Having spent so much time traveling over the past few months, I’ve missed some key bits of subway news. While the broad strokes — a still-unopened 7 line extension, a renewed focus on opening the Second Ave. Subway on time, no action from Gov. Cuomo on the MTA’s capital funding gap — haven’t escaped my attention, some important items that deserve a post slipped by. One of those items was a May report from Scott Stringer’s office on the MTA’s inadequate cleaning efforts.
Over the past few years, the MTA has faced mounting criticism over trash and rats. One thing I noticed while traveling abroad is how utterly devoid other subway systems are of garbage on the tracks, garbage on the platforms, garbage bags sitting around. On the one hand, that’s because these systems shut down at night which give crews the ability to clean without disrupting service. On the other, keeping stations cleaner seems more ingrained in the cultural norms surrounding transit ridership. (Subway car cleanliness is a different beast.)
In New York, the MTA has tried to eliminate garbage cans from certain stations to encourage riders to take trash out of the system, and constant announcements remind us that trash can cause track fires and, thus, delays. Without an equal effort on the MTA’s part to actually clean, though, asking nicely won’t amount to much, and in that regard, according to the New York City comptroller, the MTA’s efforts are lagging woefully behind.
“The MTA is constantly reminding riders to clean up after themselves, but they’re setting a poor example by letting piles of trash on the tracks fester for months on end,” Stringer said. “Our auditors observed rats scurrying over the tracks and onto subway platforms, and it’s almost as if they were walking upright – waiting to take the train to their next meal. This is a daily, stomach-turning insult to millions of straphangers, and it’s unworthy of a world-class City.”
The report — available here as a PDF — paints a rather unflattering picture. Noting that the MTA has stressed Fastrack as a way to improve station and system cleanliness, Stringer highlights just how far its own goals the MTA is, especially considering the $240 million per year the MTA spends on cleaning and maintenance. For instance, the MTA wants its stations cleaned once every three weeks, and Stringer’s team found during its one-year audit that only seven stations were cleaned that frequently. Most underground stations were cleaned around 3-6 times per year while some were cleaned just once. One station — 138th St. on the Lexington Ave. IRT — wasn’t cleaned at all.
Meanwhile, as far as track cleanliness goes, the MTA aims to clean all tracks twice a year, but Stringer’s team found that the agency’s vacuum trains aren’t up to the task. One of the two trains was out of service for nearly the entire 12-month audit period while the functioning train picked up only around 30% of the debris. “Virtually all of the same trash,” the report noted, “remained in the roadbed after the vacuum train was employed to clean it up.”
For its part, the MTA didn’t dispute Stringer’s findings too aggressively and, in fact, agreed with most of them. The agency is buying three new vacuum trains that should be better than the two currently on hand, and they are working to better deploy cleaning crews to dirtier areas. But ultimately, these problems are economic and systematic. The MTA needs to — and should — budget more for cleaning crews. Stations are the most customer-facing part of the system, and they should be viewed as the visual presentation of the system. Riders take cues from their environment, and right now, the environment screams “garbage.” With the money to clean — and perhaps some flexibility on who can clean from the union — the system overall would look and feel much more inviting.
“Fares keep going up, but anyone who takes the trains can tell you that we haven’t seen a meaningful reduction in rats, garbage and peeling paint,” Stringer said. “New York City Transit management needs to get its priorities straight and start deploying its resources to help improve conditions underground.”