New armrests that MBTA officials say will improve seating on platforms for the elderly and disabled have generated a backlash among some riders, who accused the agency of making it harder for the homeless to use the stations as a refuge.
At issue is a new design for benches inside stations that include black metal armrests. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said the armrests will make it easier for passengers who need assistance, such as the elderly and those with disabilities, to get on and off the benches, and were designed in consultation with the T’s accessibility department.
But because the armrests make it difficult to lie down and stretch out on the benches, some riders complained on social media that their real intent is to prevent the homeless from sleeping in the stations.
The MBTA’s design standards call for the armrests to be included in most new benches around the system. So far they have been installed at several highly used stations: Downtown Crossing, State Street, and Haymarket.
Some riders commented on Twitter that the T is disguising a hostility toward the homeless by saying the armrests are for the benefit of those with disabilities.
“If it’s about accessibility, and you want to improve accessibility for people with mobility limitations, why not put the armrests at the end of the benches?” asked Tim Lawrence, a transit advocate who criticized the armrests as anti-homeless devices. “It really is the case where you see these [armrests] regularly placed all across the bench.”
One MBTA planning document suggests the armrests were built with accessibility in mind. New design guidelines issued in May said that all benches should have “intermediate armrests,” with spacing determined by project managers working in coordination with MBTA accessibility officials. Federal guidelines related to the Americans with Disabilities Act also suggest public benches should have armrests “to assist with sitting and standing,” though they do not suggest spacing.
Members at the Boston Center for Independent Living, a disability services organization that sued the MBTA for accessibility upgrades, helped the MBTA test bench designs, said Bill Henning, the organization’s director.
“I would consider armrests on benches to be a good thing for those who need some guidance to sit down and support as they get off the bench,” he said. “Armrests are very advantageous for people, very helpful by and large.”
But Henning acknowledged the potential for conflict if homeless people rely on the benches. He said the issue calls attention to the need for greater help for the homeless.
“You talk about these intersections of one need with these broader social realities, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said. "Do you need them on every bench? I’m not the design expert.”
It’s unclear how often the benches are used for sleeping. During overnight hours, T stations are closed to all but maintenance personnel, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. But when stations are open, people can be found sleeping in certain areas, such as along staircases.
Pesaturo said the armrests are next scheduled to be installed at North Station’s subway platforms. He did not directly respond to the criticism about the effect on the homeless, pointing instead to design guidelines that say the T’s priority is “the safety and accessibility of our passengers.”
The MBTA occasionally fields complaints about the homeless from passengers, but agency officials have in the past said they do not see their presence as a problem. Homeless people have also been subject to violence on MBTA properties, including a recent incident at Forest Hills that saw a Transit Police officer resign after using excessive force.
The bench episode marks the latest flare-up over so-called hostile architecture, a term describing small infrastructure measures that critics say are cruel or inhumane because they prevent the homeless or other groups from sitting, sleeping, or loitering in public areas. Intentionally or not, the new armrests would certainly make it more difficult for anybody to lie down.
In early 2019, for example, the state installed spikes under a bridge in Arlington that had become a common site for homeless people, but removed them a few days later after some criticism. Similar measures have been subject to debate across the country.
Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, did not directly criticize the armrests. She said hostile architecture debates are sometimes frustrating because they do not focus on the bigger-picture issue of ending homelessness.
“This is much more systemic to the fact that human beings don’t have a place to rest as a home,” she said. “To me, hostile architecture only enlightens the fact that we have a bigger issue: people who have no place to rest. To me, that’s the underlying thing."