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August 18, 2021

SEPTA replaces sitting benches with 'leaners,' upsets some riders

The seatless rails replaced around 25 benches to improve foot traffic flow and promote social distancing, SEPTA says

Transportation SEPTA
SEPTA Leaner Benches Courtesy/Andrew Busch

SEPTA has installed leaning benches at two stations: the 69th Street West Terminal in Upper Darby (pictured) and Frankford Transportation Center, 5223 Frankford Ave, in Philadelphia

Last October, SEPTA installed 25 "leaners" at two of its most high-traffic stations as an alternative for riders waiting for buses. However, in the 10 months since their installation, some riders have complained about the change.

The leaning benches, located at 69th Street Transportation Center and the Frankford Transportation Center, are part of a $16,000 pilot program that offers riders seatless benches to lean on while they wait.

Andrew Busch, SEPTA spokesperson, told PhillyVoice there are not any current plans to install more leaners at stations in the city. 

"I can't say that we've necessarily gotten a lot of positive feedback yet, but I think we still have a long way to go with gathering feedback," Busch said. 

While they were installed last October, not many riders noticed them since they arrived mid-pandemic when ridership was at an all-time low. Now, as more riders have returned, they have criticized SEPTA for replacing sitting benches with standing ones.

Anette Seville, a 61-year-old Philadelphia resident, told NBC10 that she needs a bench to sit on because she is still recovering from leg surgery, and that benches are needed for elderly people and those with disabilities.

Busch said there were several factors that led SEPTA to install the leaning benches, including improving foot traffic flow, making the stations easier to clean and promoting social distancing.

"Those bus islands can all get crowded and they can sometimes be tight to navigate for customers," he said. "The leaners just take up less space, so we wanted to see if they help with some of those passenger flow issues."

Internal documents obtained by VICE allegedly suggest that the transit agency also was possibly motivated by deterring people experiencing homelessness from sleeping on benches.

After complaints started to roll in, SEPTA responded by saying "Due to the pandemic, we determined that traditional benches do not encourage social distancing, nor do they discourage sleeping by individuals that are not SEPTA customers," according to VICE.

Yasha Zarrinkelk, an organizer with Transit Forward told NBC10 last month that the leaners are a form of "anti-homeless architecture." 

"To an extent, it is disproportionately targeting vulnerable populations, and it’s sending a message that people who sleep outside are not our neighbors, are not part of our community and that it’s OK for them to be ostracized," Zarrinkelk said.

Busch said the transit system has been working to help address homelessness as a whole through new outreach efforts. 

"We're trying to address the root causes of that problem rather than just removing people from the system," Busch said.

The transit system closed Somerset Station earlier this year for two weeks to make repairs and to clean the excessive amounts of trash and human waste. SEPTA officials also connected with social outreach specialists to connect riders with substance abuse and behavioral health services.

It also launched a pilot program to establish a security presence along the Market-Frankford Line, which extends through the fall.

While some 25 benches were removed and replaced with leaning ones, Busch said there are still several sitting benches located at the pilot stations. 

"They're intended to be used for a short period of time, while someone's waiting for a bus or a train for the next ride while they're transferring," he said. "We're trying to make these areas as welcoming and safe and efficient in terms of passenger movement as possible for people who are using the system."

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