Treating the trains as we would our kitchen

By · Published in 2010

This past Sunday night, I found myself on a reasonably crowded 2 train heading from the Upper West Side to Park Slope. As the train went local and slowly snaked its way down the West Side, I had ample opportunity to surreptitiously survey the scene. What struck my fancy was something quite disgusting.

Sitting across the car from me where a family traveling together. The young parents had their daughter — maybe five or six years old — in tow, and she was trying to chow down on some fast food chicken fingers and fries. At one point, the girl spilled half of the box of food on the floor, and as her dad leaned over to inspect the damage, I was sure he would sweep it up into the plastic bag he had with him. Instead, he pushed the fries and chicken under the seat, and as the train continued onward, every few minutes, he would kick more of the food under the seat, grinding it into mush in the process. I was disgusted.

Eventually, the three exited the train, and I turned to my girlfriend, who also witnessed this display with similar disgust. “Do you think,” I asked, “they do that at home when they drop something on their kitchen floor?” I often find it easier just to kick food under the table than it is to own up and clean it up. Don’t you?

This behavior isn’t rare in the subways. People think they can just abdicate responsibility for their actions because, hey, someone else will have to clean it up. Rampant rudeness on trains is a known problem, and websites such as Train Pigs document those who eat and litter underground. Yet, it shouldn’t be like that.

New York City Transit’s trains are a shared space in the city. No matter our upbringing, our class, our socioeconomic position in the city, we ride the trains to get from Point A to Point B in a cheap, fast and environmentally friendly way. The trains, then, are only as clean as we make them. We can blame the MTA for its lack of garbage cans — a problem at stations with one entrance — and we can question the decision to skimp on station cleaners amidst an economic crisis.

Still, the fact remains that we the riders should be the ones who clean up after ourselves. We shouldn’t ignore food that spills, and maybe we shouldn’t let others off the hook either. I didn’t say anything to the family that spilled dinner on the floor and then tried to kick away. I let them off the train with just a glare, and others did the same. No one wanted to pick a fight, and we all faced the typical collective action problem. It was, we though, someone else’s problem.

Maybe, though, had one person said something, we could have shamed that family into doing the right thing. We could have let them know that we saw what they did and how they tried to cover it up. We could have told them that we knew they were taking a shared city resource, something upon which we all depend and something we all want to see clean, and sullying it through rude behavior. But we didn’t.

The MTA urges people to take their trash with them, and yet, many do not. Perhaps, we should urge people to treat train floors as they would their kitchen. When I spill something in the kitchen, I don’t kick it under the counter and hope no one notices. I clean it up because it’s what we are supposed to do at home and what we should also do on the trains.

34 Responses to “Treating the trains as we would our kitchen”

  1. Asher says:

    Naturally, the father would be the first to complain about dirt on the floor of the subway that other people left there.

  2. Linda says:

    Ahh.. I really hate that. I just got back from experiencing Tokyo’s train system.. and to compare it to NYC rail is apples and oranges, but it is bound to happen. Similarly in London Tube was the same thing.

    I do recall seeing someone on the train not even having a baggie, but literally littering the car with their sunflower seeds.

    However, I only see the advertisements in English, would you know if it is is available in Spanish or any other language?

  3. Tacony Palmyra says:

    As someone who’s lived in a lot of cheap apartments with random craigslist roommates, I can attest that there’s definitely a significant percentage of the population who DO just kick food under the kitchen table when they drop it on the floor. Public shaming works for some people, but for others it’s “mind your own business.” This is why there are mice and rats and roaches in your neighborhood– because somewhere on your block or in your building there are people who don’t clean up their food waste and it builds up and gets more and more disgusting until they move out and the landlord has to hire people to clean it out.

    And yes, I agree with Asher that people who are slobs and make the biggest unsanitary messes are also the most likely to complain about the mess. If anything, it’s a cover that allows them to further abdicate responsibility. Because it’s already a mess, they see no problem adding to it. That’s the justification for their action.

    Education has to be a part of it, but I’m not sure public confrontation is the best way to go about it for everyone. A lot of people are stubborn and don’t like to be called out for anything.

  4. Dave says:

    I don’t understand why people would eat on the subway anyway. It’s not exactly the cleanest place and it’s just rude. I once witnessed a guy chow down on buffalo wings in the train. Licking his fingers and grunting as he ate, it was truly a sight to behold. He then left the styrofoam container full of chicken bones and spent napkins on the seat when he exited the train. Some people are just pigs.

    • Joe from SI says:

      If I eat anything its a pretzel but I skillfully navigate the pretzel to where it does not touch my hands and is advanced with well placed bites and nibbles…

    • Rhywun says:

      I’m disgusted by people who eat on the train – mostly the smell. It’s extremely rude to be exhaling your food into total strangers’ faces – but as we all know, many New Yorkers don’t understand “rude”.

  5. Julie says:

    Anecdotes such as this one are why eating and drinking are forbidden on Singapore’s trains. And wouldn’t you know, those trains are so clean you could almost eat off the floors.

    Eating on the train is a privilege, not a right. What if it a ticketable offense?

    • In DC, it’s a ticketable offense, and the cops have given out a few high profile tickets. The residents complained, but the Metro is significantly cleaner than NYC Transit’s system here.

      • JP says:

        And if you’re caught eating on the train in Singapore? Public Caneing?

        I’m with Sharon- this is a great opportunity for the MTA to make some extra money. Littering tickets would pay some salaries and raise a few bucks on the side.

        This would only work until the trains were clean, you say? HAH! The only clean places in this town are where people are paid to pick up the constant flow of litter. Shook is totally accurate here.

  6. Al D says:

    In years past, NYCTA had food concessions in the subways (remember the scene in Pelham 123 [the original] where Gene Hackman is hanging out at the Grand Central shuttle at the concession trying to look inconspicuous), and certainly to this day, there are newsstands offering the latest in mass-produced confections. It seems that it is it just part of our culture.

    However, since it is no longer legal to cross between cars, something I did with aplomb in the past, perhaps there will be a law against consuming food on the subway 1 day as well.

  7. Niccolo Machiavelli says:

    You should have seen the line of public speakers at the MTA Board a few years back when the Authority dared propose prohibiting food and drink on the train.

  8. Sharon Silver says:

    The mta needs to hire code enforcement officers to replace Station agents and Conductors (all trains should be operated OPTO like other city’s) who would enforce the fare and help out the police with issuing tickets for littering and other mta code violations. FYI holding doors should result in a fine. These code enforcers could also be assigned to buses to help out with fare beating

  9. Paul Johnson says:

    You can’t cross between cars anymore? How do you get to stations that are only accessible from a few cars?

  10. Edward says:

    Has anyone seen some of the neighborhoods these eaters come from? Take a walk on 116th St in Manhattan or most sections of the Bronx. The streets are beyond disgusting, with piles of food wrappers, soda bottles and the ubiquitous dog crap piled high. Why is anyone surprised that people who live along streets like this, or in buildings with grafitti in the halls and elevators that smell like urine, would give a damn about throwing chicken bones on the floor of the subway.

    • Alon Levy says:

      I actually took a walk on 116th in Central Harlem recently, and it looked like your average street. I’m not sure where you get the images of dog crap piled high – certainly not the reality of the major Upper Manhattan streets.

    • Shook says:

      It’s not that the people in these areas are dirtier than others.

      Downtown areas are cleaned up all day long (you see them), and have multiple trash bins per block. This is due to a combination of population density (or workers), and money/influence coming out of these areas.

      I’ve seen people verbally reprimanded and hit with bags in my ‘hood (Greenpoint), but the streets are still filthy because of the reasons listed above.

    • Straphanger says:

      Well when you have no concept of responsibility and expect other people to always do things for you, what do you expect? Most people who junk up public spaces like this aren’t fit to even govern themselves.

      Then again, I’m just as guilty in that I’ll only call them out about 40% of the time when I see their disgusting, anti-social behavior.

  11. AFN_Weasel says:

    What’s the big deal? The workers who clean the trains get about $60/hr with their overtime and night differentials, let them earn their keep. Why should I help them by taking out my own trash? I always throw everything I can under the seats just to make them work a little. Nothing but lazy bums.

    • Andrew says:

      The big deal is that there are other people who may want to ride the train before a cleaner gets to it.

      The big deal is that, the messier the cars are left, the more cleaners the MTA has to hire, which leaves less money over for things like subway and bus service.


  12. R2 says:

    My mama would slap my hand and scold me if I dared litter on the subway. Would not move till everything was cleared away. Learned my lesson real quick. Kids these days *shakes fist* …

  13. Al D says:

    In my neighborhood, the trash for many people is the sidewalk or the curb. Recently I saw someone toss McDonald’s cups and containers out their driver side window of their SUV right onto the street while parked in a pump in front of a bagel store. Now there were trash cans a few feet away.

    People who pass in front of my house routinely drop wrappers, plastic, and the like as they go.


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