Home New York City Transit Iconic wooden subway benches on the way out?

Iconic wooden subway benches on the way out?

by Benjamin Kabak

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?

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Scott E September 2, 2010 - 12:54 pm

I like the benches on the LIRR’s Atlantic Terminal platforms. Formed from long, thin metal rods, they are sturdy enough to sit on, yet “open” enough so gum wrappers, french fries, and other trash fall right through. Practical, simple, and effective.

Marc Shepherd September 2, 2010 - 1:03 pm

Really, how “iconic” are they?

AK September 2, 2010 - 1:31 pm

As “iconic” as everything is “world famous” in NYC 🙂

Ariel September 2, 2010 - 1:03 pm

How about marble?

Ideally, stations should be palatial in order to compete with the comforts of a car. I really like Kievskaya station in the Moscow Metro.

If the typical station were that beautiful even the most car-centric Americans would opt for mass transit instead.

Christopher September 2, 2010 - 1:38 pm

Funny you should mention marble… the benches in the DC Metro (as well as those in BART) are granite. Not concrete. (Of course DC has granite platform edges and street curbs as well, so it’s kinda their thing.)

Of course, NY takes it’s dirtiness as a point of pride, but as the rest of the world — even those at not in love with their automobiles as we are — seems to take building comfortable, modern, innovative transit stations as a point of pride: I’m not sure why we can’t. Other than just typical NY stubbornness.

Al D September 2, 2010 - 2:22 pm

Well said. We have all these station cleaners running around the system with their little brooms and scoopers. OK, but the station floors need to be cleaned too. And the station walls. And the ceiling at Union SQ mezzazine level by the 4 5 6 desperately needs care because huge paint chips ae falling. Lest we forget the station walls. All this human capital, and the stations are filthy.

Nathanael September 5, 2010 - 9:57 pm

For my money, stone benches are the way to go. Super-durable, and surprisingly comfortable — and really easy to clean.

Nabe News: September 2 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle September 2, 2010 - 1:47 pm

[…] The MTA is again considering the replacement of its wooden subway benches with stainless steel. Prototypes will roll out in the coming months [amNY via Second Avenue Sagas] […]

Al D September 2, 2010 - 2:25 pm

I would suggest the ‘iconic’ Parks Dept. benches, the newest versions of which I believe are made of some form of compressed or recycled materials in place of the wood. Add the armrests between seats, and voila, a no-brainer, plus MTA can use what should be Parks Dept. negotiated volume discounts.

Daniel Howard September 2, 2010 - 2:35 pm

Those benches are unhygienic? I will try to avoid using the subway benches as a plate. Thanks for the warning!

When I have sat on these benches I have always been wearing clothes, so if they have cooties I haven’t caught anything.

And what is unforgiving about concrete? You’re waiting for a train to show up. As long as the benches aren’t wet or sticky I think that handsome wood is perfectly fine.


SEAN September 2, 2010 - 3:33 pm

I’ll use those benches when the Yankees play all there home games at Fenway Park.

John September 2, 2010 - 3:35 pm

Back when it was first created, the MTA experimented with plastic/fiberglass benches in the subways, basically using the same sort of seating found in the GM ‘new look’ buses to replace the system’s original wooden benches. Those ended up lacking durability, especially in the period of the 1970s-early 80s deferred maintenance, and it was after that that the current wood benches v2.0, arrived. Stainless steel would probably be more durable than fiberglass, but a magent for the system’s scratchiti artists.

Benjamin Kabak September 2, 2010 - 3:37 pm

The wood’s a pretty big scratchiti magnet as it is. It’s quite easy to whittle something — initials, a tag — into the soft wood of these benches.

Say Goodbye To Wooden Subway Benches? September 2, 2010 - 5:14 pm

[…] As an interesting bit of history, amNY points out that the masterminds behind the subway wanted it to be a “very pleasing feature to the traveling public” and believe it “should be a work of art, in keeping with the era’s ‘City Beautiful’ movement.” [via 2nd Ave. Sagas] […]

Andrew September 2, 2010 - 10:16 pm

I don’t think the plan is to replace the existing benches – according to the article, the only question is whether new stations will continue to use the same sort of bench.

South Ferry has already broken away from the wooden benches. If the new stainless steel benches under consideration are anything like the ones at South Ferry, I vote strongly for wood. The ones at South Ferry look nice enough, but the seat slopes downward, so they’re entirely unsuitable for actually sitting in (although they’re fine if you want to land on the floor). Not a big deal at South Ferry, since there’s normally a train waiting at the terminal, but they shouldn’t be used at stations where people actually have to wait on the platform.

Stainless steel is also cold – quite literally – in winter.

I don’t see the problem with wood. Stainless steel is automatically hygienic but wood isn’t? I agree with Daniel Howard.

I found the rest of Haddon’s article interesting as well. Thanks.

R33WF September 3, 2010 - 3:10 am

I hope the wooden benches don’t go. They are a piece i history. Some benches are from 1918 like the one at 59st Lex on the IRT. There is nothing wrong with them

Gary September 3, 2010 - 9:20 am

Reminds me of an ancient cliched gag:

Waitress: And how is everything?

Patron: The food is terrible!

Waitress: I’m so sorry sir. Any other complaints?

Yes, the portions are too small.

I would love to see a new bench design and an increase in the number of seats available. I don’t care for the existing wooden benches but I would often like a seat.

Building a better subway bench :: Second Ave. Sagas March 8, 2011 - 12:30 pm

[…] into a news story. Sometimes, we hear about bedbugs in the wood; sometimes, we hear about plans to do away with the unhygienic wood. Still, the wood lingers, attracting gum, spills and other less-than-appealing […]

Amazon Ereader November 16, 2011 - 9:29 pm

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A long, slow good bye for the wooden benches :: Second Ave. Sagas February 15, 2012 - 12:36 am

[…] 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 […]


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