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In praise of hard plastic seats

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People aren't the only things nestling into BART's cushioned seats. (Photo by flickr user Olivier Hill)

Our subway system’s familiar plastic seats may not be kind on either the rear or the eyes. The bucket seats were designed for people far skinnier than even the thinnest of New Yorkers, and the blue benches in the new rolling stock tend to grow more uncomfortable as the subway ride stretches ever on.

That said, after reading this article on BART seats in The Times this weekend, I have vowed never to complain about New York’s hard plastic again. Zusha Elinson of the Bay Citizen journalism project writes of the various…things…found in the cushions of the Bay Area’s metro cars:

The Bay Citizen commissioned Darleen Franklin, a supervisor at San Francisco State University’s biology lab, to analyze the bacterial content of a random BART seat. The results may make you want to stand during your trip.

Fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics were found in a seat on a train headed from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton. Further testing on the skin-borne bacteria showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the drug-resistant bacterium that causes potentially lethal infections, although Ms. Franklin cautioned that the MRSA findings were preliminary.

High concentrations of at least nine bacteria strains and several types of mold were found on the seat. Even after Ms. Franklin cleaned the cushion with an alcohol wipe, potentially harmful bacteria were found growing in the fabric.

Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, played down the threat of infection from harmful bacteria on a BART seat. “I suspect it’s not a very big problem,” Dr. Swartzberg said. “That said, if there’s another way to do it, where you can clean it better, then you should do it.”

A spokesman for BART called the results of the test “not surprising.” Yummy.

The article explores how much BART spends on cleaning, what their procedures are for tackling the dirtiest of the dirty and plans to replace the cushions in 2017 with something else. A similar test of hard plastic seats on MUNI found only “benign bacteria colonies” instead of the “veritable forest of mold and colorful bacteria” swiped from the seats.

For their parts, riders who are anticipating new rolling stock are rooting for the plastic. “I would seriously sacrifice my comfort for a more sanitary surrounding,” Carrie Nee said. “Granted, you’re going to be comfortable with the seats they have now, but I think your health is much more important than having your butt hurt for half an hour.” I too would take fewer germs and bacteria over a cushion or two on the ride home.

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