Home View from Underground The bugs take over as subway trash piles up

The bugs take over as subway trash piles up

by Benjamin Kabak

When I say no one wants to see this video, I sincerely mean that no one wants to see this video. First posted by the Village Voice’s Runnin’ Scared blog earlier this week, what you see here is a close-up of a bed bug on a seat on the R train. It was spotted by a group of commuters on a Bay Ridge-bound train near 36th St., and one varmint expert has confirmed that this brown insect does indeed resemble a bed bug.

“That looks pretty believable to me,” Maciej Ceglowski of the Bedbug Registry said. “I can’t make out what kind of bug it is from the video, but it’s the right size and moves in the right way to be a bedbug. And I do know there have been other confirmed subway sightings.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about bed bugs taking over the subway. In early 2008, a few intrepid reporters spotted infestations in various wooden subway benches, but the MTA has not, by and large, made a public stink about it. That could change soon.

On Tuesday evening, I went to the New York City Transit Riders Council President’s Forum with NYC Transit President Tom Prendergast and a variety of other Transit higher-ups. While the meeting featured mostly personal complaints and subway minutiae from the audience, Prendergast repeatedly levied a charge toward Albany. Without political and economic support, he said, the TA’s hands are tied. (For a little bit more on this aspect of the forum, check out John Mancini’s report at NY1.)

What struck home to me though was a conversation Prendergast had with Marvin Holland, the chair of the cleaners’ section at the TWU. Holland has been an outspoken organization for the union for years, and he opined on the cleanliness, or lack thereof, underground. Noting that bed bugs have been spotted throughout the system, he said, “We have to get more cleaners or it’s not going to work. hat is happening is cleaners are being overworked. And then they’re getting physically broken down. And then they can’t come to work.”

When cleaners don’t come to work, Transit doesn’t fill their shifts with workers accruing overtime. Rather, trains and stations just go uncleaned. The MTA has been up front with this approach to cleanliness. They’d prefer to invest their limited dollars in track and car maintenance to ensure that trains run frequently and smoothly, and if the environment underground suffers, well, said Prendergast, that’s the devil’s choice they have to make.

In response to Holland’s complaint, Prendergast acknowledged the lower staffing levels of cleaners and promised that Transit was doing what it can to bring back workers who can improve conditions underground. He stopped short though of drawing what I think is a logical inference. “Customers don’t like to hear that they’re part of the problem,” he said, “but we pull out 90 tons of trash a day from the subways.”

The inference is an obvious one, and another speaker whose name I didn’t catch let it all out. She has been a station monitor for years, and she says she routinely sees people disregard societal norms as they discard their trash everywhere but in the garbage cans. They drop papers and cups onto stations floors; they leave discarded chicken bones underneath seats; they spew sunflower seeds and spill drinks. It is, in other words, a human pig sty.

It’s true that Transit’s own approach will not help the situation. Cutting cleaners won’t ever improve cleanliness, and the way that some station cleaners drag garbage bags — and thus leave a trail of grimy litter water in their wakes — doesn’t help. But responsibility can start with the people who ride the rails. After all, we have as much an interest in keeping the system clean for ourselves as the MTA does, and I don’t know anyone who discards dinner on the floor of their dining room instead of in the trash.

Bed bugs and rat infestations are serious problems that require serious responses once they start to unfold. We the riders can’t do anything about it once the bugs are there, but our attitudes go a long way toward ensuring that bugs and rats don’t find the subway attractive in the first place. Until the garbage ends where it belongs, perhaps Prendergast and Holland should feel more comfortable telling riders that they are a part of the problem indeed.

You may also like


Andrew November 18, 2010 - 7:18 am

I agree that litter is a problem, but I thought bedbugs were carried in on people’s clothing and fed off of live people, so the presence of trash has nothing to do with it. (Rats, on the other hand…)

Am I wrong?

Eric November 18, 2010 - 11:01 am

You are not wrong. This is a misinformed post.

Benjamin Kabak November 18, 2010 - 11:02 am

It’s not misinformed. I’m just making two different points.

1. The subways are dirty and people are to blame. As the subways get dirtier, it becomes a less friendly environment.

2. There are bed bugs in the subway, and it’s arguable if the MTA has the personnel and wherewithal to address the problem.

Eric November 18, 2010 - 11:10 am

Fair enough. The headline makes frames the post in a different way than you intended, I think.

Also, there’s not much that the MTA can do to control the spread of bedbugs in the subway.

JP November 18, 2010 - 7:19 am

I think bedbugs exclusively subsist on blood. What if they are living off the rats? They’re not attracted by the trash. I don’t see how one topic relates to another. You sure won’t see station cleaners fighting rats and stomping bedbugs.

I agree that trash in the subway is a problem and you’re probably correct (as asserted before) that banning food would help. But subway cleaners aren’t related, and this is in my opinion misleading.

PW November 18, 2010 - 7:57 am

Cleaners are being overworked? Now that’s funny. Go to 95th Street on the R or South Ferry on the 1 and see how overworked they are.

J B November 18, 2010 - 9:16 am

Wasn’t there an expose just a little while ago (I think by ABC) about cleaners just hanging around and not really working?

Edward November 18, 2010 - 9:51 am

I take back all my complaints about there not being a subway to Staten Island. There’s enough wildlife out here already without having bedbugs ride the BMT to Richmond County!

Does BMT stand for “Bedbug Matress Transit” now?

Harold November 18, 2010 - 10:38 am

Steam cleaning would get rid of the bedbugs, if they are really a problem, which I very much doubt.

jon November 18, 2010 - 11:24 am

While the bedbugs and garbage are not directly linked, there is a connection. If there were less food waste on the subway to attract rats, and there were less garbage in general the MTA could focus on keeping the bedbugs from becoming a big problem.
That is how the two subjects are related. If the cleaners have to spend the time they are working picking up our newspapers, old chicken bones, McDonalds wrappers, and other detritus, they could actually worry about things like bedbugs and grime on the walls.

Eric November 18, 2010 - 3:19 pm

But there’s really nothing the cleaners can do to control bedbugs. Nor would we want them to- sure, the MTA could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a bunch of steaming equipment for a problem that may or may not exist, but that wouldn’t be the best use of limited funds.


Leave a Comment