In an ideal world, New Yorkers spend very few minutes on subway platforms. Trains whisk us away from these waiting areas, and they become liminal zones we pass through on the way to and from various destination. But it doesn’t always work that way. We wait and take in our surroundings, and what we see is not always pretty.
As the MTA has struggled to maintain the systems that move trains — switches, tracks, signals — the station environment has often drawn the short straw. Generally, the work performed to make walls and platforms look good is cosmetic, but it causes service disruptions as trains have to be rerouted to ensure the safety of the workers. It makes sense, in a way, for the MTA to prioritize key components, but riders who want a pleasant experience often don’t agree. They want nice platforms that are clean without a sense of neglect. They don’t want dirt and grime, but that’s what they’re getting.
Yesterday, the Straphangers Campaign released its assessment of subway platforms and, not so surprisingly, found platforms to be “grim” and “dirty.” Their findings included observations of garbage on platforms and staircases or handrails in disrepair. Nearly a quarter of platforms had exposed wiring or “substantial areas of missing tile.” A third of all stations had visible graffiti and 40 percent had floor cracks. Another similar survey conducted at fewer platforms found rats at 13 percent of platforms and broken light fixtures at 20 percent of platforms. Water damage and peeling paint were found at over three quarters of the platforms.
“We found what many riders know from bitter daily experience: Many subway platforms are grim and dreary,” Jason Chin-Fatt, the Straphangers Campaign field organizer, said. In four metrics, the Straphangers found the station environments to be worse this year than last. Those include exposed wiring, graffiti, missing tile and lighting. The aesthetics, in other words, are on the decline.
Interesting, the MTA issued a defensive statement in response to the Straphangers’ report. Here it is in its entirety:
Safety is our top priority when it comes to the condition of our stations and platforms and all safety-related defects are repaired in short order. Our operating and maintenance forces have identified and repaired more station defects each of the last few years than ever before and we are on target to surpass last year’s results. In 2012, over 39,000 defects were repaired and we are projected to complete more than 53,000 in 2013, a 36% increase.
The items in the Straphangers report highlight elements that would be extremely costly to keep in perfect condition and would do little, if anything to either improve service or make stations safer. We have to prioritize projects using available funds to address the most pressing needs first.
Over the years, the MTA has issued various reports concerning the items identified in the Straphangers’ report, and ultimately, it all boils down to prioritization and use. If the items in question do not impact core functions — that is, the running of the trains — the MTA is hesitant to begin costly cosmetic improvements. For the sake of the agency’s delicate bottom line, I understand it, but should we accept it?
The stations themselves set the tone for the system. If passengers see stations that are well-kempt and in good repair, they are more likely to appreciate and enjoy the subways while working to keep it clean. If stations are a mess, customers will treat the subways as such. There’s no easy way out of this problem since nice stations cost a lot in both money and diversions, but it’s not a black-and-white issue that can be boiled down to a price tag.