Home U.S. Transit SystemsCTA On seating and subway car design

On seating and subway car design

by Benjamin Kabak

The battle between benches and bucket seats is raging in Chicago. (Graphic via Chicago Tribune)

The MTA’s current rolling stock is quite a mess of seating choices. We have trains that feature bucket seats far too narrow and center-facing seats to maximize standing room. We have trains with forward-facing bucket seats that lead to awkward passenger flow and cramped quarters. And we have all of our bright and shiny new rolling stock with center-facing benches that should, ostensibly, cram more people into the train cars while creating a more comfortable experience.

None of it works entirely properly. No matter which way the seats are oriented, Transit’s bucket seats — like bucket seats around the nation — are too narrow. In the winter, anyone with a warm coats winds up taking up too much space, and even the skinniest of riders will find themselves contained by the dip. Meanwhile, oftentimes, straphangers will either sit on top of each other or leave three quarters of an empty seat just sitting there. The forward-facing bucket seats on the R68s encourage riders to congregate around doorways, and riders on the bench seats — the best of three layouts — tend to take up more room than they should.

For New York City, though, the future is in benches. While a full R68 set has 560 seats and a full R142 set contains around 432 seats, the R142s fit far more standees, and thus, center-facing buckets rule the day. For the foreseeable future, all new rolling stock orders will be equipped with those grey-blue benches, and the forward facing cars, with their views out the window, will become relics.

Around the nation, though, consensus has not be quite as easy to reach. The Metro down in DC still has forward-facing seats, and trains quickly fill up at rush hour as passenger flow crawls to a stop. Now, Chicago is debating its approach to passenger seating. Calling the CTA’s latest iteration of buckets “New York-style seating,” Jon Hilkevitch of The Chicago Tribune opined on the right approach:

The center-facing scoop seat on the CTA’s new 5000 Series rail car, a departure from the forward-facing seats on the CTA’s older railcars, is only 17.5 inches wide. The design assumes 17.5 inches is a comfortable seat width for everyone. But if the “average-sized rider” is bookended by two larger passengers who are spilling over their allotted seat space, the poor commuter in the middle feels like a ham sandwich in a George Foreman Grill.

Benches, on the other hand, allow for some latitude and help each passenger have a little personal space.”We only have a few cars with scoop seating. Our R142 cars (delivered in the early 2000s) are bench-style and the new R179 cars that we ordered this year will have benches,” [New York City Transit Charles] Seaton said…

CTA riders who have ridden on the MTA cars know that the 5000 Series cars are not New York-style, despite the center-facing seat format. “CTA cars are nothing like New York cars,” said CTA rider Colman Buchbinder. He noted that the aisles are wider on the MTA fleet, “allowing a feeling of space,” and the grab poles are located in the middle of the aisle, instead of being wedged between the seat dividers on the CTA cars.

As for the bench design, “Big people take up big spaces and small people take up small spaces. That’s a huge difference from Chicago’s setup of narrow individual bucket seat forms that force people to squeeze or leave an empty seat,” Buchbinder said. “If you think it’s bad now, wait until winter when the coats come on.”

Chicago, it seems, has irked its customers by providing bucket seats too narrow for those who secure a seat, and aisles too narrow for passengers trying to make their ways through the cars. It’s a classic example of how seat and car design can impact subway mobility and rider happiness. While we all want to aspire to a seat, the reality is that most people in a packed subway will not be seating, and then, making sure straphangers can enter and exit quickly and easily becomes a paramount concern.

Ultimately, I think we’ll see center-facing benches become the norm, but it’s a slow adjustment. DC and Chicago aren’t quite there yet, and even international subway systems that can be a bit more progressive with their policies are finding it tough to let go of the forward-facing seats. A subway though isn’t a commuter rail, and I’ll give the last word tonight on benches to a CTA rider. “Smooth benches allow for a seating free-market of sorts, where wide and narrow find their own equilibrium,” James Jenkins added. “The molded forms don’t allow for that nirvana.”

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Pat L September 11, 2012 - 12:48 am

It’s surprising to me that the new CTA cars are wider than the MTA cars. The CTA has always felt narrower to me, possibly because almost all cars have forward-facing seats. Center-facing seats should be an improvement there, although benches would be even better.

I do, however, strongly prefer the current CTA cars’ format of multiple rows of parellel seats to the blocky perpendicular seats on the R68s, which permit passengers to occupy all the seats only if most of them have no legs.

Bolwerk September 11, 2012 - 12:37 pm

I felt the same way about WMATA. But the cars are pretty much the same width as IND cars.

The difference is probably the seating.

Eric September 11, 2012 - 4:18 pm

I’m 6 feet tall and I sit in any seat in an R68 just fine.

Chicagoan June 2, 2015 - 8:40 pm

Three years late to this party, but here’s an interesting white paper from the CTA: http://docs.trb.org/prp/14-4690.pdf

Pat L, it’s not the forward facing seats. According to the white paper, El cars actually do have narrower interiors than most of New York’s cars. Because of this, the center-facing layout does not work as well in practice as it does on paper. It’s counter-intuitive that a narrower car works better with some transverse seating, but that’s what’s been observed. In practice, 8% fewer passengers can ride the new 5000 Series CTA cars than can ride in the older 2400/2600 and 3200 Series cars.

Additionally, transverse seating offers two additional advantages: #1, people who are prone to motion sickness can ride much more comfortably. I don’t suffer that problem, but many people have mentioned it to me. #2, most of Chicago’s system is above ground, and transverse seating allows a much better view out the window. It’s a beautiful city; I like to be able to see it.

I’d managed to avoid the 5000s until this year, and I confirm that they’re awful. Fortunately, the CTA has announced that the upcoming 7000 series will return to transverse seating (actually mixed seating, as in the 2400/2600 and 3200).

Tsuyoshi September 11, 2012 - 7:17 am

I think the only advantage of bucket seats is that it makes it harder for people to lie down on the seats. Trains in Chicago are relatively empty, so I can sort of see the point.

Keeping the grab bars away from the doors is good, since it should discourage people from crowding the doorways.

JB September 11, 2012 - 9:35 am

Another benefit of bucket seats: when the train hits the brakes, you don’t go sliding down the bench! I’m a skinny guy and being wedged between two large people who can’t or won’t anticipate the train stopping and their weight shifting have seriously crushed me from time to time. At least bucket seats provide a little bit of relief to that.

SEAN September 11, 2012 - 8:59 am

Two things not mentioned in the post are … 1. the 4, 5 & 6 have more daily riders than the entire CTA subway system & 2. uh, how should I put this… americas ever increasing wasteline. The latter makes it harder to find an open seat at times.

John-2 September 11, 2012 - 9:11 am

Since the New York City subway has featured bench/side facing seating since the birth of the New York City subway, it’s less of a kerfuffle here. Width size has always made the IRT (and PATH) rely on bench seating, and the MTA did give partial front-facing seats a shot, when the R-110 test cars for the R-142 fleet, with that fleet’s type of benches now carried over to the R-162160 trains. It didn’t prove viable to set an IRT car up with seating similar in style to the front of your average MTA bus, so it was abandoned (conversely, the TA/MTA went to all side facing seating on its bus fleets starting in the late 1960s, but eventually modified that decision and went with the half-front/half-side facing seating on the front part of the buses that we have today). So what’s being done today in Chicago, or contemplated in Washington, is something the people at the Interborough decided on 110 years ago — a heavily used rapid transit line fits more people with longitudinal seating.

The TA had also abandoned front/rear facing seating at the end of the 1950s on the B Division, when the R-27/R-30 cars were ordered, and only went back to the front/rear seats because of the wider spacing between doors on the new 75-foot cars (which also proved to be a mistake, because the MTA cut the number of entrance/exit points per 600 foot car by 20 percent). And we all know how well the bucket seat design turned out on the R-62s, which is why we have the seating design we have now; bench seating with backs that are supposed to be slightly less accommodating to homeless sleepers (though given the hardy nature of NYC vagrants, the MTA would probably have to put rotating saw blades on the seat backs to actually prevent people from sleeping on the benches).

JB September 11, 2012 - 9:38 am

Has the MTA ever tried a seating format in which only one side had seats while the other was just standing room only? I can see one side of the car with front facing seats (at least 2 per row) and then there would be about three seats worth of standing room on the other side of the car….maybe this could provide comfortable seating for those who know they will be on the train for a long distance while not having to mix with those who are hopping on then hopping off.

Jeff September 11, 2012 - 9:56 am


Regarding the lack of consensus around the nation/world, I think this is perfectly healthy–different systems have different needs. WMATA, for example, functions as something as a commuter rail/rapid transit hybrid, and customers expect some level of commuter rail comforts (forward-facing padded seats, and my personal favorite–laid to rest as of the 7000-series–carpeted floors!). Passenger volume on WMATA (a bit more even-spread, especially off-peak) also justifies a seating arrangement geared more towards the comfort of (seated) passengers off-peak versus cramming in more straphangers during the rush.

WMATA Rage September 11, 2012 - 9:57 am

I pray for the day when we finally get our shit together in DC enough to put longitudinal seating in every car. I can’t believe that even with the new procurement of 7000-series cars they didn’t consider or order center-facing benches – a total missed opportunity.

The biggest problem with the transverse seating is that it creates an incredibly narrow aisle – you’d be hard-pressed to even fit two people side-by-side standing in one – and that means that everyone congregates around the doors, because no one wants to have to fight their way through a very packed crowd just to make their stop.

Then again, WMATA hasn’t really done anything right lately, so I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised.

Alex B. September 11, 2012 - 10:25 am

Agreed. This is a giant missed opportunity, even as WMATA talks about crush loads at peak hours and the difficulties of accommodating more passengers. Yet they’re passing on one of the easiest ways to add capacity to the fleet and improve train ingress/egress.

From WMATA’s responses, their thinking seems to be that people like front/rear facing seating better. That may be true in the abstract, but they just need to own it and make the decision based on the raw capacity numbers.

John-2 September 11, 2012 - 10:38 am

The more successful a system is in attracting riders, the less attractive front/rear facing seats are going to be, because they limit passenger capacity of each car.

Longitudinal seating is a way to get more people onto the same number of rail cars and is way cheaper than the other option WMATA has at this point, which is to buy more cars and run more eight car trains (I’d assume WMATA isn’t going after the third option, which is degrade your service so much people stop using the system and go back to their cars or buses, though having been on the Green Line back in July during the derailment debacle when it was 105 outside, I’m wondering if they haven’t adopted the MTA’s management style of the 1970s).

WMATA Rage October 3, 2012 - 3:43 pm

Oh, you’d be surprised. I suspect sometimes that they’re running a shadow campaign of option 3: let the system run itself into the ground.

I love love love transit and I haven’t driven with any regularity since 2009, but the DC Metro has me seriously reconsidering. They just cannot do anything right or make a single long-term decision.

John Doe September 11, 2012 - 10:21 am

Born & raised in NYC. After seeing someone defecate on a subway seat a few years back, I vowed to never sit on one again. I’ve been successfull thus far and am lucky my commute to work is only around 20 minutes, for longer rides I just make the best of things.

sigh, NY was nice up until the 50s, what changed???

Eric September 12, 2012 - 5:20 am

Do you ever sit on park benches, or use public bathrooms?

Seth R. September 11, 2012 - 12:52 pm

I don’t get it, if New York has settled so squarely on center-facing bench seats, why don’t we have those on buses too? Surely the Select Bus Service buses would greatly benefit from a wider aisle that people can use to enter and exit quickly.

BrooklynBus September 11, 2012 - 1:01 pm

There are so few seats on buses already. Bench seats would provide even fewer seats. I remember when 40 foot buses had 53 seats. Now we get a out that number in an artic bus.

SEAN September 11, 2012 - 2:24 pm

The new look GM 400 AKA “Fishbowls had 53 seats, but were not designed for wheelchair customers. Over time, bus manufacturers were reducing the seating capassity. I noticed it as the Bee-Line baught new busses since the late 1980s. I wondered why this was the case & the only logical reason I could come up with was to make transit systems buy more & more busses just to keep seating capassity flat or add aditional seats incramentally. No shocker there.

Now adding wheelchair stations can really reduce seats where a 40” bus could have as few as 28 seats depending if that bus is low floor or standard floor. Low floor busses don’t have seats over the wheels as standard floor busses do.

Bolwerk September 11, 2012 - 3:04 pm

I agree with BrooklynBus – the bucket seats probably at least delineate some space that otherwise might be taken by greedy riders (or simply large ones) – but maybe JB is onto something with his comment about sliding. Buses simply don’t offer the smooth ride trains do, and therefore bucket seats might actually prevent some sliding.

Bruce M September 11, 2012 - 1:12 pm

One feature that I’m glad to see returned to IRT division rolling stock is the staggered arrangement of the doors on opposite sides of the cars. When the doors are aligned with each other (R62 era), people refuse to move into the middle sections, and crowd these areas. The staggering effect helps to spread the crowding a bit.

Spendmore Wastemore September 11, 2012 - 6:15 pm

Perhaps the solution is to have a commuter rail lines making a few stops in NYC. 2-4 miles between stops, 50-80mph speeds.

One these lines the seats are set up similarly but not fully like commuter rail. e.g. 80% of each car is forward facing seats – that would be commuter rail spec with one less seat and a wider aisle, which is offset slightly. 20% has no seats, it’s standing room. On longer rides one is not likely to have to stand the whole way, if you’re going 2-6 miles the much higher average speed means you’re not standing for long.

Transit planners will shoot this down, as it doesn’t include enough misery for the cattle.

Spendmore Wastemore September 11, 2012 - 6:16 pm

^^^ Err, can’t edit the typos.

K September 11, 2012 - 6:42 pm

I went to Paris in 2010 and was completely shocked by how poorly designed the cars were despite the overall system being so clean and modern. Basically the entire car is forward and backward facing seats, which gives the sitters very little leg room and the standers very little standing room. The aisle between the seats is about 3/4 feet wide. Does anyone know why Paris continues with this inefficient seating style/if they have any plans to change it?

Eric September 12, 2012 - 12:50 pm

OTOH, I loved getting the hang of manually opening the doors.

Alon Levy September 12, 2012 - 11:41 pm

They’re used to it.

Same reason New York continues with conductors, ticket-punching, construction featherbedding, front-door bus boarding, separate fares for separate agencies, and low off-peak commuter rail frequency.

That said, things are better on the MI 2Ns on the RER A, which have ample standing space in the vestibules and also center-facing seats on one of the two levels.

JJJ September 12, 2012 - 7:01 pm

I like the above idea of seating on one side and none on the other.

Perhaps NYC also needs something like Boston’s Big Red. No seats at all.

Robin K July 18, 2018 - 1:23 pm

Ass a person with a disabling health condition, I cannot sit sideways without my neck, back and pelvis going out and needing to see a chiropractor to put me back in place. Doesn’t anyone realize that transverse seats offer SUPPORT for motion? Like when we ride in cars, we don’t ride sideways – we have transverse seats! Same should go for public transportation, to support the forward/backward motion. It’s common sense.

Robin K July 18, 2018 - 1:27 pm

As a person with a disabling health condition, I cannot ride sideways without my neck, back and pelvis going out and having to see a chiropractor to put me back in place. I need transverse seats to support the forward/backward motion, like we use in cars. It’s only common sense. If anyone would like to discuss this with me, feel welcome.

Robin August 10, 2018 - 1:28 am

Why is there no outcry against solely longitudinal seating in public transportation? It doesn’t support the spine, which is made for forwards/backwards movement, NOT side to side. Any sudden stops will throw people into each other, with no transverse seats to stop motion. Transportation with packed standees next to these side-to-side seats means standees will be thrown into each other in the case of a sudden stop. There will be injuries, maybe fatalities. It’s time to STOP this madness of thinking side to side seating is ok – it’s NOT. People, stop. We need transverse seats in public transportation.

sonicboy678 January 7, 2019 - 11:24 pm

Aside from those vehicles that lack the room in the first place, they eat into capacity and make maintenance more difficult for no real gain.

If you’re looking for seating to support your spine, you should probably look somewhere other than public transportation, especially when taking into consideration that we use these unusually-shaped plastic benches on our newer trains and (again, plastic) bucket seats on many of our older ones (as well as buses).

I don’t know where you got the idea that transverse seating would stop people from being thrown into each other, but that’s not how it works. In order for people to avoid that problem, they need to be as immobile as possible, meaning that they need substantial friction, a good stance, and the ability to pull themselves in the opposite direction. All transverse seating will do is serve as an obstacle for injury (in all likelihood, more serious injury, seeing that the seats are made of hard plastic, not to mention that falling on a seated person could simply lead to said person being injured).

Perhaps your gripes about longitudinal seating would work reasonably well for buses and possibly long-distance train rides, but for a more stop-and-go rail system with substantial ridership and smoother operations (even taking what I just said into account), there’s really no justification for transverse seating.


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