The MTA, as we well know, has a bit of a trash problem. Garbage piles up everywhere underground, and rodents find the subway tracks and platforms to be very comfortable homes. For years, with budgets on the decline, Transit has searched for ways to combat what they have termed the “unsightliness and malodor of trash bags” in subway platforms, and now, as the agency ramps up trash collection efforts, they’re trying something counterintuitive: At two stations, the authority has removed trash cans in an effort to cut down on trash.
The pilot program in place at 8th St. and Broadway and Flushing/Main Street has earned headlines this morning for the sheer audacity of the idea, but it is part of a broader effort aimed at keeping stations cleaner. The measures are outlined in a report presented yesterday, and they include a targeted effort to eliminate rats, the prioritization of garbage collection trains and the addition of more refuse trains and trucks. Ultimately, the MTA has to collect and remove the 40 tons per day of trash that grows in the system, and it’s finding the task challenging.
The intriguing centerpiece of this effort though is clearly the plan to remove trash cans. Michael Grynbaum has more on this idea:
The idea is to reduce the load on the authority’s overtaxed garbage crew, which is struggling to complete its daily rounds of clearing out 40 tons of trash from the system. But it also offers a novel experiment: will New Yorkers stop throwing things away in the subway if there is no place to put them?
…The no-bin experiment is a more unusual approach, but it has precedent. In London, bins are banned from some Underground stations; in Washington, a similar program was abandoned because of riders’ complaints.
The PATH train has had no bins since 2001 because of security concerns. Since the removal, “it seems there is less trash,” said Ron Marsico, a spokesman, although he noted that the PATH system was smaller and more easily cleaned than the subway.
I understand why the MTA is pursuing this line of thinking, but there’s a clear conceptual gap here. Both the WMATA and the PATH systems are cleaner than ours because food is banned. The DC Metro engaged in a public crackdown of eating and drinking a few years ago, and the Port Authority has been diligent in keeping food out of the system as well.
Some MTA officials recognize this conflict as well. Board member Charles Moerdler wants the authority to study “the extent to which foodstuffs on trains or sold on the platforms is either deleterious to the system, or can in some way be curbed or eliminated, which I would favor.” But John Gaito, Transit’s trash guru, expressed a more resigned attitude to The Times. “It’s impractical,” he said. “You have a lot of customers who need to eat food on the system.” I’m not convinced anyone needs to eat in the unsanitary conditions of the subway, but that’s long been the argument for not banning food.
The real problem though is one of human behavior in the subway. Unless the MTA bans free newspapers that make up 44 percent of system-wide waste, people will just use whatever they want as a garbage can. With the nearest trash can over a city block away, riders at 7th Ave. in Brooklyn simply improvised, and the back end of Nevins St. has also been turned into a makeshift garbage can. The solution to combating trash in stations involves more garbage cans which inevitably lead to more garbage runs and more expenditures on garbage collection.
For now, though, that’s not in the cards, and neither is a ban on food. Instead, we get this strangely counterintuitive pilot program that seems to be showing returns at one station but more trash at the other, and everyone is skeptical. “NYC Transit doesn’t have the money to keep stations clean,” Gene Russianoff said to the Daily News. “So even a ridiculous idea sounds good to them.”