Before BART became a hotbed of anti-police unrest this summer, if the transit agency was known for one thing, it was the carpet. Carpet on the floors, carpet on the seats, carpet everywhere.
In an effort to shed its image as the unofficial train system of upholstery enthusiasts everywhere (and also be less gross), BART officials have announced the replacement of their current seat covers with vinyl ones on 100 of the system's 669 trains as part of a nearly $2 million improvement project approved by the BART Board of Directors earlier this week.
The new seats will be significantly easier to clean, have a longer lifespan than the current cloth seats and be much cheaper to replace when the time for new seat covers finally arrives--$9,000 per train car versus the $15,500 it costs now.
BART currently spends over $600,000 per year dry cleaning its seats.
If riders don't get too nostalgic for the old carpeting, the agency will likely upgrade another 100 cars next year.
"With all due respect to our staff, what our passengers see when they board our trains are these nasty seats," BART board member Joel Keller told the San Francisco Examiner. "These seats have long since outlived their usefulness."
Over the past year, BART has deployed a mobile seat laboratory allowing the public to test out the different seating options the agency had under consideration. The vinyl seats were the hands-down favorite, beating cloth 62 percent of the time.
Paul Oversier, BART's assistant general manager of operations, said the transit agency didn't use vinyl seat material in the past because it didn't meet smoke, fire and toxicity standards.
But he said the technology for vinyl seats has improved dramatically and such seats are now fire-resistant and durable
When the system launched in the early 1970s, the seats were covered in brown fabric. In 1995, the agency contracted ADTranz, a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz, for an upgrade to the light-blue, polyurethane cushioning commuters today.
In March, The Bay Citizen commissioned a San Francisco State biologist to run a test on the bacteria present on BART seats. She found high concentrations of nine different skin- and fecal-borne bacteria--including one drug resistant strain that can trigger potentially lethal staph infections.
The new seats will feature a "Bay Area-centric" design called "Water, Waves and Wine." It features the bay, wine and the cascading Alamere Falls at Point Reyes. The seats will be jade - the color of the bay in the late evening, according to the designers - with pinot noir accents in a linear pattern inspired by the waterfall and waves.
The agency expects to roll out its new seats starting early next summer.
At the same meeting where they approved the contract of the new seats, BART directors distanced themselves from a proposed plan to extend operation on Friday nights by an hour at the expense of twenty minutes of service on Saturday mornings due to concerns the change would harm the largely minority and working-class riders who regularly use BART at those hours to get to work. The extra downtime time in the morning is required to give the maintenance team a long enough window to adequately prepare the trains for the next full day of operation.
New seats aren't the only changes coming to BART. The agency recently contracted German automaker BMW to assist with a complete overhaul of its trains. The "Fleet of the Future," as it's being called, will have armrests, a third door on every car, lots of handrails, countdown lights indicating when doors are about to close and a digital display of the system map.
While these news cars are years away from actually being implemented, you can check out this video now showing BMW's three different train car concepts: