These often-dirty subway benches could be going the way of the dodo. (Photo by flickr user nicolasnova)
New York City Transit’s wooden benches are an iconic part of the subway experience. Found in most underground stations, these benches are designed with raised arm rests to discourage people from living on them, but the wood can grow disgusting as gum, food, beverages and various unknown substances are rubbed into the grain, leaving them sticky and grimy. Some have been reported to carry bed bugs.
According to a report in today’s amNew York, though, these wooden benches’ days might be numbered. Transit, says Heather Haddon, is again considering stainless steel benches. In a piece that explores the various competing architectural and visual styles of a subway system pieced together over 100 years and presented to riders with a 21st Century sensibility, Haddon drops in a note in the end about the future of the benchs:
NYC Transit officials are weighing whether to scrap the standard wood bench and opt for the system’s first stainless steel seats for the Second Avenue Subway and No. 7 extension stations. Designers are having a vigorous debate between the two models, with some viewing the steel as cold, while others blasting the wood as unhygienic, [Transit architect Judith ] Kunoff said.
In coming months, officials will install prototypes of the two competing benches at an undisclosed station to get the public’s feedback, she said. It’s not the first time that transit has wxperimented with seats — funky orange benches were installed at the Jamaica-Van Wyck station in Queens, and the system also experimented with plastic, metal and stone in the 1960s.
It’s certainly undeniable that stainless steel is cold and that wood is unhygienic, but in the debate between the two, I’d take cold ten times out of ten. As I noted earlier this year, benches are an integral part of the subway experience. While at peak hours, finding a platform seat is rare, at off-peak hours when waits are longest, benches can provide welcome relief for the weary who don’t want to stand impatiently at the platform’s edge.
New York’s wooden benches — bed bugs, gum stains, stickiness and all — are a rarity among the underground systems. While New York has experimented with non-wooden benches, around the world, materials differ. The Paris Metro has molded plastic; the DC Metro sports some unforgiving concrete; the London Underground has something metallic. The grime factor is significantly less elsewhere.
So Transit will tantalize us with a pilot at some undisclosed station so bench enthusiasts don’t skew their sample. If anyone spots this pilot in the next few months, you know how to reach me. In the meantime, keep raisin’ a skeptical eyebrow at those wooden seats. Who knows what lurks within?