Home New York City Transit Less Transit money leads to dirtier stations

Less Transit money leads to dirtier stations

by Benjamin Kabak

Riders will create a garbage can wherever they can. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

When I interviewed New York City Transit President Howard Roberts in the fall, he spoke at length about his desire for cleaner stations. Roberts talked about the various plans in the works to beef up the maintenance crews around the system. Ah, to be in October. Those were simpler times.

Today, facing financial constraints and extreme internal budget-tightening, New York City Transit has been faced with a maintenance reality. The agency no longer has the money to support expanding the cleaning programs and in fact has had to cut back. Stations are, as Heather Haddon reported this morning, dirtier, and Transit’s cleaning staff is down by 100 workers. She reports:

Because of budget constraints, the MTA has curtailed station cleaning, with Transit officials acknowledging they are down by about 100 workers. The agency has also slashed overtime for cleaners, and workers say they simply can’t keep up with the mounting trash…

In recent years, the cleaning department has struggled to keep up with the surge in ridership. In 1993, the MTA employed 1.5 station cleaners per million riders. By 2007, the ratio had slipped to 1 cleaner for every million, according to Transit figures…

In a survey last year, the Straphangers Campaign found that the L and No. 7 made big improvements and were the system’s cleanest. A 2008 Transit report found that track fires also declined on the lines.

But running the pilot sapped precious manpower, which has fallen in the last several years as cleaner jobs went unfilled to save money, [union leader Marvin] Holland said. A hiring freeze implemented earlier this year has compounded the problem. Cleaners are now often scurrying to hit as many as five locations in one shift, whereas in the past they would usually just do two. And now stations only have cleaners on-site for an average of four hours a day, according to the Transit report.

The subways have never been known for their cleanliness. Oblivious or discourtesy straphangers treat every available surface as a garbage can. Food is left to rot on station platforms, and the worst offenders clip their nails onto the floors of train stations and cars.

Roberts though wants to add more cleaners. He says he can’t though because of the budgetary constraints and a worse-than-expected outlook. He hoped that internal belt-tightening would allow him reallocate resources for cleaning, but that is an optimistic prediction today.

In the end, the people who suffer most are, well, those same riders. More trash leads to more rodents. More trash leads to more track fires. More trash leads to a more unpleasant commute. Sadly, it sounds as though we may need to get used to that idea.

You may also like


Avif June 22, 2009 - 1:07 pm

Time for more garbage cans! Best way to keep people from throwing trash on the floor is to give them a reasonably close garbage can to throw it into.

Scott E June 22, 2009 - 1:52 pm

Avif is absolutely right — I heard of a study was done by Disney that concluded that if a garbage can is “x” distance away from a person, they will most likely use it; otherwise, they’ll use the floor (x=10 paces or so, I forget). I’ve been on platforms where I have to walk around a staircase and a newsstand to get to a trash can, which makes the can inconvenient, and in many cases, not even visible.

Six Flags Great Adventure added tons of trash cans lining the walkways in their amusement park last year, and as a former employee I can tell you that it looks a lot cleaner than it used to. LIRR also recently added trash cans to its platforms, also to positive results (my perspective anwyay).

From a labor standpoint, more cans means less time sweeping floors and emptying overflowing trash cans. It would be a good thing.

Paul June 22, 2009 - 2:12 pm

Who is supposed to empty those extra cans? The problem is less cleaners than there have ever been. They are doing the same job that 3 people used to do.

Rhywun June 22, 2009 - 3:35 pm

I find it interesting that every time money gets tight, the MTA chooses to cut positions which result in the maximum visual (or olfactory…) impact. Surely in this case they could find 30 or 40 middle managers to let go, but that wouldn’t be as attention-getting.

Cen-Sin June 22, 2009 - 5:40 pm

I so envy other countries’ transit systems. I wonder if it’s a New York thing, or something deeper like racial or ethnic behaviors and attitudes concerning cleanliness.

Alon Levy June 22, 2009 - 8:16 pm

If Italians can run clean subways, so can Americans. It’s not ethnic, but managerial.

rhywun June 22, 2009 - 10:54 pm

Partly, but it’s cultural too. In some other cultures, for example Germany (a country I have lived in), you would not see so much littering, and at the same time you would see more cleaners. It’s part of our nature–we just don’t care so much about the appearance of our surroundings. And it’s a vicious circle. People see dirty stations, and they throw their garbage everywhere because it’s apparent no one cares.

Benjamin Kabak June 22, 2009 - 10:57 pm

Here’s the thing: When I see MTA employees and police officers throw trash onto the ground or the tracks, why would I as a straphanger behave any differently? The people in charge flaunt common decency and the rules, and those actions simply lead to more of a mess.

Alon Levy June 23, 2009 - 12:49 pm

In Italy, the culture isn’t very respectful of rules. I don’t remember Milan’s streets being cleaner than New York’s. In fact, Manhattan is cleaner than most cities I’ve been in – even Singapore isn’t much cleaner than New York. It’s just underground that New York is so dirty.

Ariel June 22, 2009 - 6:59 pm

This is where the slush funds the State Senators get for transit would come in handy. Instead of giving it only to suburban senators,


it should be distributed more evenly to NYC senators who can place more trash cans to keep stations cleaner.

Grrrumpy Miner June 24, 2009 - 8:25 am

I often tend to wonder if customers treat their very own living rooms the same way they treat the stations or the trains.I was working a station a few years back and a group of girls came in and tore down service posters which led me to ask them if they would do the same with posters on their walls and got a NO.I than told them to treat the posters like you would treat yours and got a “Whatever” out of one of them.Last monday on the 2 train in the Bronx,a guy was having a chicken and rice dinner,after he was done with his chicken he conveniently threw the rice under the seat.Most of you blame the cleaners for being lazy but the people you need to blame is the person you see in the mirror everyday.

Straphangers unveil subway car cleanliness survey :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog June 25, 2009 - 1:01 pm

[…] times. Still, subway platforms are among the dirtiest parts of the city, and with Transit planning a reduction in the number of cleaners, they won’t look much better any time […]

Paul B June 28, 2009 - 10:37 am

I was going to suggest more tickets issued for littering. But if the cops are littering as well, what’s the point.

From Transit, a new attempt at cleanliness :: Second Ave. Sagas April 23, 2010 - 2:14 am

[…] In 2008, then-Transit President Howard Roberts pledged to clean the stations before he ran into budget cuts that saw numerous cleaning shifts unfilled. The stations, anecdotally, remain as messy as they ever […]


Leave a Comment