Home New York City Transit From Transit, a new attempt at cleanliness

From Transit, a new attempt at cleanliness

by Benjamin Kabak

Garbage Cans

At Nevins St., low-hanging rafters are often used as makeshift trash cans. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

As a route down Second Ave. has remained the city’s seemingly unattainable subway line expansion project for over eight decades, so too has subway cleanliness been considered an illusion. The New York City subways — open 24 hours and covering hundreds of stations in five boroughs — are just dirty and always will be no matter how many times MTA officials say they want to change that state of underground being.

Well, no, really, for real, this time it’s going to happen. At least, that’s what Transit’s senior vice president for subways told the New York City Transit Riders Council yesterday afternoon. Heather Haddon has the report:

“We’ve got to ensure that those stations are getting cleaned,” Carmen Bianco, NYC Transit’s senior vice president for subways, told the New York City Transit Riders Council. “We are going to maintain them at a higher level going forward.”

As amNewYork previously reported, transit has increasingly left cleaning shifts unfilled to save on overtime when workers callout. Dozens of shifts for day-to-day cleaning and deeper scrub downs have been skipped at major hubs like Herald Square, Times Square and 14th Street, transit documents show. “I’ve noticed lately the stations I’m in are noticeably trashier,” Sharon King Hoge, a riders council member.

Bianco said he recently happened upon a station that wasn’t cleaned for 18 hours on the weekend after shifts were missed. “We’re talking about the bottles, the paper … That’s not a standard I want to live to,” Bianco said. “We’ve got to be able to cover that job.”

As an approach to station cleanliness, Bianco, as Michael Grynbaum noted earlier this week, will help oversee a reshuffling of personnel assigned to clean stations. With the line manager program nearly on the way out, cleaners will be under the purview of one division in charge of station appearances. “Daily cleaning will be the responsibility of almost 1,000 station cleaners who were previously assigned to the operating groups,” NYC Transit head Tom Prendergast wrote in a memo.

Still, haven’t we heard it all before? In 2008, then-Transit President Howard Roberts pledged to clean the stations before he ran into budget cuts that saw numerous cleaning shifts unfilled. The stations, anecdotally, remain as messy as they ever are.

If Transit is serious about keeping stations cleaner, I see three distinct approaches ranging from the easy to the extreme.

  1. Change the messaging — Currently, Transit announcements tell people to put their trash in the “trash receptacles” and urge people to “can it for a green planet.” While the sentiments are positive ones, those messages go well beyond the problem. Receptacle is an unnecessary 10-cent word, and an appeal to environmentalism doesn’t jibe with cleanliness. Just tell people, in no uncertain terms, that trash should go in the trash cans. The simpler, the better when it comes to messaging.
  2. More in-station trash cans — I realize adding more trash cans to train stations will result in more work for an already over-taxed cleaning staff, but this move would go a long way toward making stations more pleasant. I ride the B train from 7th Ave. in Brooklyn every morning. That station features an entrance toward the front of the train with trash cans at the bottom of the stairs and a very long platform with no other garbage cans. By the time I get to the back of the train, I’ve passed numerous discarded coffee cups and newspapers lying on the ground. When the nearest trash can is the equivalent of a city block away, it’s no wonder people start to litter.
  3. Enforce litter laws or ban food entirely from the subway — It’s an extreme proposal to a quality-of-life problem, but it has worked elsewhere. The D.C. Metro earned some bad publicity when a young girl was ticketed for eating on an escalator, but the draconian enforcement efforts go the point across. D.C. trains and stations are far cleaner than ours in New York, and although the stations are routinely cleaned as the system shuts down at night, during the rush hours, the platforms just aren’t nearly as messy as ours.

Until boorish subway riding culture changes, trash will always be a problem in New York City. The MTA can’t shut down the system to clean it, and so we’re left with millions of people at all hours of the day leaving garbage behind. A concerted effort may make marginal in-roads in keeping platforms litter-free, but only the most drastic of behavioral attacks will lead to real changes.

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Josh K April 23, 2010 - 2:56 am

If the additional trash cans are located on platform level, it shouldn’t be a lot of extra work. Today, almost all platform level trash cans are emptied by workers on the trash trains, to dumpsters on the trains. If there are more cans, while this makes slightly more work for the trash train crews, the station cleaners and the track cleaning crews, will have less work at each station, so they could cover more stations or have more time to be even more thorough.

Trash fires on the tracks (700VDC exposed 3rd rail + metal foil wrappers + arcing from train 3rd rail shoes = track fires) lead to service delays and increases in maintenance costs. The food waste leads to more rats. I just can’t see how the MTA could argue against having more trash cans throughout the system. I know that my university had problems with littering and they largely solved that problem by putting trash cans EVERYWHERE.

Also, while I’m generally pretty militantly pro-union, token booth clerks who are being downsized should be shifted to positions on cleaning crews and the TWU shouldn’t fight that. Instead the TWU and the MTA should be finding ways to keep hard working people in decent paying jobs elsewhere in the MTA, such as cleaning crews, etc. If they’re no longer handling vast amounts of cash and such, maybe the booth clerks should be sent out into their stations more often to wander around, tidy up a bit, yell at boorish types and people who use the emergency exits and such. It would be good to have more of a visible presence of MTA employees with customer service roles around the system, not behind an inch of bullet resistant glass.

Jehiah April 23, 2010 - 3:00 am

AFAIK none of the trash cans are emptied directly onto the trash collection train; they are all emptied by station cleaners into a trash room, or a big ugly black trash bin, then later from that bin into the trash collection train.

I agree though that adding more trash cans to the platform, and running the trash collection train more frequently and just getting the trash directly onto the trash collection train is the best path forward.

I also think the MTA should work with the city department of sanitation to get a trash can on the street level at every entrance to help cut down on the trash that people cary onto the system in the first place.

Andrew April 23, 2010 - 6:12 am

You really don’t want the trash collection train to run more frequently. Have you ever been stuck on the train behind it?

Jehiah April 23, 2010 - 12:47 pm

this is part of why i said they need trash cans that are better designed/suited for that quick loading/unloading process…

In most spots there are also track switching tricks they can do to help minimize the delays, and i’m convinced that if a normal train can stop long enough for people to pull their luggage off, then it’s possible for a trash train to stop long enough for people (perhaps 1 person per trash can on the platform) to load the trash on, in the 30~60 seconds for a normal stop.

Scott E April 23, 2010 - 8:12 am

I’m not sure if the title was intended sarcasm, reading “A new attempt…”, with a statement below: “Still, haven’t we heard it all before?” Maybe you meant a “renewed” attempt?

Some of the solutions are so simple and low-tech, yet for some reason they’re not implemented. I’d love to show up at a meeting where public comments are taken, and ask about adding trash cans at least every 75 feet on the platforms. At best, you might stimulate a 3-year pilot program. At worst, you’ll hear feeble attempts at defending the current structure.

I don’t think messaging will help the cause much – we all know what trash cans are and how to use them. It’s about a tendency for people to keep cleaner places clean, and think their gum wrapper is an insignificant addition to piles of trash already in the station. Alhough this is the most laughable message of all. The old advert reads “Litter gets on the tracks and catches fire and that causes train delays that make you late aside from making trains and stations untidy because a little litter goes a long way.” I have no idea what that last part means, but English teachers everywhere cringe when they see run-on sentences like that.

Al D April 23, 2010 - 9:37 am

The trash cans at 14 St on the 4 5 6 are misplaced and oversized. They clog up precious middle ground on the platform. Instead, get either smaller cans and/or reposition these cans against or in line with some columns that are not near the platform edge. This will go a long way towards a neater platform appearance while creating needed space for riders.

Stations need more deep cleaning. I think it was 34 St on the B D F V. That nice tiled platform looks like it hasn’t been scrubbed for 6 months or more.

Going back to 14 St on the 4 5 6, NYCT needs to deep clean that station, too. In addition to the platforms, we the taxpayers and riders spent a lot of $ to have nice shiny white tiles on the opposing wall of the station where there is no platform. This I’m sure was done for improved lighting as well as other reasons, however these tiles have been grime covered probably since soon after the renovation. Perhaps a little elbow grease will help?

Another suggestion: Take those large trash train trash bins off the platforms! They are disgusting and rob precious space on the 6 (and I’m sure many other lines). Or…if we must have these on the platforms, repair and then protect the nice tilework that takes a beating from these metal monsters. I think that would go a long way to keeping up appearances.

tacony palmyra April 23, 2010 - 9:59 am

How are stations inspected for cleanliness? Are they graded? Is Carmen Bianco going to personally manage the cleaning crews? How will this work? Some of the stations are never cleaned. There are literally years worth of filth and grime on the walls, and the floors are always sticky.

Look down at the yellow rubber caution area along the edge of the platform. At a lot of stations, the yellow between the raised dots becomes more and more black as you walk further from the turnstyles in either direction. Toward the ends of the platform it’s entirely black. Nobody’s cleaning it. I don’t think this will change, will it?

SEAN April 23, 2010 - 10:15 am

NO FOOD should be allowed in the subway! Not even gum. Littering fines $500 per violation. Yes I said $500. That will go part way to keep the system cleaner.

Scott E April 23, 2010 - 10:35 am

There’s probably some kind of deal with the in-system newsstands (which also sell candy, gum, and soda) to prevent such a ban.

Al D April 23, 2010 - 12:14 pm

Oh, thanks for reminding me. The newstand at 14 St on the 4 5 6 above the northbound platform presently drags the trash down the steps and to the southern end of the northbound platform. I’ve seen the bags leaking fluids which in turn further soils the platform. I did not see the employee with a mop on the return trip.

This is an example of a little problem that can and should be addressed that would go a long way to tidying up the system.

Al D April 23, 2010 - 12:16 pm

Sorry, and lastly the MTA may want to consider PATH’s model to station cleanliness. Their stations are pretty clean.

Christopher April 23, 2010 - 11:38 am

Absolutely not. Yes to littering fines higher, but no to draconian bans on food. DC’s Metro system is boorish. Their stations unusuable. The system boring to ride and in a terrible state of repair. Their stations are project a level of banal sameness, enforced by draconian rules on behavior. NY doesn’t (thank god) work like that. Ours is a culture of constantly shifting social negotiations. It’s what makes our city great, and a cultural engine. Banning food on the trains is one more step toward homogenization of NY and the replacing of human-powered culture with the strong arm of the law.

Alon Levy April 23, 2010 - 12:07 pm

I haven’t used the DC Metro, but I’ve used the Singapore MRT, which is in a state of good repair. It may be more boring to ride than New York City Transit, what with the rat-free tracks, but I consider that a good thing.

BK April 23, 2010 - 10:42 am

Thanks for the interesting article today.

The MTA could employ full-time cleaners at every station, and there would still be slobs leaving garbage on the trains and throwing it on to the tracks.
Until New Yorkers learn it’s not OK to just drop their garbage, food, spit, etc. on the train, I am not holding out hope for a cleaner anyplace in the city. As bad as it might seem, increased police ticketing for violations like these might result in improvement.
I wouldn’t want to be the cop who has to face these litterers – they can be unpleasant to say the least…

Jehiah April 23, 2010 - 12:49 pm

also, let’s not forget that the MTA’s task of picking up trash extends beyond the NYC Subway system to the LIRR and Metro North stations/platforms as well.

Scott E April 23, 2010 - 1:08 pm

And there are lessons to be learned in that. About a year ago, LIRR replaced all its trashcans, and in fact added more. On the “B” platform at Hicksville station, I could stand pretty much anywhere on the 16-car-long platform and easily hit a can with a basketball. And I’m a horrible shot. (they’re covered, so I can’t actually sink the shot!). Plenty of newspapers and coffee cups make their way inside.

New Jersey Transit even has trash bins in the vestibules of all of its commuter trains. For some reason, LIRR/MNR does not.

BrooklynBus April 23, 2010 - 1:35 pm

It’s a shame how the stations are not cleaned. In addition to trash, just look at how filthy the brand new floors are at the renovated Columbus Circle Station. If it is too difficult to properly clean these new porous tiles, they never should have been chosen.

Also, there is hardly a station ceiling without peeliing paint on its ceiling. Stations used to be repainted on a cycle. I wonder if that program has also been curtailed. A little paint can go a long way to improve a station’s appearance if there is no water problem present.

herenthere April 23, 2010 - 6:14 pm

Enforce litter laws or ban food from the subway
Yeah, right. No matter how much that would solve the problem, the NYPD is nowhere near the caring point about actually ticketing people.

KPL April 24, 2010 - 6:06 pm

Don’t they have quotas to make?

JP April 25, 2010 - 11:23 am

Thanks for the post.

Extra trashcans only work to a point. Emptying 30 cans is half as much work as emptying 60 and the labor pool is only so big.

DC Metro is cleaner for a two huge reasons: scale and accessibility. There are roughly 20% of the number of stations, with 13% of the ridership (numbers from wikipedia) and it’s closed at night for cleaning.

Ticketing is a great stopgap. If it works immediately and changes the riders’ behavior by ending litter in the system, perfect. (HA! where’s the sarcasm tag?) If it only penalizes littering behavior, that would raise some bucks for MTA in the meanwhile. Hopefully it would pay for all the transit police to do all this ticketing, and wouldn’t put too much strain on the justice system (which has enough problems, but that’s an entirely different blog altogether).

Alon Levy April 26, 2010 - 12:13 am

Singapore has less than one fifth the number of subway stations of New York, and two fifths the subway ridership. It somehow manages to stay clean.

I haven’t been on the Copenhagen Metro, but I have a strong suspicion that it’s clean, too, even though it runs 24/7.

KPL April 26, 2010 - 1:09 pm

I’m pretty sure the $1000 (in Singapore currency) fine for littering / dropping gum has something to do with the lowered littering rate. Eating/drinking is $500. Even jaywalking, a New York pastime, nets a $500 fine.

Alon Levy April 27, 2010 - 5:28 am

Those fines aren’t enforced. They’re just for show – a way of telling the tourists that the government is really serious about cleanliness. In reality, taxi drivers spit on the road while driving, with impunity.

Sharon April 26, 2010 - 7:11 pm

Josh the mta has been trying to require station agents to do light cleaning in stations for over a decade. The twu is against anything that would keep stations cleaner. This is not unreasonable concidering the station agents job functions such as emptying tookens from turnstiles are now not done the only way to reduce trash in stations is to enforce the litter law


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