Feb
21

Removing trash cans a subway cure for litter?

By

Without trash cans, littler wouldn't even start here.

Every now and then, the MTA puts forward some zany idea that they call a “pilot program.” Sometimes, those programs involve scaling back service during minor holidays; sometimes, those involve replacing wooden benches with stainless. Recently, the MTA has tried to combat garbage through a rather counterintuitive pilot program: They removed all garbage bins from a station platform.

When the MTA first announced this pilot in October, it seemed to represent the final hurrah of the Walder era. It was an idea that would spring from someone with a McKinsey background, but Joe Lhota vowed to continue it, pending the outcome. For a little while, at least, 8th Street on the BMT Broadway line, a station heavily trafficked by NYU students and East Village-bound revelers alike, would feature no trash receptacles.

Initially, those watching the MTA were skeptical. Some believed the authority should add more trash receptacle to combat station litter. Others accused the authority of making the trash someone else’s problem. Those who would not just litter even in the absence of a trash can would be focused to carry their refuse out into the streets. The city wouldn’t notice less litter, but the MTA wouldn’t have to deal it.

As the press expressed skepticism, a funny thing happened on the way to trash can: The MTA noticed that litter did not increase at the targeted station, and the authority is taking out less garbage from these stations. Pete Donohue had a bit on the reaction to the program:

The MTA launched a publicity campaign to alert riders, and now many straphangers discard their trash before entering those stations or hang onto it until they encounter a receptacle at the next station or on the street. Cleaners have been bagging less trash from platforms and tracks at the two stops — Eighth St. on the N and R lines in Manhattan, and Main St. on the No. 7 line in Flushing, Queens, transit officials said.

Last week, some riders admitted they were surprised that their stations didn’t turn into the Fresh Kills landfill. “I was against it at first, but I think it has worked well,” Peter Liteplo, 63, a credit union manager from Brooklyn, said at Eighth St. last week. “I thought it would create a lot of junk, but it looks better.”

…Considering the amount of garbage the MTA hauls from the subway — 14,000 tons a year — exploring any option that could reduce the burden is worthwhile. And since it’s working, the authority should expand the pilot — not junk it. Maybe the MTA should cite security concerns as the reason for the move. The Port Authority removed garbage trains from its much smaller system after the 9/11 terror attacks more than a decade ago. The London Underground removed bins long ago because of bombing campaigns by the Irish Republican Army to end British rule of northern Ireland.

But it’s even simpler than that: The MTA could frame this discussion as one about its role. The authority is not a trash-collection agency, and if straphangers bring their garbage underground, the MTA necessarily becomes a trash collection agency. They have to devote track space, personnel hours and monetary resources toward cleanliness and litter collection. But without trash cans, if passengers are bringing their garbage with them either to stations with trash receptacles or to the nearest street level can, the MTA won’t have as much trash to collect.

Lately, a bill in Albany to ban food underground has gained headlines. Senator Bill Perkins wants to cut back on items in the subway that attract rodents. Perhaps though the simpler solution is to remove the vast majority of trash cans. By centralizing trash collection, the MTA can better remove garbage from the system while spending less on something that isn’t a core service, and if trash moves above ground, well, that’s why the city has a Department of Sanitation. Sometimes, it seems, those ideas that seem the craziest end up working better than we expect. If only all thinking on subway operations were as creative as that.



Categories : MTA Absurdity

22 Responses to “Removing trash cans a subway cure for litter?”

  1. R. Graham says:

    Well done Ben! Well done indeed! I couldn’t agree more as I have been saying this for the longest. I think that pilot should be expanded but I still feel food consumption has to take a hike as well. Accidental spills of those large food containers like Chinese food which is one of the more stinkier food options to eat below ground as well as the horrible McDonalds will end up on the floor without trash bins. Not to mention the sunflower seeds that some kids eat and spit on the floor of a subway car just because they can.

    But the bins is a good start. Get out of the business of collecting trash and now we are going to see some real savings in the operating budget.

  2. Bolwerk says:

    Yep, bravo. This is good news, and supports my confirmation bias against all things the media calls intuitive. :-D

    The MTA could frame this discussion as one about its role.

    I think this needs to be framed as a discussion about waste management policy in general. NYC/NYS should be putting deposit requirements on food containers to make sure they go back to their sources. Even at 5¢, the homeless seem to get most of the bottles and cans.

    Anyway, whether you agree with my take or not, all agencies should be working together to make sure it works as well as it can. That’s just a universal failing of government here.

  3. Chet says:

    I remember my first trip to London and noticing there were no rubbish bins (to use their term) in the Underground. There were small piles of trash (very small) at the end of escalators, but the stations and platforms were quite clean. That was 1991. Since then, I’ve been to London 12 more times, the last being in 2007, and the situation was still the same.

    If the city makes sure there is a trash bin outside every Subway station, with some signage about disposing of trash before entering, then the job of trash collection can be done by who’s job it really is- the Department of Sanitation.

  4. TERRANOVA47 says:

    In London rubbish/trash is now left on the train. Has trash clearing increased in NYC when the trains are cleaned or does the reduction of cleaners mean no-one notices?

  5. Chris says:

    But what will happen to all the news stands (and other concessions)in the subway system? Many of them sell candy bars and soft drinks. If we ban food, many of these small vendors may go out of business – leaving these spaces vacant. Would the savings from eliminating garbage pick up outweigh the loss of rent revenue?

  6. TP says:

    Did the MTA also look at whether there was an impact to trash receptacles on the streets surrounding the stations? Were they more likely to be overflowing during the pilot? Do they have the “memorial to the idea of a trashcan” situation where people just pile their trash around the can as if to say “I tried!”? Were the streets dirtier?

    • R. Graham says:

      Honestly, not their problem.

    • Just to elaborate on what R. Graham said above, whether you believe the MTA’s job is provide transportation as I do or whether you subscribe to Larry’s depressingly realistic view, their job shouldn’t be to worry about trash collection in NYC. If their efforts mean more trash in street level trash cans, then so be it. That’s why we have the Department of Sanitation. It’s their job to remove trash (even if they don’t do it too well in many neighborhoods). If the MTA can get out of the trash removal business — something it clearly is not so great at — all the better for the rest of us.

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        You measure what the purpose is of an agency by measuring what it keeps doing, or even does more, when resources are scarce.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Larry has a point. Purposeful or not, the MTA shouldn’t even be having to deal with pensions and probably not capital debt either. It’s a huge waste of time and money for them when their core competencies should surround transit. It’s the same type of absurdity that makes private companies choke on healthcare costs that could be better administered centrally by the state.

        And then there are the obvious moral implications of the current system, like why do MTA workers deserve pensions while the people they transport, the ones who pay for those pensions, don’t?

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          The sad answer to that question is that if the places of work for private workers provided pensions and health benefits at the same rate as public employees and retirees charge, they would have to provide worse service for higher prices.

          Whereas private workers must pay public employees up from in taxes, however, the public workers, the retirees and the rich can shop elsewhere for a better deal.

          In Greece, they provided the same deal for everyone, and they are all going down together. In France, everyone has health insurance, and everyone requires 40 years of work to retire, albeit not at the same job. That’s fairness either way.

          • Nathanael says:

            I believe your first sentence is not true. The places of work for private workers DID provide pensions and health benefits at the same rate as public employees got, back in the 1950s. Did they provide worse service for higher prices? You be the judge, but many think not.

            Of course, private business executives would have to take home much smaller incomes — as they did in the 1950s, with 92% marginal tax rates on very high incomes — and stockholders might also get far less.

            You’re actually wrong about Greece: famously, in Greece, “only the little people follow the rules”. Same deal for everyone… except the elite, who had exorbitant levels of tax evasion. Everyone is going down… except the elite, who expect to move abroad to the other parts of Europe. We’ll see if they get away with it.

            Well, I’ll take the French solution in preference to any of that.

  7. Larry Littlefield says:

    The purpose of the MTA is to pay debts and pensions. Transportation is incidental.

    Note that most state parks have been “carry in, carry out” for decades, even though they are mostly funded by fees.

  8. Scott E says:

    Not to be nitpicky, but the decal in that image at the top of the post has a few flaws: litter is, by definition, trash left out in the open and not put in a proper receptacle. They’ve been getting this wrong on the subways for decades. If it’s in a trash can, it’s not litter.

    Second, that image should show the can filled to the top with trash, and the silhouette delicately trying to balance that cup on the top so it won’t fall over. It’s more realistic that way.

  9. Ike says:

    I ride the Port Authority’s PATH train every day, and the lack of garbage receptacles is incredibly aggravating. People just pile their garbage on top of the emergency defibrillator machines and other places. Admittedly it isn’t as bad as I would have expected, but even so, trains are not parks. “Pack-in, pack-out” is ridiculous. We need places to throw things away. What’s next? Will the city also get rid of garbage cans on street corners to save money? What about retailers? Saying that the MTA is not in the garbage-collection business doesn’t excuse this. Anybody can say “I’m not in the garbage collection business!” and refuse to handle a garbage bag ever again, but it doesn’t make the garbage go away, and it doesn’t make it right.

    • The Cobalt Devil says:

      Leaving trash behind is a choice. I’ve ridden the subway and PATH for over 30 years, and have had a candy bar or two in my day. But I’ve never found the need to throw trash on the floor or platform, ever. Almost everyone carries a bag or purse with them, and they can put their trash in their bag and throw out any incidentals when they leave the subway. And if you’re eating a three-course meal on the train, you really need to take it off and throw it away when you get home. Or better yet, don’t be a slob and eat AFTER you get off the train. The same for newspapers. Why do you need to throw it away the minute you finish reading it? Is it such a hardship to carry your garbage up a flight of stairs?

      New Yorkers are such pigs.

      • Bolwerk says:

        More likely a small subset of New Yorkers who are pigs and the rest of us suffer for it. Also, many of the pigs are probably suburbanites. As I guess Alon Levy was pointing out, that it’s partly upstanding white folk doing it is probably part of the reason it’s sanctioned.

        When even the broken windows cretins are ignoring a “crime,” you know something stinks that ain’t garbage.

      • Nathanael says:

        Pack-in pack-out works in parks — where it is HARD to enforce — and it should be possible to make it work in the subway — where it is a lot EASIER to enforce. Why not do it? “Pack in pack out”.

        Now, there will still be the occasional accidental spill, but that requires a much smaller number of people to clean up.

    • R. Graham says:

      I’m sorry but paying the cost of a pension to play “housekeeper” after a select subset of riders is not my idea of spending money wisely. I don’t have a housekeeper at home and I don’t need one at these prices for the subway system. Everyone needs to make an effort to clean up after themselves.

      Also there needs to be visually stiff consequences for those who choose to litter. Hard consequences equals learned lessons.

      Accidents happen but what happens when you cause a car accident? You suffer the consequences of higher insurance rates and the cost of repair and healing coming from your carrier. What happens when you break something? You bought it! What should happen when you litter? You should be fined to hell and back. When you spill it? You should clean it up and if you don’t like the thought of having to be the one to clean up after your own mess then don’t bring anything aboard that would cause a mess.

      I was once driving on 109th and making the turn onto Madison when the cab driver in front of me tossed his lunch trash out onto the ground from his window after dropping off a fare. When he stopped at the light at 110th and Madison I pull up to his left and implored him to roll down his window and gave him an earful. “Next time you decide you’re done with you trash put some actual effort into pulling over, getting out of your car and throwing the stuff in a trash can. There’s one at almost every corner you can’t miss! I know this is not the best of neighborhoods around but it’s still not an opportunity for you to be a slob because if it is you can let me know where you live and I’ll be sure to litter all over your front door.” His response? Compliance!

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  1. […] subway service for its passengers? As I wrote a few weeks ago, it’s a question that reaches the fundamental core of the MTA’s role. Likely they should be able to offer both, but customers seem to respect the station environment […]

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