Transit scraps flip-seat pilot but other tests go on

By · Published in 2010

The flip seats on this R160, currently in service along the E line, will remain in the locked position. (Photo courtesy of New York City Transit)

To combat overcrowding, transit agencies can turn to a variety of solutions. Some may look to increase capacity by running more car sets, but eventually those efforts will max out when the tracks are overcrowded with trains. Others may look to a low-cost solution that allows them to stuff more people into a single car by removing seats. That’s the path New York City Transit first started to follow in April 2008 when the agency announced a pilot that see seats removed at rush hour. Now that this train car is rolling, though, the authority has canceled those plans.

The flip-seat pilot, when first unveiled, was not without its detractors. Crowded rush hour subways can already resemble cattle cars, and by removing all seats, the standing masses might take up less space but would be considerably less comfortable. Few riders liked the plan, and the plan seemed to stall last September when Kawasaki refused to retrofit an R142. Yet, Transit went ahead with the order on an R160 anyway, and the train hit the rails in February albeit with the seats locked in the down position.

As Pete Donohue reports in The Daily News, New York City Transit has no plans to flip the seats up any time soon, and it sounds as though the pilot may have been canceled for good. According to Donohue’s sources, Transit has scrapped the idea because of the fear of a widespread public backlash against the MTA. Since fare hikes and service cuts have left New Yorkers disgruntled, removing seats might push them over the edge.

“People are already feeling they’re paying more for less,” Donohue’s source, a transit official, said. “I don’t know that a train like that, even though the idea was to increase capacity, was something that the public would have embraced. We’re not going down that road.”

The original plan called for four cars in a eight-car train to be without seats for a year’s worth of rush hours. Transit would have surveyed rider reaction and then determined whether or not to expand this program as it orders new cars in the future. One MTA board member is pleased to hear that the seatless cars won’t see the light of day. “I think there would have been civil disobedience,” Andrew Albert, the New York City Transit riders representative to the board, said. “I think people would have brought bolt cutters and unlocked the seats. I hated that idea. I still do. We shouldn’t be locking [seats] away from riders. We shouldn’t be telling people they can’t have seats.”

Albert’s reaction may be a strong one, but the psychological impact of a seatless car train isn’t in doubt. Even if we’re not sitting down, we still want to know that the chance to sit might exist. Still, the fact remains that certain subway lines at rush hour are too crowded. The East Side IRT cannot handle more passengers or train sets, and the Queens Boulevard lines are nearing capacity as well. A one-train experiment with four cars of seats locked up during the rush might have been worth it.

In the end, this pilot was doomed by a change in administration at Transit. Ordered by Howard Roberts, it was canceled when economic circumstances changed with Tom Prendergast as Transit president. Still, transit officials assure me that all is not lost with this new R160. “This particular 8-car set also contains other handhold options as well as video surveillance equipment,” Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges said to me an e-mail. “The testing of that equipment is on going. So it would be incorrect to infer that any money spent on these cars is now ‘down the drain.'”

20 Responses to “Transit scraps flip-seat pilot but other tests go on”

  1. Brian says:

    Having rode that said R160 set (8713-8722) on numerous occasions, the main conclusion is they tested it out on the wrong line. If the TA really felt it would be worth it, they could have tested it on the Canarsie line (since many people claim to be at over-capacity).

    • Jason says:

      What about the Lex as well?

    • Alon Levy says:

      The Canarsie line’s capacity issues have improved in the last 3-4 years; it is less congested than the QB line. Check the Hub Bound report.

      • Andrew says:

        Where do you see that? I don’t see where you found that level of detail in the Hub Bound report (and I also don’t think it’s correct – only one of the four Queens Blvd lines approaches the crowding level of the L, and I think even it is less crowded).

        • Alon Levy says:

          No, you’re right, I misremembered. (It would be on Table II-20). 53rd Street is slightly less crowded than 14th – though that is an average of the overcrowded E and the less crowded V M.

          What I remembered correctly is that the L’s crowding levels are substantially down from 2007.

          In addition, the (slow) installation of CBTC means L capacity will increase in the future, reducing crowding. The L is crowded on a per-train or per-car basis, but not on a per-track basis.

          • Andrew says:

            I hope you’re not relying on the “floor space” columns; didn’t we determine a while ago that they assume that all subway cars are the same size?

            Ridership dropped in 2008 due to the economy. I wouldn’t assume that a trend from 2007 to 2008 will continue indefinitely.

  2. Al D says:

    So now there’s an 8 car set of R160 on the E? Perhaps they should shift this over to the M.

  3. Jonathan D. says:

    Another time honored method for reducing overcrowding would just be a massive fare increase without service cuts. Transit is relatively inelastic, but not that much.

  4. Skip Skipson says:

    If memory serves, this was a reaction to $4/gal gas a few years ago. This would increase train capacity without adding trains.

    Weren’t other cities working on similar programs? I wonder if those plans were scrapped too?

    I suspect that if gas prices increase to very high levels and ridership increases as a result; the flip seats in this train set will be used, whether the ridership likes it or not.

    • Christopher says:

      BART is looking at less seats, and standing only cars yes. But they are like DC Metro with rows of forward facing seats and little room for standing. I believe BART is also looking at adding another door. This is something that should go hand in hand with increased standing room: more throughput.

      • AK says:

        Boston put “Big Red” cars on the Red Line that didn’t have any seating at all (no fold down chairs even). It was a very limited trail run in Boston: one pair of modified rolling stock that ran only once during the morning rush hour and once during the evening rush hour. Evidently, people didn’t think much of it– then again, the subways are really never that crowded in Boston, except for concerts/sporting events.

        • Sharon says:

          Just got back from Montreal, the remodeled car set had two areas per car where the seats were completely removed(the size of a pair of back to back seats on a R-68 car) I thought it worked well. Removing all seats from a car is another thing. In the case of NYC, you need some seats per car for people who can’t stand and picked the wrong car. Second most people stand during rush hour anyway. It would be nicer to have a bit more standing room and in the limited cases for a few stops more people on board. It think they will eventually flip flop using a mixture of fixed and flip up seats.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Tokyo has special cars with 6 doors and flip-up seats on its busiest commuter lines. However, those are being phased out in favor of normal 4-door cars, as crowding levels have dropped. Nowadays, even the busiest lines in Tokyo are running at barely more than twice their rated capacity.

  5. Kai B says:

    The seats on that train are horrible they are shorter and completely flat. I’m glad this is not expanding.

    The grabhandles attached to the above-seat bars are useless. They look like they’re a good way to snap your wrist.

    However, the dual bars in the door aisles are great.

  6. JK says:

    The MTA should be encouraged to conduct modest experiments like this one. Maybe riders would find it works. Now we won’t now. The criticism this received is hyperbolic, and has an alternate universe quality to it. It’s probably been years since I got a seat at peak periods.

  7. Andrew says:

    I don’t think this was ever planned for the Lex. Where did you see an R142 reference?

    There are several problems with doing this on the L. One that comes to mind is that if the goal is to have no two adjacent cars without seats, and to ensure that the seatless cars are always in the same position, then that can’t be done on an 8-car train – however the seatless cars are arranged, either there will be two in a row or the 4-car sets won’t be symmetrical (so if they’re turned around, the seatless car will be in the wrong position). On a 10-car train like the E, it’s easy: the second and fourth cars of each set are seatless. The seatless cars are always in the same positions, and anybody who wants to try for a seat can go to the next car in either direction.

    I suspect the real reason this pilot was canceled is that it was something Roberts was interested in pursuing but not Prendergast.


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