Home Asides Once more unto the MTA’s trash cans

Once more unto the MTA’s trash cans

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA’s announcement yesterday that they would be eliminating trash cans at eight more stations throughout the city was not exactly met with applause. Despite the fact that the pilot has apparently led to fewer rats and lower trash collection costs without a corresponding increase in litter or track fires, New Yorkers seem to fear counterintuitive change, and press coverage is replete with riders outraged at being asked to carry their garbage all the way up a flight of stairs to the nearest Department of Sanitation receptacle on the street. I can’t say I’m too surprised there.

What is surprising though are some of the excuses transit rider advocates are putting forward. In covering the story today, Matt Flegenheimer of The Times spoke with Straphangers’ head Gene Russianoff. As is the nature of his organization, Gene is very defensive of changes to the subway system that could impact riders whether these changes lead to a net gain or not. His take: “If you have a big, drippy ice cream cone, what are you going to do? Stuff it in your purse?”

Besides the fact that, as a long-time reader noted, one eats the container when devouring a big drippy ice cream cones, I had another question: What is anyone doing eating a big drippy ice cream cone on the subway in the first place? The subways — not exactly known for cleanliness — are hardly the spot for a meal, let alone something that’s going to cause a mess, and it’s debatable whether someone should be eating anything that requires much clean up while traveling around.

So perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps the solution is to examine why people are eating underground, what they’re eating underground and whether we should continue to allow people to eat underground. Plenty of subway systems — DC, Singapore and even our own PATH system — don’t allow food and don’t have trash cans, or rodents, all over the place. No one yet has succumbed to a subway food ban-induced starvation.

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Bolwerk August 31, 2012 - 3:29 pm

Can we please come up with a more accurate label for Gene Russianoff than “transit advocate”? How about professional troll? If that man isn’t leading a false flag campaign against better service, I don’t know what his deal is. I don’t think you can get much more anti-authoritarian on civil liberties issues than me, but – even recognizing that people probably should be allowed to eat on transit – just why the hell should anyone have a big, drippy icecream cone on the subway? A glass of wine would be more appropriate and probably less disruptive, and that is banned.

As for why people eat on the subway, I’m sure some are just committing acts of dickery, but I think it’s fair to say a fair number of people probably spend more than two hours/day on transit. That’s a lot of what could otherwise be waking free time. Without making efforts to reduce trip times, I’m not sure banning food is especially fair.

Bruce M August 31, 2012 - 4:03 pm

Regarding other systems (PATH) banning food: they don’t take this as an excuse to stop cleaning stations the way the MTA has. PATH Stations, and sytems around the world, simply put more effort into this, while the MTA’s idea of station cleaning is one person with a broom occasionally sweeping litter into a dustpan as long as it is within reach.
Beyond littering (caused by passengers), stations are caked in soot & grime, and leaking water stains even brand new walls. Look at the wall as you ride up the escalators at 34th/6th or 53rd/Lex: disgusting! Now collecting trash is too much of a burden for them.

Years ago, trains were covered in grafitti, and trash/grime/spills/etc. inside the trains were out of control. Somehow the MTA managed to get a grip on that and today the trains are much cleaner. But the stations are still completely neglected, or they wait for a once in a lifetime hose-down during a FastTrack shutdown. The “but we’re open 24 hours” excuse is just that–an excuse.

Joe August 31, 2012 - 6:12 pm

Yep. Other 24-hour systems have much cleaner stations. NYC’s are truly foul.

Henry August 31, 2012 - 7:32 pm

If you want to see something truly foul, visit a subway station bathroom. They’re absolutely terrifying.

Frankly if they spent maybe $100 on detergent per station it would be a (bit?) better, but that probably won’t happen anytime soon.

crescent22 August 31, 2012 - 4:38 pm

Russianoff is a tool.

AG August 31, 2012 - 5:52 pm

In fairness – NYC subway is much more crowded than PATH… and a much bigger system.

As for “other systems”… how many of them do operate 24 hours???

That said – riders need to take more responsibility regardless. Littering is a disgusting habit. I’m a “city boy” and my parents taught me that as a child.

Miles Bader August 31, 2012 - 10:23 pm

I think 24 hour operation is not particularly relevant. Cleaning can happen while the station is still in operation. Obviously not much during rush, and more during the wee hours, but cleaning is generally not incompatible with normal operation.

Of course you’re right that in the end, the problem is not really the MTA, it’s the riders. Americans are just … I dunno. I want to say “filthy,” but probably it’s more accurate to say “irresponsible.” [No country is perfect in this respect, but Americans seem to go way overboard.]

R. Graham September 1, 2012 - 4:22 pm

I think a better question to start asking is if NYers comes in first place when it comes to being disgusting pigs?

We talk about how disgusting the subways are all the time but we always easily forget how they get to that point a MAJORITY of the time. Not counting the moldy leaks which is a whole other story.

AG September 2, 2012 - 5:10 pm

I wasn’t talking about cleaning.. I meant operating 24 hours does increase the relative costs of operating the system…

but yes it’s as simple as not littering. If garbage cans are overflowing it’s the MTA’s fault… but ppl in the subways and the streets of NYC just have an utter disregard. That’s my biggest complaint about the city.

Douglas John Bowen September 4, 2012 - 12:05 pm

“The cleanest people in the world, from the ankles up” is how I had Americans described to me — not with any out-and-out malice — by one European visitor.

Vincent Ziegler August 31, 2012 - 6:51 pm

Subway station Broad Channel outstandingly require anew set of “WORKER(S)” employees(s) fore the station is near and/or a health issue. Note; their Bug(s) all over w/ tracks filled with nasty, garbage. Further Note, infectious bug(s) w/West , N., and/or other transmit disease(s) . It should be duly noted that the immediate replacement of employee(s) should be enforce given the extensive history of poor job performance. Inshort, any response given by the above official(s) is inexcusable fore the lives if the public is endanger by their poor adjustment to the duties necessary. Inclosing, Your attention, effective assistance and full cooperation shall be greatly appreciated. I, look forward to be hearing from you very shortly untie fast arrival of third filed document. Until then, I respectfully remain. . . Respectfully Submitted, . . @St. Vincent Ziegler, Pro-Se . Litigant

R. Graham September 1, 2012 - 4:30 pm

I would like to hire you to take a stab at cleaning up a station with conditions like that regularly which is the equivalent of cleaning up after adults who treat things like disobedient teenagers and lets see how long you remain motivated to do said job.

Does it still sound like such an easy task especially if you look at it as if you’re not above such a job.

Henry August 31, 2012 - 7:29 pm

In my personal experience, a lot of it is because New Yorkers sometimes don’t have a lot of time. After a long day of work or school, people just want to be full and get home as quickly as possible, and with people in the outer boroughs often being at least one (or in my case, two) hours away from Manhattan, it makes a lot more sense to eat on the train.

I will have to say though, that most people who are consuming things on the train are consuming things in takeout boxes, bags, cups or bottles, so there really shouldn’t be any significant mess-making unless the train stops suddenly and someone or something gets knocked to the ground.

A potential side note about this pilot – they might need to place more garbage cans outside of subway stations, because as it is it’s very hard to find a garbage can in the outer boroughs at times.

R. Graham September 1, 2012 - 4:51 pm

I’ve always disliked the tolerance argument in all shapes and sizes, but this one in particular makes a that brings up a different way of looking at it for me. I still dislike the argument, but here goes.

When you mention the containers used for consuming foods to be takeout boxes, bags, cups or bottles. You follow that up with the mention that there shouldn’t be any significant mess-making unless…and we know the rest. Point is I call these oops moments. The moments when an accident of food or beverage spillage is caused by circumstances that are of no fault to the person consuming the goods. Fair enough, but this is where we have to play the numbers game. And stay with me on this.

New York City Subways are the largest in the world by daily customer volume with track mileage easily topping the world scale of other systems and by far the most subway stations at 468. Going back to the point of oops moments what you are saying is that you are willing to accept X number of oops moments per passenger and as I said before this is a numbers game because everything in life is a numbers game. So largest transit system in the world and you are willing to tolerate food consumption over smaller systems that don’t allow it and hence it comes with an average number of oops moments that is to be expected. But at the same time you have expectation that these moments have to be cleaned up and right away so you need more cleaners to be deployed than what are currently being staffed at station terminals now. Especially since some trains must depart minutes after arrival and it takes more than minutes to clean each car or to even inspect all 8 or 10 of a specific disgusting mess that needs immediate attention. Hence you need the MTA to spend more money on salary, healthcare and pension costs for the sake of cleaning up after individuals who make a mess and have no means to clean it up in that moment themselves. To me…that’s a very tough equation for the largest system in the world in need of cutting costs.

But I didn’t even bring up the fact that this is where Gene Russianoff’s agency comes into the mix with the annual cleanliness surveys. They have data cruncher people jump on a train to see the conditions. No one takes into account when the mess was made and if the train had a chance to reach terminal where the cleaning can be done. No one takes into account if that cleaning can even be done based on rail conditions of that day or if staff levels are appropriate that day. The lesson is as New Yorkers we all demand action immediately but no one seems to realize the equation is simple and we are all making it out to be way more complicated. You want cleanliness immediately? Stop eating in the subways! You want the rat problem to be solved? Stop eating in the subways! You want the fare to stop going up because of raises to be paid out for salary workers cleaning the trains of food messes and collecting garbage everyday and every night? Stop eating and tossing trash in the subways! If 75% of those who could honestly claim to be a clean individual put in a 60% effort in treating the subways like their home (I said 60% because some things need not be treated down under) then the subway system would be 300% better off than it is today.

Those are the numbers!

AG September 2, 2012 - 5:14 pm

I agree… it’s just like ppl complaining about the parks and beaches having litter… If ppl didn’t just drop their trash… it wouldn’t be nearly as bad.

Henry September 2, 2012 - 6:34 pm

I don’t know where you got the impression that I want every station to be pearly white and sparkly – I really don’t mind the state of the subway most times, and I suspect most New Yorkers don’t either.

At a very minimum, I expect the stations to be structurally sound and not smell like human excrement, none of which would really be solved by a food ban. Is that really too much to ask?

AG September 3, 2012 - 10:12 pm

well when talking about smelling excrement… it’s all a part of the same problem… both show a lack of respect for the public space.
and most ppl i know personally can’t stand the litter.

Miles Bader September 2, 2012 - 10:36 pm

It’s not the size. Tokyo’s urban “rapid transit” rail transport network is easily twice the size of NYC’s in track-length and number of stations, and has four times the ridership (comparisons tend to be inaccurate because the “subway” only accounts for about 25% of Tokyo’s urban rail, but Tokyo urban surface lines are more or less operationally equivalent to subways).

[Size comparisons are fairly irrelevant, because problems and solutions to such issues are scalable. Crowdedness probably does make things worse, but clearly it isn’t an insurmountable issue because NYC is nowhere near the most crowded system around.]

People also eat on Tokyo trains (and there are restaurants on platforms, etc), but they tend to be a lot more reasonable about it; although I have seen guys sitting on the train wolfing down a mcdonalds burger, but it’s a pretty rare sight (and, er, smell… :).

You’re right though: the real issue is rider attitude. People need to take some pride and responsibility for the transit system which serves them quite well. A little respect goes a long way…

LLQBTT August 31, 2012 - 7:47 pm

The brand spanking new Court Sq on the 7 is already stained with the dragged trash bags from the can. Too bad because it makes the station look soiled and old already.

IanM August 31, 2012 - 10:44 pm

Hey, they do it a certain way in a town that’s 1/20th the size of ours, so why can’t it work here?

I’m so tired of this argument. Okay, I’m not familiar with Singapore’s subway system (though I know that they have a vastly different set of financial, administrative, and cultural issues to deal with over there), but D.C.’s metro and the PATH are hardly comparable to the NYC subway, particularly in terms of scale.

Many, many New Yorkers – usually the poorest among us – spend easily over an hour each way on NYC transit getting to and from their jobs. It’s inconvenient and impractical to forbid them from using some of that time – maybe the only downtime they have all day – to grab a bite or a drink. And its not remotely the same thing asking it of a Hoboken or Woodley Park resident on their 10-minute commute.

Sorry for the rant, but shouldn’t policy take into account the economic and geographic realities of the system in question? Please, the constant comparisons with D.C., etc., need to stop, or need to be considered with some of this context.

Miles Bader August 31, 2012 - 11:46 pm

It is not a matter of scale or crowdedness (cleaning scales easily, and much bigger and more crowded systems like Tokyo are very clean), nor of 24-hour operation (cleaning while the system is in operation is not particularly problematic).

My sense is that it’s a matter of rider culture (people abusing the system), funding, political will, etc.

I don’t think Americans are so inherently filthy and selfish, nor NYC’s infrastructure so decrepit, that it’s impossible to have a cleaner system. But the will to do so, on both sides (riders and operators) just doesn’t seem strong enough. So the status-quo muddles along…

Alon Levy September 4, 2012 - 3:05 am

There is one way, and as far as I can tell only one way, in which size matters here: bigger cities tend to have longer commutes. Tokyo of course is the biggest and has the longest commutes, but I’m willing to buy that the average subway commute in New York is much longer than in Singapore (where eating and drinking is illegal on the trains and legal on the buses, at least as of 6 years ago).

ben September 1, 2012 - 1:06 pm

I agree completely. add to that those commuting between jobs &/or between a job and school. Their transit time may be their only opportunity to eat. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect them to put their refuse back in the original bag and carry it off system when they leave. I expect most will do just that.

Anon August 31, 2012 - 11:55 pm

“selective return to the habits of their Paleolithic ancestors?”

alan September 1, 2012 - 2:37 am

Just trying to get to work. Watching/smelling someone else’s dinner is disgusting.

R. Graham September 1, 2012 - 4:54 pm

For the record….McDonald’s smells even worse in the subways! I don’t know why most people can’t understand that.

Bolwerk September 2, 2012 - 12:32 am

Myrtle-Broadway is located above a KFC or Popeye’s or something. I don’t end up there very much, but when I do I sometimes want to vomit at the stink. I guess it’s the oil. Either way, whatever you buy there should be dropped into the toilet without ingesting it first.

Pat L September 2, 2012 - 1:20 am

It’s a Popeye’s, and it’s delicious, if not healthy in any way, shape, or form.

Peter September 2, 2012 - 10:53 am

If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, it’s very difficult to find a public trashcan on the street, anywhere. You can walk for hundreds of blocks without finding one. People just take their trash with them, or throw it away in a restaurant trashcan. I’m guessing the same logic is behind this MTA idea. It’s worth a shot.

Miles Bader September 2, 2012 - 7:15 pm

Convenience stores in Japan all have publicly usable trashcans, and there’s usually like 5 per block, so … :]

But more relevantly, Tokyo rail/subway stations all used to have plentiful trashcans on the platforms until 2001; after that, they were removed in many cases for “terrorism” reasons (it depends on the operator; some got rid of them, others didn’t). Regardless, stations were trash-free before the trashcans were removed, and are trash-free after they were removed—only now it’s really annoying if you have a piece of trash you want to get rid of.

[My suspicion is that while “terrorism” was the excuse, those that got rid of them did so for cost reasons…]

Phantom September 3, 2012 - 6:40 pm

People should be able to at least drink coffee or, when its hot, to drink water.

Hydration is not a crime.

If they ban consumption of liquids on the trains / buses, esp furing our brutal, long summers, I have a very serious problem with that.

Henry September 3, 2012 - 7:22 pm

I think one could make the case that bottled drinks are fine, but I don’t know about coffee or things carried in a cup – in my experience, the spilled liquid on a train usually comes from a coffee cup.

Phantom September 3, 2012 - 8:06 pm

I ride the trains constantly

In my opinion spilled liquids is a very small problem

That there can even be consideration of banning liquids is symptomatic of creeping Bloombergization of the living city. Not a compliment

Up until the seventies, we had soda by the cup vending machines, candy machines, and hot pretzel vendors right on some of the platforms.

Ticket those who litter and this problem gets solved. You dont need to ban anything.

Bolwerk September 3, 2012 - 8:17 pm

Or someone’s penis.

But seriously, I think it’s all the same problem: distance pretty much means some consumption of food/beverages will probably be necessary. Heat is as good a reason as any to make sure water is always allowed and even encouraged. No coffee in the morning would plain suck for perhaps somewhere approaching 1M people.

None of that means you can’t fine the living crap out of people who spill. I tend to prefer compassion for people who make innocent mistakes (the includes with things like POP), but you took the risk, you pay the price if something goes wrong is a fair position for the TA to take.

Miles Bader September 3, 2012 - 10:18 pm


If passengers showed a little more respect, for the system and for other riders, things would be much better—and in order to get respect, it reallllly helps to show a little respect.

That means things like being reasonable and understanding in general, while still attempting to penalize those people truly acting like idiots, instead of getting all control-freaky and treating everybody like children.

I guess at the base, the whole “no respect” thing is something of a societal problem, but if you want to change that, you need to start somewhere, and a relatively controlled place like the subways seem a fine place to start.

Phantom September 4, 2012 - 7:11 am

–None of that means you can’t fine the living crap out of people who spill–

Go to hell. Stop the ( very intentional ) littering, and the problem is solved. We don’t need to go all the way to a lickspittle regime of endless fines and punishments.

People have been noshing and drinking on the train I’d guess since it began. There is nothing at all wrong with it. There is something wrong with littering. Fix that.

Bolwerk September 4, 2012 - 8:19 am

How do you propose fixing (i.e., stopping the “very intentional”) littering without fining litterers? I don’t even view it as a question of punishment. Punishment doesn’t solve most problems. It’s the only sensible way to pay for cleanup without “a lickspittle regime of endless fines and punishments.”

Phantom September 4, 2012 - 9:20 am

I’d give a $100 or more fine to any litterers.

If someone accidentally ” spills ” some water or coffee I would not fine someone for that.

We see litter every day, on the cars and on the tracks. I can live with the odd spill.

And again, if you ban food and drink, you are taking food out of the mouths of the many vendors who legally sell them all through the system. It is a horrible idea, killing a mosquito with a bomb.

Bolwerk September 4, 2012 - 10:58 am

I never said I’m for banning food or drink. I can see food being debated, but I think banning drinks would be outright harmful to people who use the system – therefore banning drinks is not even a reasonable position. I also explicitly said I’m not a fan of fining people for accidentally spilling things; I simply said it was at least an honest position on the matter to have a policy of fining people who spill, I didn’t say I supported it.

My personal preference is for people to be allowed to eat/drink, but to be responsible for their own waste.

I don’t have a hard number on what the fine should be, but I suspect higher than $100. You need to cover enforcement costs, contribute to cleanup costs, and preferably make it high enough to deter most littering – but not all of it, since you do want to have some people around to fine.

Phantom September 4, 2012 - 7:34 pm

You don’t need for the fine to be huge. You just need a well publicized enforcement blitz.

Once word gets around, the problem’s well on the way to being fixed.

ben September 5, 2012 - 12:41 pm

I think the fine for littering as opposed to a ban on all food/drink is the proper strategy. The trash is the problem; put the enforcement there.

I think we should look at fines for littering as a way to pay for the extra cleaning required. Set them based upon costs: raise them until they balance.

Bolwerk September 6, 2012 - 10:33 am

I don’t know what the fine should be. It kind of depends on how much they want to enforce.

$100 is probably low-balling, just because of the attributable combined enforcement and administration costs alone probably approach that – like I said, some should be left over for cleanup.


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