‘Why is my seat wet?’ CTA continues major seating overhaul

Kevin Tiongson
After receiving positive customer feedback, the CTA plans to continue its initiative to replace cloth seats with hardback seats on el trains and buses. 

By Jackie Murray Metro Reporter

Chicagoans’ daily commute is getting a little less cushy but a lot cleaner with a change to the often heavily stained cloth seats.

The Chicago Transit Authority will be replacing fabric seats with hardback ones in some el train cars and buses. The upgrade will also pump more money into the city’s economy. Three hundred more manufacturing jobs will be created at Freedman Seating in West Humboldt Park, which will make the seats for this initiative, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2018 budget proposal, released Oct. 18. This is the first time CTA seats will be made by a Chicago-based company.

CTA has been gradually swapping seats since launching a May 2016 pilot program that installed new seats in 14 Blue and Orange line train cars.

As of press time, CTA did not respond to requests for the number and timeline of hardback seats slated for replacement. 

“Public transportation systems have changed to look at what the customers’ needs are and catering to those needs, so all kinds of initiatives in that domain are very welcome,” said P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The CTA is making a worthwhile investment by improving its seating, Sriraj said. Changes to public transportation in general are lagging, so any improvement to service quality is good news for commuters, he added. 

“[The padded seats] were a nuisance because they got dirty,” said Maddie Porter, a freshman art and materials conservation major. “It would be easier for not only the passengers because there’s more security in knowing that [the seats are] more clean, but [also] for whoever cleans the trains because then they can clean the seats without having the cloth fabric there. ” 

Porter takes the Brown and Blue lines several times a week and said she has been hesitant to sit on the cloth seats, especially when there are unidentified stains. 

“The seats might be cleaner and better maintained, but it’ll probably be less comfortable,” said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University. “[For someone] spending 45 minutes or more on a trip, you might notice a difference and view it as a negative.” 

Schwieterman said the CTA has decided not to emphasize seating within train cars. Cars now cater more to standing passengers, having fewer seats and focusing on inward-facing seats. 

“Customers want cleanliness and reliability more than a comfortable seat,” he said. “That trade-off helps create more room and conditions for standees without the extra space of seat padding.”

The CTA has decided to continue with the cloth-to-hardback project based on positive consumer feedback, and Sriraj noted the CTA’s ridership base has not fluctuated much over time, which reflects how well the company has catered to its consumers.

He added that it is important to factor in customer satisfaction into major business decisions, especially in an environment in which most public transportation systems, such as the CTA, are facing stiff competition from other avenues such as ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft. 

Future CTA improvements include expanding accommodations for the everyday rush hour capacity, which can cram riders in like “sardines,” Schwieterman said. Chicago has some of the shortest train cars in the country because the el’s curves are so sharp, he added, leading to less available standing room within the train. 

Another possible improvement is fixing the “ear-piercing” and “uncomfortable” noise trains emit, especially noticeable along the Blue Line, he said, adding that unruly passengers and on-board panhandling create perceptions of danger—another issue. 

A September 2016 study from the Urban Transportation Center focusing on the CTA and Utah Transit Authority showed that aspects not necessarily part of the travel itself—availability of bus shelters and seats in the shelters—are some of the most important factors in retaining and attracting ridership.

The study found that commuters use underground rapid transit stations more often during heavy rain or snow than above-ground stations. Also, installing shelters and benches at bus stops or on subway platforms helps maintain ridership on extreme weather days and may even cut down on ridership loss during extreme weather events. 

“If you want to retain your base, then you need to make sure you’re hearing what your customers are talking about, what their perceptions are and catering to those needs,” Sriraj said. “[The CTA] has always tried to do it—most systems do—but it’s more important now than ever before.”