Last week — ominously on Friday the 13th — the first new Muni Metro light-rail train arrived in San Francisco after assembly in Sacramento, a sign that the transit agency's much-anticipated "Fleet of the Future" is soon to be the "Fleet of the Present." The SFMTA took to Twitter and its blog in order to mark the occasion:
The new trains are just being tested now and won't begin operating until late this summer according to the transit agency's estimate, and on what lines, they're still not sure. But even before that, now that the public is face to face with SFMTA's fully realized design decisions, some transit riders might be in for a few surprises, particularly those passengers who didn't respond in 2014 to an online survey conducted over a three-week period from mid-October to early November. Among the most significant interior adjustments: The change to fully longitudinal, or inward-facing, bench seating.
That survey, which received 8,755, responses, included that design question as well as perhaps more trivial considerations like color scheme choices. The result was the longitudinal bench seating, although it wasn't favored by all groups. Here's the logic, such as it is:
"Each Siemens car has capacity for more than 200 persons," the transit agency summarized. "The longitudinal seating arrangement has 143 passenger seats and standing pads. The transverse (forward-facing) seating arrangement has 141 seats and standing pads." So, it's more favorable in terms of capacity, by a very small margin, on paper. I've heard anecdotally from an MTA staffer that bench seating is considered current transit "best practice." It's flexible in terms of the way that people sit, in different situations and with different bodies. But I and others likely have concerns about the manspreaders among us, not to mention people who decide to stretch out and sleep. There are always going to be people who generally occupy more than their fair share of space in a variety of ways, such as by leaving too much space between themselves and their neighboring transit riders etc.
Still, the decision was made on the basis of consensus, and with two more considerations in mind. "More standing space and wider aisles were the most important elements for most
respondents," the agency wrote after the survey. "The majority of respondents preferred the longitudinal seating arrangements (54%) where seats face into the vehicle over transverse seating (44%) where seats face forward toward the front of the vehicle and back toward the rear."
There were some groups opposed: "Seniors, people with disabilities and those in zip codes furthest from the city center were more likely to prefer transverse seating." But "In contrast, stakeholders representing people with disabilities had strong preference for longitudinal seating to reduce impediments for people with mobility devices."
A final, forward-looking concern: Bicycles, which could, the survey summary seems to indicate, be someday allowed on Muni light rail vehicles. "In addition to customer preferences, the interior seating arrangement affects future policy decisions," the transit agency explains. "A transverse seating arrangement would all but eliminate the possibility of allowing bicycles on these next generation LRVs (light rail vehicles)."
In the end, "Staff recommends with the longitudinal interior design both to ensure future capacity for growing ridership and to allow for the possibility of a future policy decision about bicycles," as representatives for Muni wrote. So, gentlemen, starting sometime this summer, please consider keeping your knees close together as you assume your spot on the bench.