine did prove to be correct: according to my

observations, men took up more space than women did. Women frequently

crossed their legs while sitting, whereas men never did. In fact, when men

chose to sit next to a woman, they tended to take up some of her allotted

space as well. (Allotted space here is considered to be the demarcations set

down by the lines dividing one seat from another by the bus makers.) A New

York Times article details manspreading, a phenomenon observed in public

spaces (and frequently public transportation) in which men spread their legs

wide enough to take up more than their fair share of space (Fitzsimmons). I

found this phenomenon recreated on my bus, such as through my

observations of men who spread their legs over their entire seat and

approximately 1/3 of the way into the seat next to them. Women, on the

contrary, took up very little spaceeither out of choice or necessity,

depending on how much space their male seatmate was taking up. Outside

research supports my findings, such as the findings collected by Baden

Eunson, who asserted that men take up more personal space by spreading

their legs (7.14). One possible explanation for this gendered gap in leg room

is the social ideal that women keep their legs closed in order to be modest

and ladylike by not revealing their crotch. However, this doesnt fully

explain the gendered dynamics of space, like the example of men spreading

their arms across multiple seats, and women rarely doing the same. Another

explanation is that women are expected to take up less space, and men are

expected to take up more, as part of a societal construct of male dominance

and female subordination. When I observe women on the bus taking up less

space, and men taking up more, Im witnessing a gendered performance of

space: an intricate dance in which women forfeit their allotted space to men.

This gendered space gap may be one reason why I frequently observed

gendered seating choices. I mentioned in our class presentation that the

seating choices I observed were explicitly gendered, but only when women

were making the choice. When given the choice, women usually sat next to

other women, where as men sat next to men and women, seemingly

indiscriminately. However, I must note that even seemingly indiscriminate or

non-gendered choices are, in fact, gendered. I hypothesize that the

invisibility of privilege plays a role in mens choice of seatmate. Men are

considered the default in our society. To give an example, stick figures are

presumed to be male, but are used as shorthand to apply to everyone.

Everyone crosses the street when they see the male-bodied walk signal,
but that same design is also used to designate male-only spaces, like mens


Women-only spaces are explicitly gendered, and therefore

differentiated from public spaces, whereas men-only spaces are not.

Therefore, men are given the luxury of not considering gender as a factor

that applies to them, and subsequently, they may not explicitly consider

gender when choosing a seatmate. However, as women are forced to think of

gender (and of themselves as gendered) more often than men, the male

luxury of not considering gender as a factor is, in fact, a gendered privilege.

Therefore, even seemingly unbiased choices prove to be gendered.

Additionally, women are socialized to fear men as a constant threat of

harassment. This is a natural result of hegemonic American masculinity,

which is marked by male hypersexuality and aggression, frequently

manifesting in public harassment, such as catcalling. Men, however, are not

socialized to consider themselves as dangerous, and are probably unaware

that women may perceive them as a potential threat. This is a possible

explanation for why women chose other women for seatmates (because

when considering their safety, women were the safest option), while men are

ignorant to the possible effects of their presence on women, and therefore

didnt consider it as a factor when choosing a seatmate. Interestingly,

women who are wary of men may be tapping into a psychological

phenomenon in which people who take up greater space are also more likely

to break social rules or laws. In The Ergonomics of Dishonesty, researchers

found correlations between postural expansiveness (Yap 1), feeling

powerful, and dishonest behavior, like cheating or stealing.

In conclusion, it seems clear that the choice of a seatmate is reliant

upon gender, whether the chooser is a woman making a conscious choice, or

a man unaware of his privilege in choosing. While the focus of this paper was

on gender-specific spatial phenomena and was limited to my observations on

public transportation, I believe this research could be more broadly

applicable to societal patterns of claiming space.


Eunson, Baden. Communicating in the 21st Century. 2nd edition. John Wiley
and Sons Australia, Ltd, 2008. Ch. 7. Web. 3 June 2015.

Fitzsimmons, Emma G. A Scourge Is Spreading. M.T.A.s Cure? Dude, Close

Your Legs. Nytimes.com. The New York Times, 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 3 June
2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/nyregion/MTA-targets-

Yap, Andy J., et al. The Ergonomics of Dishonesty: The Effect of Incidental
Posture on Stealing, Cheating, and Traffic Violations. Psychological Science.
Sage Publications, 2013. P. 19. Web. 3 June 2015.