I’m not eating anything off of that for a looooong time. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Ioan Sameli.)
A thought experiment, if you will: New York’s subways are not exactly known for their cleanliness. In fact, quite the opposite is true, and in a few weeks’ time, when the Straphangers release their annual Subway Shmutz Survey, we’ll know just how dirty our favorite subway lines are.
Last year, though, prospects were bleak. Only 47 percent of subway cars were rated as “clean,” and I have yet to see a subway car that I personally would consider, well, clean. Don’t even get me started with the stations. So while the Straphangers have urged the MTA to invest more resources into cleaning the cars, that ain’t happening anytime soon. So I present you instead with a hypothetical situation.
Throughout the rest of the world, big cities enjoy cleaner subway systems. London’s is clean; Moscow’s is clean; even the Metro in Washington, DC, has a reputation for cleanliness, nasty carpets and all. These systems are kept clean mostly because they shut down each night.
Every day, subway cars in most cities return home. They sit at the depots and are cleaned from top to bottom. Those with carpets are vacuumed; others are mopped and scrubbed. As the cars sit idle, the stations are far from empty. Cleaning crews descend into the depths of the subway and scrub away. Floors are swept and polished; garbage is collected.
But the citizens have to pay a price: There are few public transportation options late at night. Residents of London and DC scramble for those last trains out to the suburbs. Night owl bus service is a poor substitute for underground rail options, and taxi cabs are cost-prohibitive when compared to the price of a train ride.
So I ask: Should the New York City subway system shut down each night at, say, 1 a.m. and re-open four hours later for the morning commute? Would this improve the cleanliness of the system?
On the one hand, I am tempted to say, yes it would. A closed system would enable crews to work on cleaning the trains and stations. A closed system would also discourage homeless people — a big source of dirt and grime in the subways — from sleeping on trains night after night.
But on the other hand, a closed system is anathema to the essence of New York City. How could the Big Apple be the City That Never Sleeps if our subways are asleep? How could all the night workers — and there are a significant number of them — get home if the subways are closed? It seems that in a 24-hour city such as New York closing the subways is an impractical idea.
New York could choose to go the way of the WMATA in Washington. While the WMATA drew flack when police officers arrested a 12-year-old for eating one french fry in the Metro, this zero-tolerance policy got the point across. Few people risk the high fines for littering and eating in the system, especially as closed circuit cameras record the entire system. So maybe the MTA could institute a zero-tolerance policy for people who eat in the subway. It could help maintain at least some baseline level of cleanliness in an otherwise dirty system, and, hey, anything — even a ticket for someone “too busy” to eat elsewhere — is better than the current mess of the subways.