Home U.S. Transit SystemsBART In praise of hard plastic seats

In praise of hard plastic seats

by Benjamin Kabak

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.


Edward March 8, 2011 - 3:25 pm

Yuk, they even look dirty, not to mention uncomfortable.

Christopher March 8, 2011 - 3:42 pm

Well they haven’t been replaced in years. Last time I was on BART in 2008, the seats were in horrible condition. Even worse than they had been in 2004. And all the cushions were collapsing. It was like being on an old, cheap couch in a frat house. Disgusting.

Edward March 8, 2011 - 3:46 pm

Haven’t been on BART since ’89, but I’m sure you’re correct. Many of the older NYC Transit express buses to the boros outside Manhattan have similar seats, many of them is various states of disrepair (ripped, collapsed springs, etc) and they are pretty narrow and uncomfortable to begin with. I kinda like the plastic seats on subways and local buses–easy to clean and they last for years.

pete March 8, 2011 - 9:21 pm

The express buses still have fabric seats. The “urban to express” converted buses got foam from The Mob for their cushions and they turned to dust in 2-3 years. Plus running them in local service guarantees every juvenile delinquent will cut them to shreds. The greyhounds/MCI express buses have the same seats, same fabric. I guess because of the upper class neighborhoods and sky high fare of express buses vandals and bums aren’t a problem on the greyhounds/MCIs.

pea-jay March 9, 2011 - 12:03 am

Rode BART this past summer and needless to say, the seats were nasty. No tears but lots of reminders of stains past. Never thought about MSRA or bedbugs though. Course this is all relative since my destination was the TransBay bus terminal which make the BART and our PA Bus Terminal look like operating rooms in comparison. Super yuck. I will not miss the TransBay terminal or cloth seats for that matter.

Jesse March 8, 2011 - 3:34 pm

I’ve never found the NYC subway seats to be uncomfortable — or narrow for that matter. However, I do prefer the padded seats on the LIRR, and I didn’t need a single sick day during the two years I spent commuting to Long Island for work. I wonder if this is one of those stories where the ick factor is significantly higher than the actual health risk.

Donald March 8, 2011 - 11:22 pm

LIRR seats are cleaner than the BART seats because they are vinyl, not cloth. Vinyl, like leather, is a lot easier to clean. It also does not stain.

gustavo febles February 22, 2017 - 9:17 pm

you’d think they would consider using vinyl for the new r179 cars, no?

Alon Levy March 8, 2011 - 3:38 pm

Saying you’re better than BART is like saying you’ve lied less than George W. Bush.

That said, while bench seats are better than bucket seats – if only because they don’t force you to sit in a particular space, allowing for more spreading out if all but a few seats are occupied – I don’t think it’s a huge deal. Then again, I’m not overweight.

Joseph Alacchi March 8, 2011 - 4:25 pm

Disagree entirely! Montreal’s metro has similar seats to the New York subway and I hate it. Padded seats are the way to go for comfort and for attracting riders!

Aaron March 8, 2011 - 4:51 pm

You know, I see these tests every year or so in various places and I always wonder if they’re asking the right question – instead of “Is there a bunch of bacteria there?” shouldn’t they be asking “Are riders getting disproportionately sick?” I’ve never quite understood the obsession with this… there’s bacteria everywhere ;p.

pete March 8, 2011 - 9:23 pm

Exactly. All surfaces have them. The only problem with is the amount/density of bacteria. Hard surfaces get “cleaned” every time you touch them. Porous fabric just absorbs it like a sponge. The answer is padded vinyl seats like on the commuter railroads.

SEAN March 8, 2011 - 4:57 pm

Paranoia! plain & simple.

ant6n March 8, 2011 - 7:09 pm

They should do the same test on people’s clothing. Or their car seats. They might find fecal bacteria!

Anon256 March 8, 2011 - 9:42 pm

Forget bacteria, with cloth seats I’d be worried about bedbugs.

Jason B March 9, 2011 - 9:23 pm


BBnet3000 March 9, 2011 - 1:49 am

Forget hard plastic. Vinyl/Faux leather are the way to go for commuter trains. (remember that BART is NOT a subway) Examples abound: LIRR (new and old trains), and the Bay Area’s own Caltrain come to mind.

Perhaps worse than the seats is that most BART trains have carpeted FLOORS.

Nathanael March 20, 2011 - 8:53 pm

Personally, I favor varnished wood seats.

Justin N August 19, 2011 - 9:14 pm

BART is a heavy-rail metro, which runs through underground tunnels in San Francisco and on elevated right-of-way in the East Bay and on the Peninsula. It has characteristics of both a traditional urban subway within San Francisco and Oakland and a high-quality commuter rail in the outer suburbs. It is inappropriate to say, however, that it is “NOT a subway.”

Jeff March 9, 2011 - 11:12 am

Like the doctor says, it’s probably not a big problem. Sure, there is bacteria in the seats such that if it entered the body in a certain way in a certain amount, would be dangerous. The same could be said about the gas inside of the fluorescent lighting fixtures, but I don’t feel particularly threatened by them. In other words, the same irrational germophobia that turns some people away from public restrooms, as if the human buttocks are indeed some kind of membrane that evolved for the specific purpose of allowing bacteria to enter the body.

Ever ridden the Tube? Now those seats feature cushions and upholstery fit for a city presided over by a queen!

UB March 9, 2011 - 11:25 am

I’m a bit more concerned with the difficulty of removing vomit and other bodily fluids expelled in the course of a normal NY transit cycle…

Daniel Howard March 9, 2011 - 3:57 pm

And you wonder why people on BART wear Pants, unlike those No Pants Subway riders in NYC . . .

Subway Subculture March 9, 2011 - 5:15 pm

don’t even want to THINK about what’s in those carpets on the metro in dc!!!!!

subway subculture blog “what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen on the subway?”

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