Home View from Underground Who’s to blame for subway rats?

Who’s to blame for subway rats?

by Benjamin Kabak

Do rats thrive because the MTA doesn't know how to kill them or because straphangers are sloppy with their food? (Photo by flickr user Ludovic Burtron)

Anyone who uses the subway in New York City has his or her own horror stories involving rats. For me, two stick out in my mind. Once, while waiting for the Brooklyn-bound F on the 14th St. platform with my family, a rat darted over our shoe tops and scurried into a supply closet. Never again have I stood by that closet. The other involves a post-Yankee game rat sighting on the 2 platform at 149th St./Grand Concourse, and as my sister will attest, the rats were the size of squirrels. I cringe just thinking about those creatures scurrying about the platform in search of food.

For straphangers, rats are just a fact of life underground. Usually, we treat these rodents with a mix of contempt, disgust and curiosity. We’re happy to watch them scurry about on the tracks, a good six feet below our feet, but when they make their ways onto the platforms, we are less accepting of our fellow furried travelers. We don’t know how many rats live in New York City, but estimates range from 250,000 to 100 million. Controlling the population is nearly impossible.

In mid-2010, amidst the uproar over bed bug infestations, the Department of Health highlighted the rat problem. The DOH inspected 18 subway stations in Lower Manhattan and found signs of mild-to-serious infestation problems in half of those stops. Rats lived in the tunnels and the walls. They thrived near garbage and would eat anything. They just are.

Earlier this week, State Senator Bill Perkins issued a follow-up of sorts. In late July, he announced a survey entitled Have You Seen a Rat Today?, and this week, the results are out. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers think the city and its subways has a “severe” rat problem. Over 57 percent of respondents claim to see rats on a daily basis while another 29 report weekly sightings. Just 1 percent of those who answered say they never see rats, a number deflated by the very nature of the survey but not far from the truth.

The result get even more, um, appetizing. Three percent of the 5000 who responded said they saw rats inside of their subway cars while 51 say the rats are confined to the train tracks. The station within Perkins’ 30th District with the highest incidence of rats was the 125th St. stop on the Lexington Ave. line (4/5/6) with 1320 sightings. My parents’ 96th St. stop on the West Side IRT (1/2/3) had 1158 reports of rodents, and while 80 percent of respondents say the rat problem is either “severe” or in a “state of emergency,” 60 percent say the subways can be rat-free.

But the interesting part of this survey comes in the sections leveling blame. Respondents believed the MTA did not do enough to combat the rat infestations with station cleanliness coming under fire. Many said that the MTA needs more garbage cans, a defect I’ve highlighted in the past, and some called the MTA’s pest-control efforts “inept.” One person even suggested the MTA “shut the trains down for two days and do a major extermination job” to fight the rodents.

At the same time, though, many fingered those who eat and litter as the culprits. Those who eat underground and are “carelessly discarding refuse on the tracks or platforms play an important role in compounding the problem,” the report says.

The comments offered at the end of the report show how New Yorkers may be willing to suffer through a ban on eating on subways. “Food and beverages should not be consumed in subways – with the exception of young children,” one respondent said. “Discarded food & drink containers invite rodents. A strong campaign against eating and drinking in subways needs to be conducted. First we need to enforce regulations around littering. The behavior of our citizens is contributing to the problem.”

“What we know for sure is the rats are not growing the food they are eating, nor are they shopping at Whole Foods or McDonald’s,” Senator Perksin said to The Times. “If you feed ’em, you breed ’em.”

So perhaps we should stop feeding them. Now there’s a thought.

After the jump, find an embedded copy of Senator Bill Perkins’ report on rodents.

40634717 Perkins Subway Rat Report

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Alon Levy November 3, 2010 - 4:02 am

I saw a rat on the 2 train. That was when I was at a conference and needed to usher about 15 tourists from Lower Manhattan to Columbia. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your take), the rat was sighted between 72nd and 96th.

Scott E November 3, 2010 - 7:31 am

One problem with banning food from the subway is the impact it would have on the revenue-producing concession stands on a number of subway platforms.

John November 3, 2010 - 9:16 am

Hard to say. Most likely they would still allow you to carry food (unopened), just not eat it.

Lurker November 3, 2010 - 1:03 pm

Ah, the look, don’t touch theory.

Scott E November 3, 2010 - 8:47 pm

The whole point of the snack-food here is that they are impulse-buys. I doubt someone in the subway would buy a Milky Way bar with the intention of putting it away and enjoying it later.

Sharon November 3, 2010 - 11:38 pm

How about enforcing rules on littering. Little to no rule enforcement is done on NYCT property even directly in front of a police officer. It is crazy
-people going through emergency exits no matter what direction should result in a ticket issued
– littering and changing cars should result in a ticket not once in a while but all the time

You will see a big reduction in rats

Andrew November 4, 2010 - 10:46 pm

Going through emergency exits and changing cars attract rats?

Al D November 3, 2010 - 9:29 am

Rats, like the rest of us, require a food source. The subway already provides the necessary shelter and relative warmth and humidity, but they still need a food source. So, if there is food for the rats, they will be there. Since the subway infrastructure and rolling stock itself is not a source of food for them nor does it generate food for the rats, it must then be the sloppy, messy people leaving their ‘droppings’ for the rats to feast on. Kill the food source and solve the rat problem. (See also the trainpigs blog for further reference. http://trainpigsoink.blogspot.com/)

On a political note, instead of wasting our tax dollars on a another dumb, unnecessary report of a problem that we are all well aware of, Mr. Perkins should be working instead to restore the MTA funding that the State government ‘stole’. Now how’s that for an idea?

petey November 3, 2010 - 10:32 am

story: uptown E platform 34th street, rat on the platform, everyone give it space, trains arrives, doors open, rat saunters in. hilarity. quite worth missing that one and taking the next.

Jeff November 3, 2010 - 10:36 am

I’m confused. We’re allowed to eat and drink on the Subway?

My impression has always been that MTA policy is no food or drink is permitted, but beverages from a can, bottle, lidded cup, etc. are tolerated by the unwritten NYC social code. I understand that eating hot food is rude, and that eating a scone, for example, is inappropriate because it could contribute to the rodent problem. But for those of you for whom eating and drinking on the trains is a big pet peeve, do you have a problem with me drinking coffee (with a lid, of course) on the train?

Al D November 3, 2010 - 2:46 pm

I wouldn’t say it’s a pet peeve of mine, but I have no desire to smell someone’s greasy food (fried chicken, chinese food, mickey dees, etc.) whilst I am on the train. Let alone watching the gavones consuming such healthful delights.

To your question though. My response is that it is circumstantial. If there’s barely room on the train for you, let alone your double espresso triple shot, then I don’t want to be the one standing next to you wondering for the entire ride whether I’m going to be the one wearing your coffee when the train screeches to a halt.

Andrew November 4, 2010 - 10:52 pm

Eating and drinking are permitted on the subway:

I don’t appreciate coffee drinkers on the subway. Even with a lid, coffee can spill. Coffee stains. (And it sometimes burns.)

joney November 7, 2010 - 12:15 am

Maybe not you, but the inconsiderate passenger that has a sweet coffee and decides to throw away the cup on the tracks. That is a source of food if there is any left in the cup. It takes one bad apple. That’s why we can’t have nice things.

SEAN November 3, 2010 - 10:39 am

On a political note, instead of wasting our tax dollars on a another dumb, unnecessary report of a problem that we are all well aware of, Mr. Perkins should be working instead to restore the MTA funding that the State government ‘stole’. Now how’s that for an idea?

Is it a stretch to call the polititions who are steeling the funding the MTA needs to function a bunch of rats as well?

Sara November 3, 2010 - 4:05 pm

I live and work near F train stops. The 15th St/ Prospect Park station is highly infested (particularly where the front end of the Manhattan-bound train stops), yet I rarely see litter or crumbs on the platform. The problem that I have observed is that the trash cans are not impenetrable; the rats happily scamper into the bottom of them and into the black metal storage bins nearby. Barring commuters from eating underground would prevent food scraps from being in the trash can in the first place, but a rat-proof can would also starve the rats and would probably make rule-averse New Yorkers happier than an outright ban.

Anon November 3, 2010 - 5:37 pm

Rock, Paper, scissor…

Rat, amNY, Crab?


Phil November 3, 2010 - 7:53 pm

Let’s pull what most systems do: ban eating in stations and on trains. Fine a ton of money for it. Nice revenue source with no downside and many upsides.

Anon November 3, 2010 - 9:34 pm

Perkins: Food on the subway should be ‘outlawed’ :: Second Ave. Sagas November 26, 2010 - 1:03 am

[…] this month, Perkins’ office released a report that highlights the rat problem in the subway. In an unscientific survey, Perkins determined that rat sightings are a major problem. Over 57 […]

Photo of the Day: The trash that sits :: Second Ave. Sagas February 15, 2011 - 2:31 pm

[…] then, as we have explored who is to blame for subway rat infestations and as one politician has tried to ban food in the subways, we should […]

Madison R May 4, 2017 - 6:40 am

Even now, the problem still isn’t fixed. Last week the news showed two hungry rats fighting over a bagel on the subway tracks. The guy filming said “I wasn’t surprised to see a rat.”, so yeah, if not MTA then who to blame?

Did they even try to make this better? Over a thousand New Yorkers dial 311 about rats every single month. These calls have only been growing, but those that could do something are all talk no action.
Bill De Blasio is now suggesting rat sterilization, which sounds good because it’s totally non-toxic. With a single mating pair capable of producing 15,000 pups in one year (when you count all their progeny’s progeny), it doesn’t take long for the population to make up lost ground if conventional methods are being used.

We’ll just have to continue waiting and see if anything will change by 2018, or if De Blasio actually cares.


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