Home MTA Absurdity Pondering a clean, but closed, subway

Pondering a clean, but closed, subway

by Benjamin Kabak

I’m not eating anything off of that for a looooong time. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Ioan Sameli.)

A thought experiment, if you will: New York’s subways are not exactly known for their cleanliness. In fact, quite the opposite is true, and in a few weeks’ time, when the Straphangers release their annual Subway Shmutz Survey, we’ll know just how dirty our favorite subway lines are.

Last year, though, prospects were bleak. Only 47 percent of subway cars were rated as “clean,” and I have yet to see a subway car that I personally would consider, well, clean. Don’t even get me started with the stations. So while the Straphangers have urged the MTA to invest more resources into cleaning the cars, that ain’t happening anytime soon. So I present you instead with a hypothetical situation.

Throughout the rest of the world, big cities enjoy cleaner subway systems. London’s is clean; Moscow’s is clean; even the Metro in Washington, DC, has a reputation for cleanliness, nasty carpets and all. These systems are kept clean mostly because they shut down each night.

Every day, subway cars in most cities return home. They sit at the depots and are cleaned from top to bottom. Those with carpets are vacuumed; others are mopped and scrubbed. As the cars sit idle, the stations are far from empty. Cleaning crews descend into the depths of the subway and scrub away. Floors are swept and polished; garbage is collected.

But the citizens have to pay a price: There are few public transportation options late at night. Residents of London and DC scramble for those last trains out to the suburbs. Night owl bus service is a poor substitute for underground rail options, and taxi cabs are cost-prohibitive when compared to the price of a train ride.

So I ask: Should the New York City subway system shut down each night at, say, 1 a.m. and re-open four hours later for the morning commute? Would this improve the cleanliness of the system?

On the one hand, I am tempted to say, yes it would. A closed system would enable crews to work on cleaning the trains and stations. A closed system would also discourage homeless people — a big source of dirt and grime in the subways — from sleeping on trains night after night.

But on the other hand, a closed system is anathema to the essence of New York City. How could the Big Apple be the City That Never Sleeps if our subways are asleep? How could all the night workers — and there are a significant number of them — get home if the subways are closed? It seems that in a 24-hour city such as New York closing the subways is an impractical idea.

New York could choose to go the way of the WMATA in Washington. While the WMATA drew flack when police officers arrested a 12-year-old for eating one french fry in the Metro, this zero-tolerance policy got the point across. Few people risk the high fines for littering and eating in the system, especially as closed circuit cameras record the entire system. So maybe the MTA could institute a zero-tolerance policy for people who eat in the subway. It could help maintain at least some baseline level of cleanliness in an otherwise dirty system, and, hey, anything — even a ticket for someone “too busy” to eat elsewhere — is better than the current mess of the subways.

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Harlan April 19, 2007 - 8:15 am

No, the MTA should definitely stay 24-hours. But it wouldn’t hurt (and I’d pay a buck or two more a month) for them to hire more people to clean the platforms and surrounding areas. I, for one, would be very happy to make way for a deck-swabbing crew. The MTA should also put into place better incentives and opportunities for station managers to improve their stations. Their names are up on plaquards, but I’d be embarrassed to have my name up on half the stations in the system.

Marsha April 19, 2007 - 8:17 am

I would never advocate shutting the subways in the late-night hours. NEVER. However, it is evident that trains run less often during those hours so where are those trains when they are not being used in the middle of the night? Why not clean cars during those hours on a rotating basis? It won’t keep the whole system clean, but at least it’s a start.

As far as the stations go, those too can be cleaned during those hours. Fewer people ride the trains during those late hours so stations are less crowded and fewer people would be inconvenienced if the cleaning crews came in while they waited.

peter April 19, 2007 - 8:34 am

Good Luck tilting at this particular windmill. Every so often, motivated by varying economic, operational or political justifications, someone brings up cutting back 24-hour Subway service. For the sake of argument, let’s say it was a serious proposal: When would service stop, and what time would it resume? Certainly midnight is much too early, since some lines are busy (in Manhattan at least) well after 1AM. By 5AM ridership is ramping up as earlybirds begin the Rush Hour, and by 6 many large stations are bustling if not crowded. So let’s say you stop trains at 2AM, and resume at 5. That “A” Train that departed 207th St at 1:15 – do you cancel it outright or just kick everyone off, in East NY, at 2AM? Do you simply stop departures from New Lots or Dyre Avenue at 1AM? Do you pay train crews to return empty trains, or completely reschedule service and Shifts so employees are not stranded at the opposite end of their run?
NYC became The City Than Never Sleeps only after 1904, because the Subway has always run 24/7, allowing the city to do so, too.

mg April 19, 2007 - 11:14 am

Personally, I find the stations to be much dirtier than the trains. In fact, I don’t think the trains are particularly dirty compared to other cities. In London, there is gum stuck to the seats (really nasty) and in Boston the entire trains are filthy and grimy, inside and out. The trains do get swept and mopped at their termini, and go through the “car wash” every once in a while. The stations though have serious and very mysterious sludge issues in NYC. Many stations that would otherwise look fine have bizarre sludge and grime dripping down.

mg April 19, 2007 - 11:17 am

I have also pondered how more power to the station managers to fix and clean up little things would help. In addition, maybe it would help to close some stations (never adjacent ones) when they need a really good deep scrubbing (gum and grime dissolving chemicals, power blasting) that is hard/impossible to do with customers around. Just do it at the lowest usage periods (they record these things from the turnstiles) and give customers ample warning. And another coat of paint and some tile work here and there could go a long way towards making the stations look nicer.

Lionel Mandrake April 19, 2007 - 3:22 pm

I say public flogging and maybe a permanent brand on the forehead for anyone eating on the subway. I get kind of motion sick on the train and the smell of someone else’s happy meal makes me want to go puke in their laps. It should be a felony, man.

Mike Still April 19, 2007 - 4:08 pm

Having the trains close at 1am or even 2 would be a kick in the pants to the city’s restaurant and service industries. And I definitely agree that the cars themselves are generally pretty clean–its the stations that really get grimy–I often look around and wonder if it’d be possible to actually exhaustively clean any of the stations. Most of the real grime comes not from garbage, but from leaks in the station itself–I mean, we got stations with stalactites in them!

posternutbag April 19, 2007 - 4:59 pm

i am in the process of moving from DC to NYC, and while i do love my clean subway, i would MUCH rather have it be open later (especially on weekdays). you new yorkers shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth (ive never really understood what that means, but i think its appropriate here).

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Alan Peery April 20, 2007 - 6:22 am

If you want the New York subway system STATIONS cleaner, start a club. People sign up for $1/month direct debit (tiny money) that goes to fund a city-wide competition for the “cleanest subway station” and the money goes to fund a reward (dinner or cash) for the “station team as determined by the station manager”. Once you get more than $2500/month, start rewarding more stations.

Direct action, direct results.

D Gigs April 20, 2007 - 12:12 pm

Tokyo shuts down their subway system every day at midnight and reopens it at 5 in the morning. But in the interim, cab drivers hike up their local rates tremendously. I’ve heard a lot of Tokyoites claim that that has to do with the Yakuza having a hold on both the city’s subway system as well as the cab companies. I wouldn’t put it past the MTA to find some similar way to exploit New Yorkers if the trains were to be shut down late at night over here. They are kind of like our version of the Yakuza if you ask me.

What I propose is that the city developes special train cars with carpeting, cushioned seats, leg rests, the whole nine, and in order to gain acccess to these cars, one must be an active member of a newly designed group that helps clean up the subways (positive reinforcement through community service opportunities. Say a few hours per week.) Those who never help ride the crappy trains, and those who have done their part ride in luxury. I’m still working out the kinks as far as acccess cards and security issues go. But I think it would work.

Todd April 22, 2007 - 1:31 pm

Yeah, they can’t shut down the system for a length of time like that. Maybe for an hour at the most, like from 3-4am, but that doesn’t seem like enough time to do much of anything. Especially at the pace the MTA seems to work.

On a brighter note, I watched a station get power-washed late Friday night. The guy did a pretty good job and it smelled good afterwards! He wasn’t in the way and it didn’t take long at all. I don’t know how they clean the cars, but they should spray the stations like that every night!

Mike April 23, 2007 - 9:45 am

Most of the cars are already out of service at night. They can be cleaned then. Or midday, when service is reduced, also. As for the stations, how hard is it to hose down the walls and floors every once in a while? You don’t need to close the place to do it late at night.

a.v. April 23, 2007 - 5:43 pm

I think there is actually quite a bit of cleaning going on down there, both on the cars and in the stations. I see people hauling away garbage and scrubbing floors at all times of the day and night. The problem is sheer volume of traffic. And the fact that in many stations, it doesn’t look all that much better clean than it does dirty.

g April 24, 2007 - 1:10 am

I do NOT think 24 hour service should be cut back. I’ve seen less filth due to food and more to just mud that people track in. Sure there’s an occasional spilled coffee but the floors aren’t much cleaner than the the streets that people walk on for blocks and blocks before getting to the subway.

sd280 January 27, 2008 - 11:18 pm

yes….please — something needs to be done! I don;t see what the big problem with closing the subway for just a few short hours every night in order to ensure cleanliness…something has to be done!!! I lived in London for a year and i didnt cringe every time i traveled the way i do here, in my native New York. I was on the other evening when a homeless woman sleeping on a bench was using the subway as her personal toilet. It was so disgusting! The subway shouldn’t be such an inferior good…it should be a normal and convenient good for all to enjoy! I hope they do something, anything, soon!


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