A long, slow good bye for the wooden benches


Straphangers awaiting a downtown train at West 4th Street make good use of the station's wooden benches. (Photo by flickr user Grim Santo)

The wooden benches that fill our subway system offer something of a respite for weary travelers. Wood because the material has been cheap and is fairly resilient to everything people throw at it, the benches are designed with low, thick arm rests to discourage permanent residents, but they seem to attract everything from blackened gum to spilled beverages and any unidentifiable liquid in between. They’re also on the way out.

For years, we’ve been hearing about Transit’s plans to replace the wooden benches. In late 2010, the MTA first started debating potential replacements. Some folks, in the wake of reports of bed bugs in mid-2008, called the wood unhygienic while others thought that stainless steel, a potential replacement, was too cold, both literally and figuratively, for the subway system. Yet, stainless steel doesn’t rot or attract bugs, and it seems to have won the day.

As Pete Donohue reports in today’s Daily News, Transit will begin to phase out wooden benches in exchange for the stainless steel variety. Sneak a peek at the planned replacements right here. Donohue has more:

The MTA has chosen a sleek, modern style to be installed in stations when they come up for major overhauls or more modest face-lifts, the MTA said. One of the new subway seats is already in place at the R station at Whitehall St., at the southern tip of Manhattan where straphangers gave mixed reviews.

“It’s better,” Luis Pares, 46, a concierge from New Jersey, said of the metal three-seat bench. “It’s more comfortable. It’s the best thing they’ve invented.”

But Carol Godfrey, 52, a subway conductor who plopped down on it while waiting for a train home called it “horrible…It’s cold,” she said. “There’s nothing like the old wooden ones. They’re sturdier. Put back the old wooden benches. No, put back new wooden benches.”

That, folks, is a perfect example of a he said/she said story. One person likes the subway benches; the other does not. Such are the way of things underground.

If we go slightly beneath the surface, it’s easy to discern the decision-making process here. First, stainless steel benches will last longer than wood. Instead of absorbing anything that lands on them, the benches will deflect instead. Second, as Godfrey noted, by being literally colder than wood, the benches could discourage long-term inhabitants from moving in. They too have arm rests to discourage horizontal sleeping. Ultimately, says the MTA, stainless steel is “easier and less costly to maintain” although the authority didn’t release cost figures for the new benches.

Despite this new approach though, don’t expect to see the new benches spring up too frequently. The cash-starved authority says it can replace wooden benches only when the stations they’re in are up for full renovations. It will be a gradual phase-in as the new and old co-mingle throughout the system. Meanwhile, I wonder what will happen to Tom Otterness’ little fellows at 14th St. who make a better use of those wooden benches than anyone else around.

16 Responses to “A long, slow good bye for the wooden benches”

  1. John-2 says:

    This is actually the second attempt to eliminate the wooden benches from the subways — back in the 1960s, the TA tried to replace the system’s original wooden benches with what were basically the fiberglass bus seats they had begun using on the last of the ‘old look’ buses in the late 1950s. That failed because the fiberglass seats could be easily broken in an empty station by a vandal with one or two well-placed kicks. The current wooden benches then became replacements for those style seats.

    The new benches should stand up to the kicks better, but will probably still become a target for acid etchers. The MTA might want to consider putting the same type of anti-etching sealant/covering on the benches they’re putting on the walls of the new trains before that starts happening.

    • BrooklynBus says:

      That wasn’t an attempt to replace wooden benches. IIRC that was a suggestion by a transit employee to get some additional life from those seats, rather than just throwing them in the trash heap. They just supplemented the wooden benches at stations without benches and did not replace them. Today they probably would try to sell those seats to collectors at highly inflated prices.

      Regarding the wooden benches, notice how they look beautiful when delivered and are never maintained and just left to rot and look ugly. If they were polyurethaned once every three years, they would look new again and would be easy to clean, but that is not he MTA way. Now we’ll get cold ugly stainless steel.

      Also, why does the MTA use wooden benches on outdoor stations where they are subject to the weather and wear out much quicker? That’s where they should use the stainless steel, not inside.

      • VLM says:

        How do you propose we “maintain” a wooden bench? Sand it down every time it gets dirty or dinged up? Replace it every six months? This is not a well-thought-out plan.

        • BrooklynBus says:

          If they just coated it with some kind of protective covering once every three years, they wouldn’t look so worn out. Those benches were built to last 50 years. Structurally they are sound. Scrapping them for something that won’t last nearly as long or will have a cold feel in the winter is not very sensible. With the MTA cash strapped as it is, this is not a wise or necessary expense. When a station is rehabbed, they could sand and refinish the bench. That should be cheaper than a new one.

    • Andrew says:

      I think the Sea Beach line still has the bus-type benches at two stations.

  2. Scott E says:

    These new benches look to be poorly designed. The bottom is too solid (meaning spills and leaks will pool up, particularly between the seat and the back), the edges look sharp, and, as John-2 says, they’re an easy grafitti/etching target.

    A much better approach would have been the tightly-spaced metal rod design used at the LIRR Atlantic Terminal platforms or at PATH. The spaces allow all sorts of debris to fall through, the rounded edges eliminate sharp edges, and the contours are more comfortable. I’ll bet they’re stronger, too, and rats may even have a hard time balancing on those rounded surfaces. You could easily put in armrests to discourage sleeping.

    The Atlantic Terminal and PATH ones also look a heck of a lot better than the subway bench.

    • Andrew says:

      I like the LIRR benches, but the PATH link throws up an error message.

      I’ve never liked the wooden benches – I find them uncomfortable. But at least they’re usable on cold winter days, which metal benches are not.

  3. SEAN says:

    Metro-North replaced all it’s benches over the past few years. First they were concrete & now they are a black stainless steel. I fuind these to be better than the older design.

  4. Dan says:

    The stainless steel is okay, but that look is more retro modern. Can’t we go with something a little more.. designed? See the post about Philadelphia, http://secondavenuesagas.com/2.....way-bench/.

  5. UESider says:

    i dont see how these will do anything to repel chewing gum, rats or drink containers

    i also dont see why we need to deter ‘longtime residents’ – the benches are for anyone waiting on a train – the arms prevent sleepers and i dont think bench hogs are a big enough problem to spench any money to replace the wooden benches

    i agree with the points already raised – they should be cleaned periodically and for indoor use, but keep the wood and skip the replacement expense

    spend the money to repair leaks and fix the tile problems

  6. BrooklynBus says:

    Hasn’t anyone notices how five-seater wooden benches will be replaced with 3 seaters? Was the public even asked about this?

    • VLM says:

      Why should the public be asked about a freakin’ bench, Al? For someone who obsesses over MTA spending, don’t you think a public hearing on some benches that you would spend, at the worst, 15 minutes in is not the best use of dollars? Jeez.

  7. UESider says:

    maybe they’ll install two metal 3-seater benches for every 5-seater wooden bench they remove… then, be on the lookout for claims that they increased capacity by 20%


  1. […] as Second Ave Sagas reports, the MTA has a few reasons to make the switch. Wood happens to be a haven for bed bugs (and you know how much of a problem those are in New […]

  2. […] that the MTA has made public its plans to replace its wooden station benches with metal ones, the authority must also figure out how best to dispose of the old wooden ones. As these benches […]

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