In the grand scheme of the way I use the city’s transit system, I don’t get too worked up over trends in subway car cleanliness. Trains are constantly in motion, and it’s easy to see how one person — that woman who drops her French fries on the ground and tries to hide it by stepping on them; the man using the subway floor for his chewed up sunflower seeds — can ruin it for everyone. By and large, I find subway cars clean enough for every day usage, but not anywhere I’d really want to settle into.
Apparently, though, my standards aren’t high enough. According to a report released last week by the Straphangers Campaign, the subways are not clean. This will come as shocking news to no one, but the Straphangers allege that trains are getting dirtier by the year with the D train leading the way. Here’s the story, straight from the advocacy group’s press release:
The number of clean subway cars declined between 2011 and 2013, according to the thirteenth and fourteenth annual “subway shmutz” surveys released today by the Straphangers Campaign.
Campaign surveyors rated 52% of subway cars as “clean” in a survey conducted in the fall of 2011. But this fell to 42% in an identical survey in the fall of 2013 – a statistically significant decline. This continues a general trend of a decrease in the number of clean subway cars since 2008. Cleanliness dropped from 56% in 2008 to 51% in 2009, then again to 47% in 2010. There was a modest improvement in cleanliness to 52% in 2011, but a significant decrease to 42% in 2013.
The worst performing line in our most recent 2013 survey was the D, with the smallest number of clean cars at 17% in this survey, down from 49% back in 2011. The best performing line in our 2013 survey was the L with 63% of its cars rated clean, up from 58% in 2011. Nine of the twenty subway lines grew significantly worse, while none improved and eleven stayed largely the same.
“Transit officials are losing the war against dirty subway cars,” Jason Chin-Fatt, field organizer for the Straphangers Campaign, said, thus making sure that everything possible is a war.
It’s worth noting that the Straphangers Campaign’s findings and the MTA’s own metrics differ considerably here, and therein lies the story. The MTA believes that 92 percent of its cars are acceptably clean; the Straphangers believe that nearly 60 percent aren’t. The Straphangers believe, even with the number of cleaners holding steady over the past few years, that conditions are worsening; the MTA does not.
The Straphangers couldn’t pinpoint the differences. As they group notes, methodology is nearly identical, but Adam Lisberg, MTA spokesman, last week to vehemently dispute the findings. It seems that the MTA measures car cleanliness at terminals while the Straphangers surveys trains en route. It’s challenging to keep subway cars moving and clean at the same time, and the MTA doesn’t have the manpower to sweep out cars in motion.
Still, even with this back-and-forth, I have to wonder if it really matters. The subways are the subways, and their level of cleanliness, so long as food is allowed and litter laws barely enforced, will have, as the Straphangers have termed it, shmutz. It’s worse in the winter when we track in dirty snow. But give me a train that runs quickly and on time, and I can find a way to forgive some dirt.