Anti-user seating in Oxford

Anti-user seating in Oxford
Anti-user seating in Oxford
Anti-user seating in Oxford
Anti-user seating in Oxford
Top two photos: A bench on Cornmarket Street, Oxford; Lower two photos: A bus stop seat perch on Castle Street.

While from a very narrow specification point-of-view ‘they do their job’, what utter contempt for users these two seating examples demonstrate! The benches on Cornmarket Street are clearly intended to prevent anyone lying down on them (armrests, small radius of curvature) or indeed sitting for very long at all in comfort (height off the ground, vertical backrest, small radius of curvature). Why? Why despise the public so much?

The designer must have been given a specification requiring all the above features: I can’t believe they just arose out of aesthetic or manufacturing considerations. That bench has been engineered to restrict, control and discipline users. Was it really necessary? Does forcing the homeless to lie on the ground instead, or preventing people sitting comfortably and watching the world go by really ‘solve’ any problems?

The bus stop perch – in this particular location intended at least partially for Park & Ride users – is perhaps even worse. It’s angled such that a young child couldn’t easily sit on it without sliding off. An adult has to stretch out his or her legs just to perch. A parent couldn’t sit next to a young child. A shopper would have to put down his or her bags on the ground, since they’d slide off the perch. My girlfriend and I couldn’t rest our drinks on the bench next to us; we had to put them on the ground. OK, that’s not much of a hardship, but it’s just frustrating design, intended to serve objectives other than the users’ benefit or convenience.

You wouldn’t want to wait any longer than necessary at that bus stop. If you were making the decision about whether to drive into Oxford or take the bus to go shopping (assuming cycling not to be an option for this) the unattractiveness of perching at an angle for 15 minutes on that mean strip of perforated sheet would begin to weigh heavily against the public transport option. Sure, you might end up sitting in your car in heavy traffic for 15 minutes, but it’s your car. The seats are comfortable, it’s warm, and you can shape and adjust the environment to suit you.

I don’t want to go off on one here about solving (or easing) Britain’s transport problems, but I do feel that this kind of situation embodies some of the very important issues. By making bus users feel unwanted – despised even – you don’t enhance the image or desirability of the mode of travel. Little details such as this can make a huge difference to perceptions. The buses themselves are great, but if the experience of using the service seems to demonstrate contempt for the user, the user may develop contempt for the service.

Japan may have some of the most explicitly user-unfriendly public benches we’ve come across so far, but there’s also something rather disturbing about the sheer blandness of the bench implementations shown above. Their starkness embodies the thinking behind the design: all possible interaction methods to be reduced down to one sole, pre-defined utility function, with the user not permitted to do anything outside that intentionally myopic definition.

(Incidentally, to be fair, there were some lower seats with horizontal platforms on the other side of the bench in Cornmarket Street. They still had armrests to prevent lying down (or even sitting close to someone), but were not as awful as the curved ones.)

24 thoughts on “Anti-user seating in Oxford”

  1. Hrm. Those benches, especially the narrow one in the bus shelter, remind me of similar butt-rests in the Montreal Metro — but in the Metro, the rests are an alternative to full seating instead of a replacement, provided for the comfort of seniors or anyone else who finds it easier to lean for a few minutes than get up from fully seated without assistance.

  2. I’m feeling the strange desire to carry a can of spray paint and leave a message beside the next example of anti-user seating I see, just as I’m leaving this message here.

    And then I’m imagining others doing the same, with a graffiti “conversation” billowing out from every user-hostile piece of public infrastructure.

    A kind of 3D, real-world blog/discussion forum.

  3. I wonder if advertising near these seat is cheaper? :)

    I suspect that anchoring negative emotions due to the uncomfortable seating is not good for a brand.

  4. You make a very interesting point indeed. Being a Londoner myself, I have been seeing these benches and unfortunately using them for the past months. I honestly cant tell why on earth they have designed them that way. The same design can also be seen on the Tube, in the Picadilly line and others. To be honest, I can understand why it would occur on the tube; its a short journey, it might not be worth it to sit down for a single stop, so you can semi-rest for a bit on one of the provided perches. For buses, it gets more frustrating since you might have to spend more time to wait for the bus, and eventually have to sit on one of those. Most of the times, I feel that i get more tired by trying to balance myself on one of them so I just give up and walk around.

    That said, thanks for the blog, its a pleasure to read it everyday.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I think Rich has a very good point: some perch-style raised seating may indeed be intended for “seniors or anyone else who finds it easier to lean for a few minutes than get up from fully seated without assistance.” That’s admirable, when it’s an alternative to more conventional seating.

    The perches on London Underground trains that Spiros mentions are usually pretty much a padded squab attached to the angled top of the fibreglass bulkheads at both ends of the carriage, and as he says, they’re useful for “semi-rest” in between stops, or for propping yourself against when the train’s too crowded to get a hand-hold. These are perches designed for user convenience – at some point, LT or the train builders (Metro-Cammell et al) decided that it would help users if the otherwise slippery bulkhead covers were padded to allow them to be used as perches.

    Duncan’s point about brands advertising in situations and locations already imbued with negative emotions is interesting, since certainly some locations are cheaper than others, yet I doubt that the reasons for that are necessarily transparent to the advertiser. Often the prices would depend on how many people use the bus stop, what sort of economic group someone has decided to classify them as, and so on, but that doesn’t go so far as to look at why that particular audience are the only ones using the bus stop in the first place, and whether more people would use it if it were made more pleasant to use. I remember seeing a very home-made looking (lots of clipart) advert for loans, on a bus shelter in Leith, near Edinburgh, and thinking “You just don’t see that very often”; in hindsight, the rates for that shelter were presumably lower than others in the area, whether because it was badly located, or because it was in some other way undesirable to bus users.

    Adrian’s idea of using unfriendly infrastructure as a 3D blog, an unpoliced system of commentary and reaction and discussion, is fascinating but I suppose that’s what some graffiti are anyway, and unlike blogging it’s not self-selecting. Everyone who walks past the graffiti’d wall has to see it, whether it’s wanted or not, and It would be preferable not to have the unfriendly infrastructure in the first place.

    Having said that, imagine every piece of public infrastructure or building, or even everything is geotagged, or assigned a unique IP address. Then we could all have ‘conversations’ about/’at’ a location, which would show up on a hand-held PC – or maybe on the inside of our glasses – whenever we approached it.

  6. How about improving the design?

    Accomplish the anti-vagrant requirement, whilst creating an attractive public space?

    How about a circle of inward facing seats (very comfortable ones), with a central fountain?

    The fountain is usually off or subdued, but each hour it gradually increases in height and its outfall gradually gets closer and closer to the seats until it douses them with enough water to persuade the most recalcitrant of sleepers that it’s time to get up for a bit? And then the fountain subsides again for another hour.

    Obviously the seats would need to be fairly quick to dry (shiny, non-horizontal plastic surfaces?).

    I’m not saying this is the perfect solution, but isn’t there scope for better design that still prioritises the interests of the public over the misanthropic street architect’s sterile aesthetic and preference for function without actual contamination by humans?

  7. Those benches on Cornmarket street are fine. They’re just for leaning against – right on the other side of them are conventional seats for people who want to sit down properly. Plus, there’s quite a few of them all the way down the street. Also, at one end of the street, there’s a load of other regular benches. It’s just not all that bad, really.

  8. I think London beat Tokyo to it. Vagabonds sleeping on the benches of the Thames Embankment are often mentioned in mid-twentieth-century writings, but for at least twenty years (I think) these benches have – in Chelsea at least – had the central armrest.

  9. Part of the rational of the bus shelter rests is about water and maintenance.

    Traditional bench seating has the problem that water inevitably got on them and pooled in the seat, makign them unusable in wet weather.

    The shelter by my house has had the same ‘rest’ design but in plastic for about five years, and it is now cracked and damaged from late-night drunks kicking it. Metal reduces the chances of it being damaged. You can also fit a lot more people under the shelter if it is not taken up by people sitting.

  10. I have always been under the impression that these types of seats in public areas are designed so that people cannot sleep there, especially the homeless. That isn’t a disregard for the public, but a design choice to ensure that the seating is used as intended.

  11. Mike Davis in “City of Quartz” also includes benches that you can’t lie down on amongst a variety of anti-homeless features of LA’s downtown area in the early 90s.

  12. Hi,
    Fabulous pictures and I couldn’t agree more!
    In Mumbai, India there are arm rests on sets even in parks (though admitedly there are more comfortable than the curved seats) designed explicitly to prevent couples from “getting too close” in an act of moral policing!
    And yes, like elsewhere in the world bus-stops are being re-designed to make sure the homeless can’t use them as shelters.
    The anti-marginal citizens pogrom is well and alive in most cities in the world – its pretty scary really.
    AS, for cars – we have 200 new cars on the roads of Mumbai everyday (no kidding!) so let me not even get started on the traffic and air pollution situation…
    Shilpa

    PS My own work has been on women and public space – if you like you can check out our website – http://www.genderandspace.org

  13. It does look like a lose/lose situation when you have to dissuade all potential users of bus-stop seating in order to dissuade the minority that you don’t want, but users of public transport are ultimately consumers really should be wating for buses in surroundings more sympathetic to their status, preferably somewhere with a checkout.

  14. I dont know if you were aware that originally there were multi coloured lights intended to go under neath both sides of the benches on cornmarket so that not only could people not sleep on the benches, but under neath them. i have also heard from a oxford county council member that each bench cost around £30,000. as for the stupidity and complete ignorance demonstarted by the people that installed them, i am not suprised. Oxford council seems to want nothing more than to make massive massive mistakes. over and over agin. i honestly feel like crying when i think about the one way system.
    im glad that people dont use the benches as they were intended. or maybe we were intended to sit on the back rest and put our feet on the seat ?

    ohh by the way to the right of that starbucks in the picture is a really nice pasty shop. and opposite that is a really nice pub called the crown.
    just incase anyone wants to go get something to eat and then go for a drink to drown their sorrows.

  15. The Cornmarket street benches are awful to look at. The people leaning against them look so uncomfortable and frankly, rarely a pretty site either. The arch like wooden lean-to surface pushes your groin out, and it is common to see people covering their crotch areas with their bags as they take a break from a busy shopping run. The biggest scandal is not how useless these constructions are but how much they cost. They are around 30,000 pounds each I hear. God knows how much they cost to have repaired as they are bespoke design. The Cornmarket street benches are monument to the utter incompetence and arrogance of the Oxford City Council in my view. Who benefits? Certainly not the shoppers.

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