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The Stinking Problem with LA Metro’s Seats

Many believe LA Metro's upholstered seats (pictured above) may be as dirty --- potentially filled with dangerous bacteria and viruses --- as BART's upholstered seats were before the Bay Area transit agency switched theirs out for vinyl coverings (Photo: Brigham Yen)

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

Are Angelenos aware how dirty upholstered seats may be on our trains and buses? (Photo: Benjamin Dunn)

Are Angelenos aware how dirty upholstered seats may be on our trains and buses? (Photo: Benjamin Dunn)

27 Comments

  1. Stephen says

    The main thing you smell on the METRO trains is the delousing solution they use. It is the same active ingredients and associated smell on the trains in Europe and elsewhere.

  2. BUNNY VITALE says

    I totally agree that the seats should not be cloth. I am a daily Red Line rider for 5+ years and cannot believe what I have seen on the seats: vomit, food residue, liquids/smears of unknown source, people eating/dropping food on seats/floor. I have also seen many “homeless” with very dirty and malodorous clothing/shoes, bare foot with feet on the seats, scratching and itching during their entire ride. The seats are not clean and do harbor germs/bacteria/insects, etc. and SHOULD BE changed to a more hygienic material/vinyl, etc.

  3. Blue Line B says

    I have had the experience of sitting on a urine soaked seat. Not pleasant. You cannot tell if a seat is wet or not with a cloth covering.

  4. Brian Cornelius says

    Seems like common sense. The design pattern is fine, but should be done in an industrial strength vinyl, padded as a bonul. I don’t want to know how much Metro paid for this choice, just that they learn from experience. Too much to ask?

  5. Michael says

    New York is the only city in the country (from my experience) that has dense plastic continuous benches parallel to the train walls. That seems like the most sanitary, most spacious and easiest to clean seating format. However I assume that format would be more conducive to sleeping transients here in LA… The fabric seats definitely help retain any stench that finds its way onto the trains.

    The Gold line seems to be the only line that doesn’t reek.

    • aardvark says

      Some of the Boston subway lines have the long bench seats, much more effective than the bus type layout of our cars, although IIRC some are covered in fabric.

    • Caryn Hofberg says

      That’s because they have 10 times as many riders and need more room for standing commuters. Packed like sardines during rush hour and a much higher caliber of riders.

  6. Delia says

    I absolutely agree with you. In the past, homeless people have been known to urinate and leave feces on those cloth seats. I unfortunately had to experience this during rush hour on the Wilshire bus 720 going toward downtown la. A homeless man pooped on a bus filled with people. I was about throw up and asked the driver to let me off of the bus asap. The metro bus driver didn’t tell the homeless man anything. Unbelievable!

    • corner soul says

      Yeah, Metro bus drivers never regulate… the amount of bullsh*t that gets ignored on LA buses is insane. I’ve seen some crazy behavior on SF Muni buses too, but the drivers tend to have more backbone and they’ll tell problem riders to get off the bus if they’re harassing someone, haven’t showered in weeks, etc.

    • David Watties says

      OMG!! I’m so sorry you had to experience that.

  7. McLintock says

    Oh you gentrifiers keep on complaining. Those homeless were using public transport since forever and you think you can just come in and complain! Hell no, if you don’t like it then stay in BelAir or whatevs. Have you ever tried to enter the 720 on the corner SanPedro and 5th? You go there and try that and then complain about smelly seats.

    Trigger warning: heavy sarcasm involved!!!

  8. Dieter Muller says

    Vinyl is only going to crack in no time. There shouldn’t be any upholstery at all

  9. Ronald says

    Its boils down to profit. Metro is riddled with problems from bad drivers not being disciplined, homeless riding for free by intimidation, drivers not keeping the bus at a set limit (using something called common sense), authoritarian Roman warrior Sheriff’s deputies and ticket nannies that target teenagers coming home from school. Who wants to pay $1.75 for a a filthy ride where you are bound to a transient laying on 4 seats or sheeple that love to block/congregate/huddle by the exit doors. And you gentrified twits, stop reading books on the damn train… kid next to you is planning to rob you. I love LA.

    • DOCKERY says

      Please invest in leather material that doesnt attract bugs.Big Blue busses for hence, has leather wipable material seats,including a trash can to put your trash.NO ONE WANTS TO TAKE BUGGS HOME.

      • They can walk or take a cab. They get free government checks and pan handling on the streets is what they do best. Believe it or not, people do give them money. There’s this one black homeless man that panhandles every day at the corner of temple st and alvarado, in front of the Mc Donald’s. He’s literally in the street blocking traffic and people give him money. He even boasts about how much he makes a day. Sometimes he says, he makes about $200 a day panhandling on this street corner.

      • They don’t need to get around. They don’t have any intention of ever improving their station in life.

  10. Danny says

    I don’t really ride the subway, but when I do I don’t really smell much of anything that makes me wanna vomit. That said maybe there can be an alternative. What I do get is that those seats are meant to keep graffiti out. Our subway system is not littered with graffiti like New York’s. If your asking for vinyl? YOUR ARE ASKING FOR A GRAFFITI MESS! (I remember riding metro before these ‘new seats” and to my amazement it has distracted the kind of graffiti mess the metro lines used to be. This blogger just wants the graffiti mess that used to “make” the New York subway system. I SAY NO!!!!

  11. I rarely if ever encounter problems with the seats and I am not bothered by the felt seats. I know they say they are easily maintained and inspected every night after every bus driver shift or train engineer shift! I know there are some really gross people out on the street, but today the drivers look for unsanitary people who are quickly outcast and not allowed on their buses. As for the Subway and Trains…each rider must validate a ticket and generally people report the infrequent few who louse up travel for everyone else! Thankfully, in the City we accept the way of life here that requires us to respond for matters that affect other residents and visitors! Being a member of the community involves being more involved with Sanitation since the beginning of civilization.

    • Boris says

      I agree. I’ve never had a problem with odors or mess on the seats. I am not saying it does not happen but this article makes it sound like riding transit in LA is a regularly horrible experience that is marred by filth and smells. That is simply not true. Los Angeles has a generally better transit system than many other cities as far as cleanliness and quality vehicles is concerned.

      • I’ve witness the smell of urine and the homeless riding on the number’s #704 and #4 that go from the Santa Monica Beach to the Downtown Los Angeles skid row area when buses are cluttered wall to wall with homeless people bundled up sleeping from point A to point Z during the night time routes, 8:00 PM forward to the am hours. It is so depressing watching them sleep with open mouths slobbering onto the seats. The city bus should not be a home for the homeless, I’m sorry to say. And how often does Los Angeles METRO clean those buses anyway? Doesn’t look like very often from what I can see, it’s just disgusting.

  12. Mr Whitman says

    1)Urine, vomit, feces on the LA Metro seats.
    2)One in ten are sexually harrassed on LA Metro (per a recent newspaper article).
    3) Ignorant bliss: GONE

  13. Renee says

    I’m seriously wondering which lines people are riding who state they’ve never had a problem with odors or mess. I regularly ride the 180/181 and I’ve sat in a urine seat THREE separate times. Sometimes people will be nice and leave a note on the seat if they’ve discovered it first. Now I do the hand swipe before I sit, then glob some hand sanitizer on after. Every other time I ride, there’s someone drinking a beer, someone yelling, someone agitated and talking to themselves, and someone who smells as if they haven’t showered in weeks. It’s BAD. I rode busses and subways every single day when I lived in Boston and I never felt the way I do with Metro. I love Metro, and I want it to get better, but it is seriously cringe-worthy and the reason why most people aren’t even open to trying it if they have a car.

    • I agree, aside from the smells, the filth, and uncleanliness of some humans; it’s not a very welcoming experience with all the mentally challenged people that get on the bus talking loud and acting in a threatening manner. I’ve even seen one mentally challenged homeless looking guy actually bully the bus driver and entered the bus free of charge of number of times. I think the bus drivers are in fear themselves. And always wear a pair of gloves, It’s amazing what people do with their hands and fingers as they sit and ride the bus, and then watch them as they get up and grab the poles wiping their DNA on the poles or onto the fabric of the seats. I can’t wait to get my vehicle back on the rode. I never knew riding a public bus could be such an unpleasant experience. Or is it just the Los Angeles METRO or the specific routes that I happen to ride, I don’t know.

  14. Those who state how “clean” they find the Metro cannot possibly be regular riders. I have ridden Metro trains and buses for over 10 years, and I have seen and experienced it all. Once a filthy man boarded the bus who stunk so badly, another passenger paid him $5 just to get off! What really makes me crazy is that the drivers could care less. I had a mentally disturbed, screaming man spit in my face, but even though I was assaulted, the driver did absolutely nothing. And now the trains are turning into hotels for the homeless. They even sleep and sprawl out in the aisles, and Metro leaves them there!

  15. Paul Delgadillo says

    Being a frequent rider, I can also clearly state that the stench in the elevators, especially Union Station, Pershing Square and Hollywood and Vine Stations is truly horrendous. It’s because some homeless people choose to either openly urinate or they sit in those seat with the stench of urine on their clothes so it stays. That factor and whatever cleaning solution they use only makes the matter worse. It clearly states that at Union Station one can be evicted for smelling “odious.” I wonder why they do not enforce it on the subways and trains as well?

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