Home View from Underground Photo of the Day: Why we can’t have nice things

Photo of the Day: Why we can’t have nice things

by Benjamin Kabak

Where: Uptown and Queens-bound platform on the 6th Ave. line at Herald Square
When: Sunday, February 20, 2010 at 5:38 p.m.

On Sunday afternoon, I found myself waiting for a train at Herald Square and happened to glance into the tracks. What I saw there was worse than any live animal scampering around while scrounging up some food. Rather, the tracks will filled with trash strewn everywhere and water, backed up because of papers blocking the drain, coating the garbage. At one of the system’s most trafficked stations, it was a reminder of the state of cleanliness in the system.

Now, I don’t know how this garbage got to the tracks. Maybe someone threw it there in a fit of rage; maybe a bag broke on the platform; maybe the station hadn’t seen a garbage train in a while and the overstuffed trash cans couldn’t handle one more copy of amNew York. It doesn’t really matter though because it was there and it was a mess.

Over the years, I’ve often returned to the theme of cleanliness underground. New Yorkers treat the subway system with little respect. People chuck stuff into tracks with garbage cans right behind them. They drop food onto the floor of stations or train cars and walk away. It’s tough to keep a system looking even half-decent when the riders are the ones contributing so actively to the mess, and until personal responsibility rises to the forefront, the subway system will just always look this dirty.

You may also like


Stephen Smith February 22, 2011 - 5:39 pm

On the bright side: I don’t see a singe syringe or Suboxone wrapper!

Kai B February 22, 2011 - 5:44 pm

The broken window theory does apply, however. If a station is filthy (and this goes beyond just trash) to begin with, people will be more likely to deface it a little more than if it looks like that London station you posted a couple weeks ago.

Sharon February 22, 2011 - 10:34 pm

We have the staff to enforce the rules, keep the subways clean and safe and yes save the money we spend on cleaning up the extra mess. A three step approach is needed
1) Prevention
2) Better utilization of cleanup staff
3) Strict enforcement for those who don’t get with the program
PREVENTION – Free conductors and station agents from their less than needed job and make them station security customer service folks who can issue tickets monitor cctv and have a direct line with the NYPD to enforce littering and other laws. Eating on trains other than water(no soda or other drinks) should be enforced.
2)MTA cleanup staff is poorly supervised(even thought there are way to many supervisor) which has led to a culture of slacking off. Do you blame them. They get paid quite well for the work they do so that is not the issue
3) Nail anyone who does not comply with a ticket. 99% will comply and the rest see ya in court. It worked well for rudy and it is going in the other direction under Bloomy

nycpat February 22, 2011 - 11:08 pm

How is someone who is not a peace officer going to issue tickets. What would compel anyone to cooperate with them, give them their ID? The only people who can enforce rules of conduct are cops.

JP February 22, 2011 - 11:18 pm

parks dept. agents do it all the time and ticket cyclists in washington square.

nycpat February 22, 2011 - 11:47 pm

They have “special patrolman” status and can make arrests.

Sharon February 23, 2011 - 1:37 pm

The job of conductor and station agent should be merged into a job that has “special patrolman” status. We already pay conductors and station agents MORE than park enforcement officer and urban park rangers. IT is a win win for the public and at at reduced cost as there will be less fare evasion and vandalism

nycpat February 23, 2011 - 2:04 pm

C/rs and S/As by and large don’t have the education and fitness levels to do this. Also they were not hired to effect arrests and issue summonses. NYCT wants nothing to do with this. Can you imagine the liability issues as regards BOTH the public and workers. First time a C/r gets punched in the face and dies what do think will happen? Never come to pass.
I’m all for the enforcement of the rules of conduct. Political pressure needs to be applied to the NYPD to issue more tickets in the subway. Go after fare dodgers on the busses also. The problem is that there is no elected office holder directly responsible.
My supervisors and managers only care about having the trains running. If I report rules violators they do nothing except tell me to signal for police en route, i.e. move the train.

al February 23, 2011 - 12:53 am

How about a hefty community service term. Bloomberg could heavily publicize this on the media. Litter in the system and you will do 100 hrs of station cleaning or pay a large fine. It might be negotiable in court in special cases (i.e. 1 yr old toddlers tossing stuff, the mentally disabled, violent criminals – they get to go to Rikers or Upstate, etc.). Not as draconian as Singapore, but it gets the point across. The cops are starting to get cameras on their caps, and so are trains. Some stations have them, are getting them fixed or getting them.

Another item is to fingerprint trash found on the tracks and platform. Late night/Midday the enforcement agent Polaroids the trash can and trash while video is taped. Both are timestamped. The trash is forensically analyzed. The number of trash cans double, triple, or quadruple depending on station volume to provide ample can volume. This will eliminate can overflow and some wind tossed trash. The evidence must be accompanied by video of littering. Catching taggers and other defacers should also yield a large community service term. Think of this as Bloomberg’s Broken Windows.

Finally, open up the MTA open source software development to video analysis and object/activity detection and tracking technology. It should help detect littering, vandalism, criminals activity, and other emergencies (ie person on track, fire, smoke condition, etc).

Henry February 23, 2011 - 12:06 pm

Your proposal’s great, except for three things. I’m pretty sure that the sewer water in some stations would degrade trash to the point where it’s not possible to fingerprint the trash.

Also, we don’t have that many fingerprints on record (I doubt the city has 8 million sets of fingerprints.)

Finally, there’s the tourists. You cannot fine people who do not live in the city because they would never pay it – and community service is out of the question.

Or maybe, JUST maybe, we could have platform screen doors. Makes it physically impossible to throw trash (or people) onto the tracks. After all, even with human drivers, a subway car usually stops in the same general area, so door placement shouldn’t be that hard.

nycpat February 23, 2011 - 12:53 pm

Then people would wait for the screen doors to open and throw their trash in the space between the doors and the train. Watch and see how people drop trash before boarding trains.

PeakVT February 22, 2011 - 6:23 pm

So how does MTA get trash off the subway tracks? Is there a vacuum car that comes along every so often, or does somebody have to get down there and bag it by hand?

Also: what Kai B. said.

Kai B February 22, 2011 - 8:49 pm

There’s a vacuum car called Vactrak. I saw a little piece on it on NYCTV’s “Secrets of New York” program. Workers also go down there ahead/behind it since it has problems with larger/heavier items.

What I don’t know is how often it gets to each station.

PeakVT February 23, 2011 - 1:36 pm

Thanks. There’s a few videos of it on Youtube.

Sharon February 23, 2011 - 1:38 pm

the solution is prevention. the vactrak can not run 24/7

David in NY February 22, 2011 - 6:30 pm

New Yorkers are to blame. We’ve all seen certain types of people who feel it’s not worth the effort to find a garbage can and just chuck their trash onto the tracks. It drives me crazy because their laziness affects all of us.
Cigarette smokers are no better if you just happen to notice all of the non-biodegradable butts all over sidewalks and gutters. I HATE smokers!
There used to be a fine of several hundred dollars way back in the 1930s and that should be reinstated. Every station should have a roaming attendant payed for by collecting fines. Imagine all the revenue that could be collected, at least until these jerks realize it’s not worth messing up our city anymore.

John February 22, 2011 - 8:05 pm

I fully agree with David. Provided there is an empty trash can in the station (which I would say is available 90% of the time), it almost takes MORE effort to throw your garbage on the track, considering that you have to make a conscious decision to abandon your common sense. Throwing refuse onto the tracks is the same thing as throwing it into the city street as far as I’m concerned. Garbage has the same effect at street level as it does in the subway. If this issue went unnoticed above ground, seeing a rat run down Park Avenue in broad daylight would be just as common as seeing one on the tracks. There is no reason to do this whatsoever, and I have to agree as well, unfortunately, that it is the common New Yorker that does this, not a confused tourist.

Jesse February 22, 2011 - 8:11 pm

Yeah, this problems rises well above the subway platforms. Just a couple nights ago as I was walking down the sidewalk, a woman sitting in a parked car opened her door and threw a bag into the gutter. I think it’s just another manifestation of the laziness and selfishness that pervades this city.

Andrew February 22, 2011 - 8:29 pm

I hope you handed it back to her. “Excuse me, ma’am, I think you dropped something!”

Sharon February 22, 2011 - 10:38 pm

A cop through his cup out the window the other day. I call 311 and reported it. Human nature is to take the path of least resistance. When enforced MOST will comply and train will be cleaner. The mayor will have to deal with a few months of “ticket blitz” articles in the post but if you break the rule pay the fine

Scott E February 22, 2011 - 8:17 pm

I would guess that this trash fell in various points around the tracks, and this spot just happens to be a low point with a drain. As water makes its way to the drain (from melting snow through sidewalk grates, or however else water gets down there) all the trash flows to that location.

Slobs or not, I’m sure we’re all guilty somewhat of track-litter. Even the best-intentioned of us have tried to delicately place an empty coffee cup or candy-bar wrapper on the top of an overfull trash-can, only to have it eventually fall off and make its way to the tracks. Again, I compare this to PATH. When there are no trash cans, only the “true litterbugs” have their trash end up on the tracks. When subway workers try to tie a trash-bag closed from an overfull can, and then the bag rips open as they remove it from the station, the “good people’s” trash, as well as the litterbugs’ trash, ends up scattered about.

Anon256 February 22, 2011 - 8:59 pm

I take the B/D uptown from Herald Square every day, and the track looks like that every day. Since there’s also usually water flowing into a drain there, my guess is the same as Scott E’s that drainage leads trash from a larger area to accumulate there.

Jon February 22, 2011 - 9:00 pm

My daily commute leads me to a daily embarrassment to be an American, especially after a recent trip to London. This is not just a NYC problem, it’s an American problem. Chicago, Boston, Philly – all have rundown subway stations that fit Kai B’s broken window theory. We Americans are uncivilized slobs who feel entitled to do anything we want and have no care or concern for public hygiene.

Phil February 22, 2011 - 9:16 pm

DC’s the only partially clean system in America, and that’s only because they’re known to locals for having arrested a 12 year old girl eating fries on the Metro. Haven’t heard of anything in the decade since that happened. But maybe that’s a good application of broken windows as stated by the second poster. I still think we should go Singapore-style on cleanliness.

PeakVT February 23, 2011 - 1:47 pm

The LA system was clean when I went in it a few years ago. And what about BART, or MARTA? Those are newer systems, like Metrorail, and were new and shiny not too long ago.

Alex C February 23, 2011 - 12:37 am

In addition to all of that you have middle and high school kids who intentionally throw stuff onto the tracks to show their friends how cool and uncaring for society they are. I see this most days on the N.

John S February 23, 2011 - 12:49 am

Honestly, I don’t see what’s so hard about throwing things out properly – even above ground when you leave. For me, it’s not rocket science – if I eat something, I hold onto the wrapper/bag, fold it as best I can, and shove it in the outer pocket of my briefcase/bag. If I have a coffee cup, I simply hold onto it. If I can find a can on the platform, I’ll use it – if not, I throw it out in a can outside. What exactly is so hard about that?

Bruce M February 23, 2011 - 1:05 am

While I agree that there are many selfish passengers that think nothing of tossing their personal trash on the tracks, or on the floor of the train, this is only a part of the problem. Look at the walls the next time you ride up or down an escalator in a station (provided it is working of course). At the point where the wall meets the escalator, the grime and soot have been rubbed away by peoples hands, bags, whatever. Look up a few more inches and the soot and grime that are allowed to accumulate appears, and it’s as if the tiles themselves change color.
The MTA simply has no focus on basic cleaning. The cleaners themselves do little more than half-heartedly sweep up loose trash–within arm’s reach–into their dustpans, to be dumped into the inevitably overflowing garbage cans. Station walls are thick with soot, grime, water stains, you name it–for years. Even recently renovated stations soon acquire this dingy coating.
Now look up at the ceilings. Where the paint hasn’t yet peeled away, you will notice the ceilings are painted black. Why? To better hide the soot and grime that the MTA has no interest in cleaning. The dark color only contributes to the gloom and dreariness of our subway stations. On a recent visit to Tokyo, I noticed station employees polishing clean the escalator handrails, and checking light bulbs in the ceilings to see which ones needed to be dusted off!
About 25 years ago, the TA management had finally had enough of the grafitti that coated the trains (and enough of the bad publicity). Somehow or another, they marshalled up a plan to deal with this on a daily basis, including taking trains out of service that had been defaced if they had to. And as I recall, the TA wasn’t running any kind of budget surplus in those days by a long shot!
While I do think our system has been greatly improved since those dark days, the MTA management needs to once again focus some of that highly compensated management acumen to attack the problem of filth in the subway. Whatever money they are currently spending on cleaning and maintenence of the stations is simply going down the drain, or backing up behind a clogged drain. And passengers won’t have any qualms adding to the pile.

stan February 23, 2011 - 9:19 am

i have taken public transportation in many cities all over the work and i find our subway system the filthiest i have ever seen. now, i understand that it’s also the BIGGEST i have ever seen, but i refuse to believe that cleanliness can’t ‘scale up’.

other cities have figured out a way to mitigate this problem, why can’t we???

Henry February 23, 2011 - 12:12 pm

I believe that the MTA simply needs to buy more garbage cans. Seriously? A garbage pail is cheap. How expensive could it be?

They also need to put their existing ones in more convenient places. At my stop, the only exit is at the front of the train. The only garbage can in the station is by the back of the train. No one is going to walk down the entire platform to throw away a cup of coffee.

Any chance that the MTA could get a contractor for cleaning the stations? The MTA’s custodial staff do a poor job, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

John Paul N. February 24, 2011 - 2:58 am

Is a post-9/11 garbage pail cheap? I haven’t heard any recent news regarding (sturdier) garbage cans in the subway, but it will be more expenditure and labor to maintain with no revenue offset. I favor more cans, if only the MTA makes a commitment to cleanliness that won’t go away in a future budget or administration.

But hiring a contractor would be ideal, if not for opposition from the union of the custodial staff as I’d imagine.

Charles February 24, 2011 - 2:12 pm

This station is filthy. Always.

Earlier this year there was wet vomit in the middle of the uptown 6th ave line platform. I had the pleasure of almost stepping in it then watching it slowly dry out for a week before it disappeared.


Leave a Comment