Lhota: ‘I do not support’ a subway food ban


Were the food ban to pass, this man would not be permitted to eat in the subway. (Photo by flickr user phogel)

Senator Bill Perkins does not, like most New Yorkers, like rats all that much. He doesn’t want to be reminded that millions of them coexist with the human residents in this fine city of ours, and he particularly doesn’t want to see them at his subway stop, on his subway platform, in the tracks or perhaps even in the train. I can’t say I blame him too much.

The truth about rats in New York City — and it’s one we don’t like to admit — is that they are drawn to human waste. They feast on our garbage, and as long as we supply them with garbage, they’ll eat and be merry. The subways provide them with ample garbage. Harried New Yorkers are always eating, and although most straphangers make use of the trash receptacles, as the MTA has dubbed them, even if just a few bad eggs throw their food scraps onto the tracks or station floors, the rats will find a way to them.

And so Bill Perkins wants to head off that behavior by cutting off the source of food. There shall be, he has proposed, no eating in the subway. His bill has cleared the State Senate’s Transportation Committee, although 9 of the 16 yea votes came with reservations, and now it sits with the Finance Committee. Perhaps it will pass, and the challenge will fall to the enforcers. Perhaps it shall die a death in Albany.

Yesterday, while on a trip to speak out in support of transit funding, MTA CEO and Chairman offered up his views on the proposed food ban, and it is not on his transit wishlist. “I do not support the bill,” Lhota said to The Times. “It severely hurts and impacts minority communities. I don’t want to deny the kid the only time that day he’s going to get food.”

The new Chairman says that too many people, from workers to students, need their commute time to grab a quick bite and that the ban would be a burden. Lhota, however, is familiar with Perkins’ work as the two have tried to combat New York’s rat problem for years. The MTA head though didn’t offer up praise for the Senator. “The idea that we worked together in the past goes far beyond the reality. As a legislator, he does nothing but talk and talk and talk, and he does nothing,” he said.

Perkins countered with a different take. He claimed Lhota once offered up support for the food ban and believes his bill to be the key to controlling rats underground. That is a bold claim indeed. “If that’s his position, I’m sorry to hear that,” Perkins said of Lhota. “I think there is a great need for us to control eating in the subways to get control of the rodent infestation. We’re still trying to convince him.”

There is, of course, another way to look at this issue. As Cap’n Transit noted to me via Twitter last night, perhaps this issue is being improperly framed. The problem isn’t that people can eat underground; rather, the problem is that no one is there to clean up the garbage. Trash bags sit in stations for days, and rats find their ways to neglected sources of food. The Cap’n believes rehiring cleaners could make stations tidier while providing jobs for the unemployed. If Albany were to focus on such a solution, it could create a better win-win-win.

Meanwhile, I’m torn. Eating on the subway is not the most sanitary of things to do, and folks who chow down on complex meals are often disrespectful toward their fellow commuters and themselves. That people think the subway floor is an appropriate place for discarded chicken bones or unwanted french fries simply makes it worse. And so, dear readers, I shall leave the question up to you.

Should eating be outlawed in the subway system?
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Update (2:30 p.m.): Facing criticism from other state officials for his comments, Lhota, noted during his time in the Guiliania Administration for his temper, issued a formal apology to Perkins this afternoon. “I would like to apologize to Senator Perkins for my comments in The Times today,” he said. “Bill is an excellent legislator with great constituent services, and I share his commitment to addressing the problem of rat proliferation in New York City. Though we agree on many rat related issues, we disagree on banning food on the subways. I have a great deal of respect for Senator Perkins.”

Categories : MTA Politics

32 Responses to “Lhota: ‘I do not support’ a subway food ban”

  1. Brian says:

    I do not support a full on ban. WHen someone eats a full meal on the subway thats pretty gross but o think everyone has found themselves eating something along the line of a bagel at some point along their subway career. There does need to be much greater enforcement on littering though.

  2. Paul says:

    Don’t ban food; ban littering.

    You can’t make the rats disappear by penalizing riders for eating on the trains. Many do so responsibly, and litterers who aren’t visibly eating may still toss trash onto the platforms or tracks, which is what attracts the rats. If that is the problem, then ticket people for that.

  3. Michael says:

    My biggest problem with the proposed ban is it reduces to the lowest common denominator. Most of us are capable of eating a candy bar or drinking a soda without making a mess. We should punish millions of people because a very few make a mess while trying to eat spaghetti on a crowed train? That sounds very unfair to me. Punish those that make a mess, but leave everyone else alone.

    I’d be all for increased fines for littering & increased enforcement to get those that leave a mess, but frankly I think that’s about as unlikely to make a difference as an outright ban would. Cap’n Transit is right, if they really cared about the rats they would hire more cleaners.

  4. Bolwerk says:

    “If that’s his position, I’m sorry to hear that,” Perkins said of Lhota. “I think there is a great need for us to control eating in the subways to get control of the rodent infestation. We’re still trying to convince him.”

    There is, of course, another way to look at this issue. As Cap’n Transit noted to me via Twitter last night, perhaps this issue is being improperly framed. The problem isn’t that people can eat underground; rather, the problem is that no one is there to clean up the garbage.

    Cap’n Transit may have a point, but the garbage often isn’t disposed of properly. As some suggested last time this issue came up, make people take responsibility for their own garbage. Fine people who litter, and have people take their garbage with them. It’s not too much to ask in exchange for the privilege of eating on the subway, a privilege Lhota is right about: many people value it.

    If that doesn’t work, then consider a food ban.

    (BTW, your <a> tag is not closed wrong in the fourth paragraph.)

    • R. Graham says:

      I honestly feel if people can’t be trusted to take their discarded newspapers then they can’t be trusted to take their food trash and food trash is worse than paper trash. There should be a ban on food and a combination policy of no discarding trash in the system. Liter can free. Take your papers with you.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Massive fines on littering would almost certainly fix that. They can at least pay for the remaining upkeep for those few who still litter.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      The trash cans are starting to overflow as pension and debt costs soar and the number of workers shrinks. You see it in the park, on the trains, at the beach.

      Aside from litterbugs, much less common than back in the day, the problem is money for collection.

      Any of you remember all the black splotches on the platform at Jay Street, from the gum dropped there in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s? People’s behivior is better, not worse.

      • Bolwerk says:

        And packaging balloons. There really should be redemption values on most waste, ranging anywhere from a dime or quarter on cans and bottles* to to probably 50¢ to a dollar on heavy plastic food packaging – I’m guessing it would need to be relatively high to get people to clean those things and return them. Right now, people don’t really feel very concerned about the “free” Tupperware they get, and even if they do the right thing and dispose of it, it contributes to causing the public trash cans to overflow.

        Our society just blows at dealing with trash. That much of it is even reusable is even worse.

        * Actually, you can see the success of this tactic with cans and bottles. Running into them is relatively rare because the homeless take them and redeem them.

  5. Ed says:

    WtF? The only time during the day the working poor get to eat is during their commute? So you have entire families of poor people heading down to the subway each day to eat? What that explains the demographics of some of the worst offenders on the subway. But if employers of the working poor won’t provide lunch hours, isn’t this something the Department of Labor should be looking into.

    Doesn’t Perkins supposedly represent a district full of poor people. If he was looking to deprive many of his constituents the only time and place where they can eat a meal, wouldn’t he have heard from them?

    I’m surprised other commentators are buying into a transparently BS explanation, and I’m guessing the real reason behind Lhota’s change of heart has something to do with the subway station vendors. And incidentally, I understand the norm with other systems is that passengers can’t eat food in the system and have to wait until they are back on the streets to eat their candy bars.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I took his comment as hyperbole, but it’s probably not far from the truth. I imagine working parents probably are squeezed for time both in the morning and evening, and even if they take a lunch break, that is only one our of three traditional meals they should be getting at a minimum.

      Vendors may cause some incidental littering, but it’s hard to see how they’re causing the most problematic littering.

      Doesn’t Perkins supposedly represent a district full of poor people. If he was looking to deprive many of his constituents the only time and place where they can eat a meal, wouldn’t he have heard from them?

      Who’s to say he hasn’t? He doesn’t represent drivers, so his constituents’ opinions probably aren’t going to end up in the Post.

    • HeezaHowza says:

      “I do not support the bill,” Lhota said to The Times. “It severely hurts and impacts minority communities. I don’t want to deny the kid the only time that day he’s going to get food.”

      It was kind of amazing that no entity reporting or re-reporting on this matter examined the absurdity of this statement. “Severely hurts and impacts”, huh? I challenge that. I would submit that waking up 5 minutes earlier in order to eat in one’s residence amounts to a minor inconvenience. I’m not really sure who constitutes these undefined “minority communities” but surely they must be rather insulted by the plainly-stated (and, I feel comfortable saying, utterly false)assertion that they feed their children once a day. And that – for some reason – the day’s feeding must be on the train. Come on.

  6. stan says:

    in addition to the problem of no one emptying the trash bins, is the problem that untold numbers of people think it us acceptable to toss their thrash on the tracks. in the stations i use in bed-stuy the tracks are often ankle-deep in trash even if there are trash cans a few feet away. there are THRIVING rat populations in these stations. i see them every day.

    so, in addition to the MTA being seemingly incapable of properly maintaining the stations, this behavioral issue in every station in every part of the city is going to continue to feed the rats.

    i have no idea what kind of lazy slob tosses trash on the tracks, but the city is overrun by these people and their filth feeds the rats.

  7. Matt says:

    ban it, I hate when you’re on the train and someone is eating food that stinks up the whole car. Plus, I hate eating underground, the air just seems dirtier. Bottles of water and stuff like that is cool.

    But if you must have it, have a separate bin for food, like they have a Yankee stadium…this way that can be recycled in a different way.

  8. Kevin Walsh says:

    I would ban eating on trains; I would also ban nail clipping, loud yapping, the Mariachi Brothers, the hip hop dance guys, and whatever other esthetic and noise pollution exists down there.

    Trouble is, the majority of folks LIKE this stuff, or at least tolerate it better than me and none of it will stop.

    So, I voted no to the ban, which would be largely unenforceable, prevent a source of income for the newsstand guys, and would target minority kids. We should find a way to clean up the leavings better; perhaps even more and bigger receptacles would do the trick.

  9. Tsuyoshi says:

    Minority kids don’t have time outside of their train commute to eat? That premise is so implausible to me that I don’t know what to say about that.

    Spending more money on cops and/or cleaners is really necessary to get rid of the rats, no matter what you do. I don’t think a ban is enforceable without hiring a lot more cops, and maybe not even then.

    This is very similar to the recent ban on smoking in parks. I despise smoking and I really wish that people would stop smoking in parks. But the ban has been nothing more than that, wishful thinking, because there have been no resources allocated for enforcement.

  10. SomeGuy32 says:

    Littering is the problem – banning people from eating would just be the same as saying “Speeding cars are a problem – ban cars”.

    If they are capable of increasing the police force to watch for people eating, they can do the same to instead ticket people for littering.

    Are we going to ban people from drinking coffee on the streets next? There’s a littering problem above ground too….

  11. Londoner says:

    In London you can eat in the tube but they had an ad campaign a few years ago asking people nicely not to eat smelly food. Couldn’t give you stats, but I think it made it more socially unacceptable to eat actual meals. It made the point quite effectively that there’s a big difference between a chocolate bar (candy to you folks) and a full-on takeaway.


  12. TP says:

    Enforce existing laws against littering and being a general idiot before you create new ones. Everybody’s seen people littering, clipping their nails and letting the nails fly everywhere, eating sunflower seeds and spitting them onto the floor, etc all in plain sight in front of cops and MTA employees and they never do anything about it. And seriously, just clean the stations. It’s not that hard. I’d even do it myself. I can wipe soot and dirt off the sides of the walls with my own hands. The rubber caution strip on the floor that’s supposed to be yellow is blacked with dirt in the depressed areas between the bumps in my local station. There are candy wrappers and newspapers everywhere. The tracks are a sewer of wet garbage. Basic cleaning is just not being done.

    But I’m disappointed to see Lhota take such a negative tone toward Perkins. Perkins is my State Senator and I generally think he’s one of the least stupid, least corrupt people who represent me in any level of government–that may sound like faint praise but hey, it’s Harlem! Perkins is a “pro transit” voice in the State Senate. Why would Lhota basically tell Perkins to “shove it” in a response to the press? They should be trying to help each other out.

  13. jonf says:

    I’d actually have voted for option C if it was available.

    Ban eating on the trains and buses, but allow people to eat on the platforms and mezzanines. At least that way, there will be absolutely no excuse for not throwing away garbage.

    • Berk32 says:

      the biggest problem isn’t food on the subways/buses themselves – those at least get cleaned regularly – it’s trash being thrown off the platforms onto the tracks – too many people don’t care that there are trash bins nearby (and more often then not – they’re full)

  14. Prester John says:

    I would be all in favor of an eating ban, except I don’t trust the NYPD with any more legal power. Just as with the rules against taking up more than one seat, they will enforce this arbitrarily and nonsensically to try to get more minority stop-and-frisks.


    I know I’m going to get panned for making this racial, but let me just say as a law-abiding, Ivy-educated, Latino professional young male that I’ve been stopped and frisked by the NYPD more times than I can count, for no reason. And they tend to be completely disrespectful and degrading with their comments, too. I even had one charming officer threaten to sodomize me. Good luck with the Citizen Review Board.

  15. Biebs says:

    Out of curiosity, would all of the kiosks below ground stop selling candies and such along with the newspapers?

  16. Jason B. says:

    Even if there’s a ban on food, people will just throw out whatever before they swipe in. Those cans before the turnstiles get brought into the station and stored in bins on the platforms and brought onto the trash trains.

  17. Ian says:

    My opinion:

    Should Big Macs, Chinese takeout, KFC, food from the Halal cart, etc be eaten on the subway? No.

    Should soft drinks, chips, snack bars be allowed? Yes.

    Ultimately, I think Perkins’ bill is a maneuver to devote attention and resources towards the inter-related problems of rats, subway litter, trash collection, and the cleanliness of cars.

    This bill probably has as much chance of passing as Gov. Paterson’s Soda Tax. What I’d like to see happen is a public campaign or train announcement on litter and courtesy regarding eating in the subway. The wording needs to be delicate, and perhaps akin to the “carry on, carry off” policy that the Port Authority utilizes.

  18. IanM says:

    Lhota’s right here. 45-minute, 1 hour, or longer commutes are common in NY, and poorer workers living in far-flung outer borough neighborhoods are most likely to have the longest commutes. It’s not reasonable or fair to deny all those people the chance to grab a bite or a sip of a drink during such a big chunk of their day. In this respect NY is very, very different from other cities like, say, D.C., where the transit system operates on a much smaller scale and many of the longest commutes are often from well-off suburbs. That’s why this sort of well-meaning effort to copy practices from those other cities are usually totally misguided. A food ban, or a distance-based charging scheme, as another example, are both systems that work well in D.C. but in NY would amount to punishing the poor for being poor.

    • Andrew says:

      I disagree.

      I don’t think eating should be banned on the subway, but not because the poor have no choice but to eat on the subway. That’s not true, and it’s condescending.

      Plenty of poor people would benefit from distance-based fares. There are many close-in poor neighborhoods, just as there are many far-out wealthy neighborhoods. A well designed distance-based fare system offers the lowest fares for off-peak rides and for rides that stay entirely outside the CBD, both of which describe the commutes of much of the working class. If you’re concerned with the poor being unable to pay for their rides, then offer income-based vouchers or discounts to the poor. (I don’t know much about EBT cards – can they provide a second account that’s valid for transit rides?)

  19. Ralph R. says:

    If you research a little you will find a 2008 waste stream audit done by the MTA at 4 stations. It showed that 52% of the refuse discarded is recyclable paper (44% newspapers) and that organic food waste only makes up 1%. The MTA handles 40 tons of refuse a day in the system, so that means food roughly makes up 4 tons. That is a rat buffet because they only need 1 ounce of food daily to survive.

    The truth of the matter is that banning food and ticketing people does not mean that people will stop eating and discarding food in train stations. Therefore banning food will not eliminate rats, because the demand is far less than supply and a simple crumb can do for the day. Especially if you try and limit which foods can and can not be eaten. Food is food!

    Now most people would say that this is why we must ban eating all together. To that, I say think of the fines on curbing dogs. I don’t know about you but I still hop scotch past piles of dog poop daily and there are plenty of fines for that. Think of speeding or talking on your cell phone while driving. Those are hefty fines, but some of us are still doing it. The problem is that there is no real way to enforce these types of laws all the time, so people who want to do something will assume the risk and do it anyway. That leaves us with a solution that sounds great on paper, but is not practical.

    The only way to control the rodent population is by eliminating a rodent friendly environment. This is part of an industry best practice called Integrated Pest Management which focuses on sanitation and maintenance. It requires sealing trash cans, refuse storage rooms, and getting rid of garbage as soon as possible so that they have little time to access it. It also requires maintenance like sealing cracks and holes in walls and platforms to prevent harboring (making a home). Then you place rodent baiting stations so that they find the only accessible hole with food (poison) and die.

    IPM also suggests that all parties have to be willing participants in the process. In MTA’s case, it means straphangers need to discard food where it belongs (in the trash) and pick up after themselves, the MTA hires enough staff to maintain the process instead of trying to reduce it, employees take pride in taking care of the tasks of cleaning and maintaining a rodent free station, and that the contract exterminators are baiting and watching for signs of rodents.

    This is kind of being done at some stations, but the MTA really needs to evaluate where the infestation in throughout the system and have a wider approach. They also need some sort of accountability system for measurement like the Dept of Health has. Maybe a system where straphangers can report sightings and record inspections.

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