Los Angeles Metro. It stinks. Literally.
Step into a train or bus during rush hour and you’ll find yourself gasping for fresh air by the time you get to your destination. If you’re lucky enough to grab a seat, that comes with its own gross factor. Why? I’ve never really understood the concept of upholstered bus and subway seats. A public transportation system is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B quickly, safely and efficiently; comfort should only be considered as an added bonus, but cleanliness should never be left out of the equation.
While Metro may have hoped that the upholstered seats would serve as an amenity to riders, they ultimately failed this function. In fact, they actually make the typically arduous commutes even worse. First of all, the upholstered seats hardly add any comfort and the permeable fabric absorbs pretty much anything that touches them, creating serious hygiene problems. After a few years of riding Metro, I’ve seen everything from blood, to alcohol, to someone’s dinner leftovers covering these seats. Despite Metro’s best efforts to clean out the filth that accumulates every day, the trains still greet Angelenos with a stench that’s sure to wake up any groggy-eyed passenger in the morning. Would you really feel at ease sitting on upholstered seats after knowing what’s been smeared on them?
With all the humidity and grime that builds up during rush hour as hundreds of thousands of people cram into trains and buses, the seats also serve as the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses. Don’t believe me? When BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) began service in the 70s, the seat cushions had a wool cover to make the trains “living room on wheels” to woo suburbanites from their cars. The wool covers didn’t work out so well. The agency ran a test on some of its seats back in 2011, and found fecal, skin borne bacteria and mold infesting its seats. A BART spokesman even said the results were “not surprising,” since daily ridership is over 400,000. Metro, with its massive network of bus and train lines, has a weekday average of 1.3 million boardings.
It’s not a stretch to say that some of those same bacteria and mold live on Metro’s seats. Once, after a short ride on the Expo Line from USC into Downtown, I even found myself covered in flea bites as soon as I got off the train.
While some may argue that upholstered seats prevent graffiti and etching, a thin layer of fabric and cushioning isn’t going to prevent a vandal from damaging other parts of the train car including the windows, walls and seat edges. It’s actually quite easy to rip apart the seat cushions as well. There’s a reason why heavily used transit systems like New York City’s metro use high-density plastic seats to help maintain a certain level of cleanliness.
Even though upholstery is often associated with comfort and style, municipalities shouldn’t be using them on buses and trains. The general population here in the US simply can’t be trusted to maintain and uphold cleanliness on public transit. Wouldn’t you rather take a nicer smelling train with much cleaner molded plastic seats over an upholstered one that reeks of the vomit and beer that a fellow passenger poured onto the seat last night? As Ray Mealleady, managing director of transit seating company USSC Group puts it, “For many, clean is the new comfortable.”
If keeping some kind of cushioning is absolutely required for some reason, then at least switch out the cloth for a vinyl or impermeable kind of fabric. Once BART made the change to vinyl recently, the difference between riding in a wool and vinyl covered car was like night and day: I felt like I could finally breathe comfortably on a BART train and sit on the seats without feeling as paranoid. Besides offering passengers a more hygienic environment, the seats also save BART money since the vinyl coverings last longer and don’t require constant cleaning.
As Metro expands its service through multiple corridors with the Regional Connector, Purple Line Extension and Crenshaw Line, it needs to provide a hygienic environment to encourage more Angelenos to ditch the car and take public transportation. Nobody wants to sit on a filthy seat that could potentially get them sick. — Benjamin Dunn