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Muni tries to design a better train seat

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Yes, they’re bringing back the butt grooves

A rendering of the inside of a subway train car.
New cars could come with seat divots, forward- and rear-facing seats, and lower seats.
Rendering courtesy of SFMTA

Too many passengers find Muni’s sleek new trains, though more reliable and aesthetically pleasing, unpleasant for sitting. Now San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin has promised mass seating reform onboard new vehicles.

Tumlin showed off an alternative Muni light rail car interior Monday, a design that took into account passengers’ feedback following the 2017 release of the new fleet.

While it’s true that Muni riders are usually disgruntled, the common complaints Tumlin tackled are actually rooted in some sound transit design conceits.

  • First, the director promises that new cars feature some “forward and rear-facing seats,” rather than single long benches lining each side of the car, which passengers with back problems may find painful. The question of transverse (front/back facing) versus longitudinal (along the sides) seating is hotly contested in some transit circles; a 2013 paper by researchers with New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority found that transverse seats were more common in newer trains (which tend to be faster), but SFMTA said in 2017 that sideways seating allowed for greater capacity—albeit the difference was only two people. But Muni riders complained that the setup sent them sliding around during rides, so the newer models will feature a hybrid design.
  • The magic words for a lot of riders are “butt divots,” which are also known as indentations, bucket seats, or scalloped seating. The newer trains lack these sunken seating additions, which drew the ire of riders. “People slide too much,” said a member of the SFMTA Citizens’ Advisory Council regarding the new trains. Not only are the slippery benches awkward for some riders, they also impose personal space issues; research shows that commuters prefer to sit or stand as far away from other as possible, but the bench seats make it harder to maintain a sense of meaningful distance with the person sitting next to you.
  • The new seats also accommodate shorter riders, being positioned two inches closer to the floor. In March of last year, the SFMTA Board of Directors voted to lower the seats on three out of every four trains, as the new seats were deemed difficult for anyone 5 feet 4 inches or shorter to sit in without dangling their feet. Board member Gwyneth Borden admitted she couldn’t plant her feet on the floor while sitting on the new vehicles.

The city plans to have 151 of the new trains in service by 2028, slowly introducing them into the vehicle stock and swapping out the older and less reliable but in many ways still more popular Breda-designed trains starting in early 2017.

On top of the seating redesign, the transit agency says that the new trains now feature more sensitive door sensors and more prominent warning signals to prevent passengers getting caught and dragged in the train doors—which was a problem last year.