The long-running joke about the MTA’s pilot programs is that they never end; they just fade away. Over the years, the MTA has announced a few high-profile pilot programs — a contact-less fare payment system, strip maps in certain stations to aid in navigation — that seem to simply die from lack of attention. Just take a look through these Google searches for some indication of the reasonably good ideas the agency has pushed through the pilot phase only to see fall be the wayside when agency leadership changes.
One of the few pilot programs with legs — and one that survived the end of the Jay Walder Era — concerns trash cans. This program — which is still in the pilot phase after nearly four years — involves reducing trash the MTA has to collect by simply removing trash cans. If there’s nowhere to deposit trash, the theory goes, the vast majority of people will simply take the trash with them until they pass a trash can. Now, some people are bound to litter whether there’s a trash can nearby or not, but the MTA and other international transit agencies have determined that the vast majority of people won’t discard garbage without a can around. It’s an idea that many struggle with but one that’s proven successful.
The MTA first announced this program back in October of 2011, and I was a bit skeptical as I believed the key to eliminating trash was to ban food. But as time passed, the program seemed to work. Coverage in February of 2012 indicated that the agency had less trash to collect and clean from stations without trash cans, and in May of that year, they announced a program expansion. In August 2012, they added eight more stations, and 29 addition stops saw their garbage cans disappear in early 2014.
Now, touting the program’s success, the MTA is going to not expand it but simply continue it for another 6-12 months to study its effect. It’s not clear why so many years of data isn’t enough to merit expansion, but the MTA wants to continue to analyze the program. “This pilot appears counterintuitive but when we placed notices at the pilot stations indicating that the cans had been removed and asked the customers for their cooperation, it looks like they listened,” New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said. “Given these results, we’ll continue the pilot and monitor and collect additional data at stations.”
In announcing the continuation of what has become the MTA’s most active pilot program, the agency noted that garbage collection is down significantly at the 39 stations under review. The early stations have seen bag collection drop by two-thirds while the stations that saw cans removed just last year have undergone a 36% reduction in trash. Meanwhile, overall trash volumes and, more importantly, rat population at stations without trash cans have declined.
“The reduction in trash in these stations reduced the number of bags to be stored and, consequently, improved the customer experience by reducing the potential bags visible to customers as well as the potential food available to rodents,” Senior Vice President of Subways Joseph Leader said. “Additionally, the significant reduction in trash reduced the need for trash pickups in the pilot stations, which freed up personnel for deployment to other stations.”
It’s not entirely clear where Transit goes from here. They still have another 429 stations with trash cans that could be added to this pilot, and they seem hesitant to include any of the popular stations. Flushing-Main St. on the 7 and 8th St.-NYU on the R remain the two most crowded stations without trash cans, and anecdotally, I’ve certainly not noticed a decrease in cleanliness at either stop.
Ultimately, the MTA can’t eliminate all litter without overly aggressive enforcement, but it seems that removing trash cans can cut down on the garbage the agency has to remove to street level from an above- or underground subway system. So why not keep expanding? After a while, pilot programs have to move into the realm of permanence, and this one seems a good candidate for rapid expansion. After all, it’s been nearly four years.