This weekend our pals over at The Bay Citizen came out with a very alarming report: After running a few tests on the seats of San Francisco's two main transit systems—Muni and Bay Area Rapid Transit—the fabric covering BART seats is disgusting. Beyond the spilled lattes and the occasional pool of vomit, scientists found all manner of bacteria, including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a dangerous flesh-eating bacteria. I'd been chatting with an editor friend of mine at the Citizen and we agreed that Dwell would throw its design journalism hat in the ring with an interview on what separates good transit seating from bad. I had a chat with Paul Martus, senior industrial designer with American Seating about just this thing. Martus has worked on seating on buses and in public spaces. American Seating traces its legacy back to the 1880s and counts city bus lines, Fenway Park, and Madison Square Gardens as just a few of its clients. Here's what Paul had to say.
What would you point to as a best practices kind of seat for public transit?
Honestly, if sustainability is what you're after then the less glue, the less fabric, the less plastic you have the better. The naked seat is the best for that, though it's hard because so many different environments have different needs. But I'd say a frame where the bulk of the seat stays where it is and then maybe there's some kind of onset [an element of the seat that clips on or off] that's cleanable and can be exchanged if needed.
Yet plenty of public spaces and applications, like BART here in the Bay Area, use fabric in their designs.
In the minds of a lot of transit authorities, they're more into the visuals of the design, and by that I mean visual cleanliness. You look at a lot of the textiles in hotels or on transit and those fabrics have so much noise on them to hide the stains and spills. A naked seat might be best, but they can be cold and there is this thought that an upholstered seat is more humane and more comfortable.
Can we build something into the design to make it more cleanly--and I mean deeply cleanly--in the first place?
There are additives that you can put into the components of the seats. For example there are additives in public seating that prevent fire and smoke, which are huge concerns in public transit especially if you get caught in a tunnel. In 2008, we were working on a grab handle for our Vision and InSight seats. We had a company called Agion come in. The company basically embeds silver into the plastic part as a antimicrobial agent. We also, contacted fabric companies. They described to us sewing an anti-fungal thread into the weave. Neither of these solutions were pursued, though, because of cost.
How then can we cope with what may be lurking deep in our transit seating?
We only have novel ideas of paper roles like at the Doctors office and things that resemble hair and beard nets for seats. Also, someone suggested keeping the experience as hands free as possible. I also think that in terms of public hygiene we're in fear mode. It's a big issue, and of course transit could be cleaner. But as a rider what are you going to do, bring a paper bag to sit on? I'm afraid I don't have any really great answers. Keep your immune system up!