Every now and then, the MTA puts forward some zany idea that they call a “pilot program.” Sometimes, those programs involve scaling back service during minor holidays; sometimes, those involve replacing wooden benches with stainless. Recently, the MTA has tried to combat garbage through a rather counterintuitive pilot program: They removed all garbage bins from a station platform.
When the MTA first announced this pilot in October, it seemed to represent the final hurrah of the Walder era. It was an idea that would spring from someone with a McKinsey background, but Joe Lhota vowed to continue it, pending the outcome. For a little while, at least, 8th Street on the BMT Broadway line, a station heavily trafficked by NYU students and East Village-bound revelers alike, would feature no trash receptacles.
Initially, those watching the MTA were skeptical. Some believed the authority should add more trash receptacle to combat station litter. Others accused the authority of making the trash someone else’s problem. Those who would not just litter even in the absence of a trash can would be focused to carry their refuse out into the streets. The city wouldn’t notice less litter, but the MTA wouldn’t have to deal it.
As the press expressed skepticism, a funny thing happened on the way to trash can: The MTA noticed that litter did not increase at the targeted station, and the authority is taking out less garbage from these stations. Pete Donohue had a bit on the reaction to the program:
The MTA launched a publicity campaign to alert riders, and now many straphangers discard their trash before entering those stations or hang onto it until they encounter a receptacle at the next station or on the street. Cleaners have been bagging less trash from platforms and tracks at the two stops — Eighth St. on the N and R lines in Manhattan, and Main St. on the No. 7 line in Flushing, Queens, transit officials said.
Last week, some riders admitted they were surprised that their stations didn’t turn into the Fresh Kills landfill. “I was against it at first, but I think it has worked well,” Peter Liteplo, 63, a credit union manager from Brooklyn, said at Eighth St. last week. “I thought it would create a lot of junk, but it looks better.”
…Considering the amount of garbage the MTA hauls from the subway — 14,000 tons a year — exploring any option that could reduce the burden is worthwhile. And since it’s working, the authority should expand the pilot — not junk it. Maybe the MTA should cite security concerns as the reason for the move. The Port Authority removed garbage trains from its much smaller system after the 9/11 terror attacks more than a decade ago. The London Underground removed bins long ago because of bombing campaigns by the Irish Republican Army to end British rule of northern Ireland.
But it’s even simpler than that: The MTA could frame this discussion as one about its role. The authority is not a trash-collection agency, and if straphangers bring their garbage underground, the MTA necessarily becomes a trash collection agency. They have to devote track space, personnel hours and monetary resources toward cleanliness and litter collection. But without trash cans, if passengers are bringing their garbage with them either to stations with trash receptacles or to the nearest street level can, the MTA won’t have as much trash to collect.
Lately, a bill in Albany to ban food underground has gained headlines. Senator Bill Perkins wants to cut back on items in the subway that attract rodents. Perhaps though the simpler solution is to remove the vast majority of trash cans. By centralizing trash collection, the MTA can better remove garbage from the system while spending less on something that isn’t a core service, and if trash moves above ground, well, that’s why the city has a Department of Sanitation. Sometimes, it seems, those ideas that seem the craziest end up working better than we expect. If only all thinking on subway operations were as creative as that.