Home View from Underground On the need to put lipstick on a pig

On the need to put lipstick on a pig

by Benjamin Kabak

Sprucing up decrepit stations could improve public perception of the MTA. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Now that Joe Lhota has been confirmed as the new Chairman and CEO, he’s been unleashed on the media. I’ll have my chance to sit down with him next week, but so far, as he’s spoken with the various New York press outlets, Lhota’s immediate concerns are focused on around improving the image of the MTA. While some may call this a frivolous pursuit, it plays an important part in drumming up some level of public support for the beleaguered authority and the city’s transit system.

For Lhota, the public face of the system concerns its decrepit infrastructure. We see stations with tiles literally falling off the walls as I saw tonight at 7th Ave. along the Culver Line. We see broken staircases, blown light bulbs and paint peeling off of every surface. It’s dirty; it’s dingy; it isn’t a nice sight.

The new chairman sees the need to focus on cosmetics as an extension of the broken windows theory. “The thought was if a window is broken, someone is going to break another window or someone is going to break into the house,” he said. “Fix it. Fix it up front. When paint starts peeling, either peel it off or repaint it.”

Shoddy paint jobs are a particular concern of his. “It’s one of the things that bothers me, and I’d like to fix it as much as we can,” he said. Lhota has been riding the train to work, just like you and I do, for years, and he sees how riders relate to the system.

In addition to paint, Lhota wants to tackle the rat problem as well. During his confirmation hearings while pressed on the issue, Lhota expressed some disgust at the amount of food in the subway. He didn’t advocate for an outright ban on eating underground; that would have been too controversial. But he suggested that riders and their dirty habits are to blame for the influx of rodents. “If you’re going to eat down there,” he said, “take it with you,”

The TWU seems to agree. The MTA’s largest union is hosting a rodent contest to see which members can snap the best photos of the largest rats in the system. They’re using this as a backdrop to argue for more attention to working conditions underground. “Who the hell wants to work around hundreds of freaking rats?” Jim Gannon of TWU Local 100 said earlier this week.

Of course, if the TWU were willing to allow station agents to clean their stations, rats may find fewer morsels underground. That involves a discussion of work rules, and it’s one of the MTA is trying to have with the TWU as the two sides continue their contract negotiations.

Rats and paint are two issues that strike at the fundamentals of the environment. They have nothing to do with systemic failures from Albany concerning transit funding or the need to cut down on ever-climbing capital construction costs. Eliminating rats and sprucing up stations as the FastTrack program is trying to do are cosmetic improvements to the subways that go a long way.

Lhota seems to understand that if he leads an effort to make the subway environment a more friendly, welcoming and clean space, New Yorkers will not view the subways with such disdain. They may never come to love their commutes, with packed subway cars and pushy riders, but if the surroundings are clean, perhaps they won’t come to dread them either. With small environmental improvements, the MTA could see a big rise in public support, and when it comes to those big-ticket topics, more public support could help push politicians to do the right thing. All it might take is a fresh coat of paint.

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Alex C January 12, 2012 - 12:45 am

Please point out the Clinton St entrance to the Court Street station on the R. The options are either shoddy elevators or a former service stairway that…well it looks like something literally out of a horror movie.

Dan January 12, 2012 - 12:56 am

Be nice if the SE 30th avenue “N” entrance wasn’t covered in a decades worth of pigeon poop, it’s better to cut off your hand if it happens to touch that hand rail.

Here’s hoping Lhota finds the fund for these projects.

Adam January 12, 2012 - 1:10 am

Can add 21st Street – Van Alst and East 143rd Street – St. Mary’s Street for stations in need of sprucing.

John January 12, 2012 - 10:00 am

21 St-Van Alst is disgusting!

John January 12, 2012 - 10:05 am

The Broadway G is gross too.

JB January 12, 2012 - 1:17 pm

Dont you mean Brodaway?

John January 12, 2012 - 2:49 pm

One of my favorite things to do is point that out to people on the platform.

Kai B January 15, 2012 - 4:12 pm

Took me awhile to find it – I believe I spotted it from a moving train recently. South end of the northbound platform correct?

I use Broadway occasionally to/from the J or M at Lorimer St. The amount of water running in that station is ridiculous – no wonder it’s in that bad of a shape.

Christopher January 12, 2012 - 1:40 am

Oh let’s all list our horror stories. How about the Knickerbocker station on the M, which floods when it rains. Especially obnoxious as the station is ABOVE GROUND. The roof leaks that badly.

matt January 12, 2012 - 4:26 am

149st grand concourse in the bronx and new utrecht avenue/62nd st transfer in brooklyn….absolutely pathetic. ben, it would be cool if you made a poll of all the outer borough stations and all us SAS geeks could vote – that would be a long list but hell, if you’re going to see lhota anyway, that’s the info he wants, and he’ll find you credible!

Alek January 12, 2012 - 7:47 am

The chambers street j/z is terrible. Need to renovate it.

Bolwerk January 12, 2012 - 1:09 pm

What is so mind-boggling about that one is it’s practically right under City Hall too.

Kevin Walsh January 12, 2012 - 9:15 am

Your photo appears to illustrate water damage from a leak –there are a lot of stations like this that suffer from underground water leakage — you can paint it and replace the tiles, but it’ll wind up looking the same again before long. More extensive repairs ned to be made than just repainting, in many cases.

SEAN January 12, 2012 - 9:23 am

True, but remember were the station is in relation to the water table.

Larry Littlefield January 12, 2012 - 9:24 am

Nightmare. He’ll let service collapse, while going for PR.

The MTA should do the opposite, with NO investment in the things passenger can see, and all out recovery in the things they can’t.

If subway cars are no longer usable, you run fewer trains. If stations become so decrepit they are unsafe, you close them. People wait longer, or walk farther.

If the basic infrastucture collapses, it’s a disaster. And that’s where this is going.

John-2 January 12, 2012 - 10:57 am

It’s debatable whether or not Brooklyn Heights qualifies as “outer boroughs” because so many of its residents share the Manhattan aesthetic. But at least Lhota does understand the concept of subway riding and how vital maintaining the East River connections are. That may mean the worst stations outside of Manhattan may get bumped up the scheduled maintenance list (although Chambers Street, with no lines running north of Delancey in Manhattan, needs as much TLC as anyplace and shares the same chronic neglect problems as some of the outer borough stops).

As for the rat problem, if Lhota was Giuliani’s rat control czar, you’d assume he comes into the issue already with some ideas of what works best in controlling rat populations. Enacting the WMATA rules of food obviously would be best, but as noted, that would be trying to turn the tide on 107 years of NYC subway habits — doable, but not without major effort. I’ll be interested to see what Lhota thinks about the MTA’s test program to control subway litter and rats by removing trash cans from selected stations, since that program started just prior to his appointment.

Larry Littlefield January 12, 2012 - 12:05 pm

What I want to know is this: what has Lhota said about the LIRR and MetroNorth?

He is engaged in labor negotiations with NYCT. He is talking about NYCT rats. But there are big issues on the commuter railroads, particularly the LIRR which is facing declining ridership and a predatory culture.

crosstownlocal January 12, 2012 - 12:23 pm

As far as needing to spruce up some decrepit walls, no one ever seems to mention West 4th Street as in need of a major spruce-up…. it’s probably just as bleak as the 7th Avenue station on the F/G, but is higher-traffic and complete with hatchet-job re-tiling work to boot. If they can whip up a miraculous IND-style platform rehab like they did at Fulton Street (RIP Broadway-Nassau), why not the other IND stations in bad need of some tiling TLC?

Kai B January 15, 2012 - 4:14 pm

Good point – you really notice the difference between it and 14th St. one stop away, which seems to have had some renovation (not a much as its L-Train station though).

SEAN January 12, 2012 - 12:42 pm

How about Forest Hills-71st Avenue while we’re on the subject.

Matthew January 13, 2012 - 10:59 am

71st Avenue is on the schedule to be ADA overhauled and renovated in the next few years.

Bolwerk January 12, 2012 - 1:06 pm

Lhota needs to connect the dots. Fine the crap out of people who fare beat, litter, and vandalize – big, big fines that are profitable, not puny $100 fines that probably don’t cover enforcement costs – and put the money to painting and cleaning. It would achieve much more than broken windows can, and would actually put a bigger dent in the problems that plague the system.

NYC is not DC, so I have a hard time buying how you can say people can’t eat or at least drink on the trains.

oscar January 12, 2012 - 2:01 pm

or better yet have the vandals, etc be the ones to paint & clean.

Christopher A. January 12, 2012 - 1:55 pm

Larry –

We are seeing the early stages of systemic collapse. The City and State can no longer afford to maintain the transportation infrastructure built by previous generations. To fix many of the problems in some stations would cost as much as building a new station from scratch – and we’ve seen what happened to the 41 st/10 av station (rough location) on the #7 extension to Javits….


Mark Lyon January 12, 2012 - 8:06 pm

Who thought painting so many of the surfaces was a good idea? I understand some metal surfaces need to be painted to protect them, but was it really necessary to point some of the concrete surfaces that are now peeling? For instance, the new stairs to One Bryant Park at 42 & 6th have paint on the side. It’s now peeling.

Would unpainted concrete really have been so unattractive?

Kai B January 15, 2012 - 4:17 pm

Aside from historic IRT stations (and perhaps some BMT), there’s really no need to maintain the nightmare of tiled walls. A big reason “ugly stations” look ugly is because of damage to the tiling. The MTA should explore moving to more modern subway wall maintenance methods such as big plastic panels that can be easily be swapped out should they be damaged or vandalized.

Links roundup—extended edition « Public Authorities January 24, 2012 - 10:25 am

[…] MTA chief Joe Lhota wants to tackle the subway’s “broken window” problems by repainting stations, making other cosmetic improvements, and getting rid of rats. [2nd Ave. Sagas] […]


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