Home View from Underground Perkins: Food on the subway should be ‘outlawed’

Perkins: Food on the subway should be ‘outlawed’

by Benjamin Kabak

One state senator thinks rats in the subway could become less of a problem if eating were to be outlawed. (Photo by flickr user Ludovic Burtron)

As I sit here stuffed on turkey, food is on the mind. I ate a lot of it tonight and then brought some back to Brooklyn on the subway. Along the way, I didn’t see anyone eating on the train, but I often do. Chicken fingers, sandwiches, muffins — you name it, and people eat it. That, however, might end if State Senator Bill Perkins has his way.

These days, Perkins is fighting an uphill battle against a familiar New York scourge. He wants to combat the rat, a rodent so prevalent in New York City that one author has written an award-winning book about them. They survive everywhere and love the subways for the free food.

Earlier 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 percent of respondents said they saw rats in the subway on a daily basis, and nearly everyone pointed food and litter in the subways as the major cause of infestations.

Transit, meanwhile, knows it has a problem. As Thomas Prendergast said at last week’s NYCT Rider’s Council President’s Forum, the subways are filled with trash. MTA workers remove garbage every day from the system, and still, people drop food in subway cars and discard wrappers into the tracks. “Customers don’t like to hear that they’re part of the problem,” Prendergast said, “but we pull out 90 tons of trash a day from the subways.”

Now, Perkins has an idea to combat the rats. He wants to ban food in the subways all together. “Rats don’t grow the food that they eat on the subway, and they don’t buy it, either,” Perkins said to NY1 this week. “We as customers, unfortunately, are the ones that are feeding, and thereby breeding the rodent infestation problem we have.”

Perkins wants the MTA and its contractors to better bait the subways. While Transit has sealed off garbage collection rooms and drainage pipes, these areas are not continually baited. The authority is exploring more agressive rodent control measures, but as cleaners are eliminated and stations get dirty, the agency is facing an uphill task. To that end and for the sake of public health, Perkins thinks draconian measures are in order. “We recommend to them what we know is taking place in other places, like Washington, DC, other countries, where food is outlawed on the public transportation system,” he said.

Perkins, who is now trying to convince straphangers to sign onto this idea, isn’t the first to propose a food ban in the subways, and he want be the last. Forces though conspire against him. New Yorkers rushed for time believe they should be able to nosh on breakfast or lunch in the trains, and the MTA earns a small but steady income from newstands that sell food underground. They couldn’t outlaw eating in the system while maintaining these stands.

Personally, I don’t find eating in the subway that sanitarily appealing in the first place, but I doubt it’s going anywhere. So as long straphangers litter and treat the subway floors with no respect, the rats persist, just as they always have.

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Lawrence Velazquez November 26, 2010 - 1:13 am

That’s too bad. It would probably go a long way.

Joseph November 26, 2010 - 1:49 am

Even if this was passed, I doubt people would stop eating on the subway anyway.

Alex S November 26, 2010 - 1:55 am

I’m not sure I completely buy what’s said in this post.

I see rats every day in the system. I almost never see them on the platform where passengers stand. I see them below, on the tracks.

Now, it’s true that the tracks are full of trash and garbage. But I don’t notice many people throwing stuff down there. So the part of the post that I don’t really buy is the part about the MTA cleaning them up every day. And I’d be willing to bet that almost all of that 90 tons of trash they take out is coming out of trash cans.

I don’t blame the MTA too much for the trash on the tracks. The system runs 24/7, which makes cleaning things up difficult and disruptive. And we passengers, as a group, have really freaked out when faced with fare hikes, so budgets have been cut.

But let’s get real. If someone throws some trash down on the tracks, it’s probably going to be there for awhile. They’re not picking that stuff up every day, or with any frequency at all. You can tell — a lot of the trash looks like it’s been down there a long time.

JP November 27, 2010 - 10:49 am

I see people litter almost every day in the system. Teens are the biggest offenders (in my non-scientific survey). A young couple sitting, riding on the car will underhandedly throw a bag of food scraps and leftovers out of the doors just as they are closing. A high-school girl does the same when squeezing on a crowded rush-hour train. A guy in his late 20’s, nicely dressed in a suit gingerly and deliberately sets his half-full coffee on the platform and hops onto the A. There’s a lady who just ripped the cellophane off a pack of smokes, and tosses it with the inside foil sheet right over her shoulder.

Nobody wants to hold onto their trash long enough to put it in the right place.

SEAN November 26, 2010 - 8:30 am

It takes a rat…

John November 26, 2010 - 10:22 am

Shades of William Ronan, the original chairman of the MTA, who banished the candy, gum and soda machines from the subway nearly 40 years ago. Those items remain gone, but a new anti-food battle would probably mean closing down or severely cutting back the offerings of the still-existing subway news stands. In a time of financial shortfalls, I’m not sure the MTA should be looking at cutting, instead of expanding non-fare revenue streams.

(Ronan also had a fetish for repainting all of the agency’s pre-1965 rolling stock in the MTA’s new blue-and-white/silver corporate colors as a way to convince the public that they were actually doing preventive maintenance on the fleet in the early 1970s, which also coincided with the advent of the graffiti outbreak across the entire system. It would be over a decade before Kiley and Gunn started focusing on getting the stuff off the cars as fast as it was put on, instead of Bill “Sherwin Williams” Ronan’s plan of just painting over the stuff every 8-10 months or so.)

Paul November 26, 2010 - 12:09 pm

Even if there is a dent in non-fare revenue, wouldn’t this cut back on custodial/cleaning costs? And what if the MTA could keep a portion of the revenue from fines?

Anyone who how it works in DC, where the food ban is enforced on the Metro? I am not privy to the economics of it, but it certainly makes for a better ride there.

Benjamin Kabak November 26, 2010 - 12:19 pm

The DC system worked through some very high-profile summonsing and a PR blitz. They ticketed everyone and weathered the media storm. When you ticket a teenager for eating french frieds on a Metro escalator, it gets the point across.

petey November 26, 2010 - 1:19 pm

a-ha! maybe this is why there are so few trash bins on the metro. i was there two weeks ago finishing off some noshies and unaware of the food ban, then looked for a trash bin and found exactly one in the station. could also be a budget thing of course.

ZZinDC November 26, 2010 - 1:44 pm

The lack of trash bins in the DC Metro is a result of preventative security measures – they, newspaper vending boxes, and recyling bins were removed after Sept 11, 2001. The food ban has been in place since the system opened, and people observed it, at least in part, because there was an interest in keeping the system clean and new looking. The ticketing was a reaction to a few isolated incidents but the related bad PR served a reminder to folks that the ban was real and enforced (at least sporadically). I think it would be very hard to institute a ban in New York where it is much more expected to be able to eat or drink. However, if New York can ban walking between cars (also not allowed on Metro), maybe anything is possible.

Christopher Stephens November 26, 2010 - 2:53 pm

Two points about why implementing DC’s policy would be tough here:

1) If I recall correctly, eating and drinking as always been prohibited on Metro, ever since it opened in the 70’s. Regular users never developed an expectation that it was OK to snack on the subway. The people who break the rules – and when I visit, I see it regularly – are typically tourists, who make up a bigger percentage of users on the DC system compared to NYC’s.

2) The average commute time on the DC system is shorter. I don’t eat on the subway here even though I’m allowed to, mostly because it’s gross, it’s not very nice for the people around me, and I’m rarely on long enough so that I couldn’t wait until I get off the train to eat. Still, I realize that plenty of people have commutes on the subway of over an hour (think someone coming in from the Rockaways). I could imagine that eating your breakfast on the train might seem like a more reasonable option for that person, and taking that option away might create something like a hardship.

Still, while I wouldn’t mind banning food and drink on the subway, I think it is too big a cultural shift to expect riders to go along with. Taking away someone’s “right” to eat on the subway would be tough. And, of course, too many people are selfish slobs to follow the rules, and these selfish slobs are the ones causing the problem in the first place.

Bob Davis November 26, 2010 - 4:26 pm

A report from the other coast: Here in Southern California, we’re still fairly new at the “Metro” game, but eating on trains, whether subway or light rail has been a “no-no” since day one (July 16, 1990, for the Blue Line light rail). Back in the Pacific Electric days, there was a conductor on each car (at least before 1950) and he (or in a few cases, she) would set the rules for passengers)

Boris November 26, 2010 - 4:30 pm

Most politicians are probably incapable of making this distinction, but the ban should be on single use food containers, not on food in general. The biggest culprits are people buying fast food, with its multitude of useless wrapping, and discarding it wherever. Those using reusable containers generally take better care, if for no reason other than because it’s their personal property that’s worth something to them.

Alon Levy November 26, 2010 - 5:52 pm

In Singapore, it’s illegal to eat or drink on the subway, but many times the station agents would let me bring Coke cans into the gated area.

J B November 26, 2010 - 8:50 pm

Eating is allowed on Seoul’s subway, and while not as sparkling clean as Taipei’s or Hong Kong’s, it is still far cleaner than New York’s. However, in the case of New York, I think banning food (but not necessarily drinks) makes sense. I’m not sure that many people would care, since very few people actually eat on the subway anyway.

Kris Datta November 26, 2010 - 10:57 pm

It makes perfect sense, and IMO both food and drink (except for water) should be banned on the subway. Any lost revenue through newsstands would be offset by fines for violation of the no eating rule. It would make the rat problem less severe, which would be good in the books of any New Yorker who takes the train every day. It would go a significant way towards a cleaner subway system – platform cleanliness, track bed cleanliness, etc.

ajedrez November 27, 2010 - 2:57 am

I think a big portion of the rat problem isn’t food and trash in the subway-it is the dark, damp conditions that exist in the subway tunnels, which provide a great place to nest.

Big Stein November 27, 2010 - 6:14 am

Why don’t they fight fire with fire.

Just hire a bunch of cats (and no, not the kind who hang out at jazz clubs).

RL November 29, 2010 - 5:45 pm

Clearly Big Stein hasn’t seen the size of some of those rats in quite a while.

Signal Watcher November 28, 2010 - 10:16 am

Eating should not be prohibited. NY’ers need to eat on the subway. Many rides can be an hour or more.


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