A glimpse of some very familiar-looking wooden subway benches. (Photo by flickr user nicolasnova)
When I ride from Brooklyn to W. 4th St. to go to class in the mornings, I often encounter a very familiar subway conundrum. Do I sit on the bench to wait for my train or do I walk down the platform so that I’m closer to the exit? If I do the former, I can rest comfortably for a few minutes; if I do the latter, there are no benches for the Manhattan-bound platform has just three benches, all clustered near the staircase.
For New Yorkers, it is a familiar problem. Although our subway stations span three blocks underground, places to sit are few and far between. At those stations with the most foot traffic — Grand Central on the Lexington Ave. IRT comes to mind — only one bench, tucked out of the way, greets weary commuters. Seats are scarce and generally nowhere convenient.
As welcome a sight as these benches often are, there’s something about them that leave them very unappealing at times too. Mostly, the disgust stems from the fact that they are made of wood. It may be treated wood, but it’s also very abused wood. Benches are battered with coffee spills and food stains, with gum and other assorted items left behind and even, at one point, with bedbugs. Used by the homeless for sleeping, the six-seaters — some with backs, some without — are often looked upon with a wary eye.
What if the benches were more alluring and what if, I’ve always wondered, there were more of them? Stainless steel would be more expensive to procure, but it wouldn’t have the same problems as wood. Some stations in New York, such as 2nd Ave., have built-in benches. Around the world, the seats vary. The Paris Metro has molded plastic; the DC Metro sports some unforgiving concrete; the London Underground has something metallic. Or try this one on for size:
Recently, Ikea took underground comfort to a new level when they started outfitting some Paris Metro stations with actual Ikea furniture as part of a system-wide ad campaign. In the City of Lights, you can wait for the train in comfort. Just don’t think too hard about who else sat there before you.
As the MTA Board gears up to approve a series of service cuts later this morning, seats will become both rarer and more precious. Part of the cuts include fewer off-peak trains, and another part increases the load guidelines so that trains are not considered to be 100 percent unless every seat is taken and a quarter of the passengers are standing. In the past, trains were considered full with every seat taken and no one standing.
These cuts will give us more time to sit at our nearest stations, more time to admire or inspect or raise an eyebrow at the MTA’s wooden benches. Sometimes while standing at one end of the platform, I think about how the seats are there only when I don’t want them, and now I think we should enjoy those seats while we can though because once we’re on board those trains, seats will be scarce indeed.