John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system is deploying vinyl seats that don't cough up clouds of filth when smacked, like the wool ones do.
Citizens of the San Francisco Bay Area, hearken to this good news for your keister: Those gross, musty, discolored, "very absorbent," terrible smelling, itch-provoking, urine-and-feces-smeared BART seats are getting replaced. And it only took 40 years to happen!
In a pilot that begins on April 21, BART is swapping out its old wool-covered seats for ones clad in easy-to-wipe vinyl that beats the hardiest of stains. The transit agency is investing nearly $2 million to deploy these shiny seats in up to 200 trains* on a trial basis. If riders indicate via survey that they like them, vinyl will become the golden standard throughout all the train lines.
The upholstery change marks an early step in the agency's 20-year, $3 billion (!) plan to build a "Fleet of the Future" (imagine that boomed through an echo filter). The ambitious plan involves a total fleetectomy to clear room for 800 new trains with 50 percent more doors, bicycle racks, LED lighting, a kicked-up PA system and other improvements. New seats are key to the Future Fleet. The Bay Area currently uses the oldest fleet in the nation and, according to BART, riders have made it clear that they have "concerns about the older wool fabric seat covers." What, they don't like frightening filth clouds?
As you can see, the woolen seats haven't changed much since BART started running in 1972. They've just picked up a lot of... character from the megatons of commuting flesh that rides the trains to work each day. (Current ridership on weekdays is up to 379,300, making BART the fifth-busiest transit system of its kind in the nation.) Last year, the Bay Citizen newspaper teamed up with a San Francisco State University microbiologist to research what was growing on the seats. They found antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria and a whole gang of petri-dish-darkening organisms, not a dire threat to public health but also not something that you'd want to have rubbing against your skin. (Want to see pictures from that experiment?) They also uncovered evidence of even freakier seat-soiling behavior.
The fabric seats aren't just nasty but are expensive, too. The agency takes anywhere from 300 to 500 of the covers to the dry cleaners each week, racking up a laundry bill of $600,000 each year. Yet a lot of people still are yucked-out by them. Do a Twitter search for "BART seat" and you're guaranteed to find expressions of disgust, like "I never put my head back on them" or "I'd NEVER wear light colored pants and sit on a BART seat." Or even, "To the dude who just swiped the germ-infested BART seat: you are a gentleman for keeping me from sitting there. Thx ;)"
Last summer, BART conducted "seat labs" with some of its customers to determine what they'd like in place of the bioactive wool. Asked to choose between hard plastic, vinyl or fabric seat covers, 62 percent of people said they'd enjoy vinyl. So BART headed to seat manufacturer Seda and chemicals company Omnova, maker of the PreFixx Extreme™ Protective Coating for public-transit vehicles. This is serious vinyl here: It's graffiti-resistant, fights off abrasion and puncture wounds and handles most weather extremes in a brilliant fashion while complying with fire and toxicity standards. It's good for "other common stains" too, which Bay Area dwellers apparently produce a lot of, including this "totally heinous" wet spot and these ominous-sounding "grease rings."
On Tuesday, the first vinyl-equipped train picked up passengers while making a brief trip from 18th Street to Montgomery Street. Riders reported a nice lack of mildew and B.O. smells, but also noted something akin to a "new car smell." But that will likely dissipate with the passage of time, as the old, torn-out upholstery silently rots in an anonymous landfill. Farewell, nasty wool seat covers: You are gone but not forgotten, at least not without a warm-rinse cycle and plenty of laundry detergent.
Below, please enjoy a time-lapse video of workers installing the vinyl seats.
* Up to 200 trains, not up to 200 seats, as originally reported.