Home Straphangers Campaign Straphanger study highlights platform problems

Straphanger study highlights platform problems

by Benjamin Kabak

The walls at Park Place have seen better days. (Photo via the Straphangers Campaign)

In an ideal world, New Yorkers spend very few minutes on subway platforms. Trains whisk us away from these waiting areas, and they become liminal zones we pass through on the way to and from various destination. But it doesn’t always work that way. We wait and take in our surroundings, and what we see is not always pretty.

As the MTA has struggled to maintain the systems that move trains — switches, tracks, signals — the station environment has often drawn the short straw. Generally, the work performed to make walls and platforms look good is cosmetic, but it causes service disruptions as trains have to be rerouted to ensure the safety of the workers. It makes sense, in a way, for the MTA to prioritize key components, but riders who want a pleasant experience often don’t agree. They want nice platforms that are clean without a sense of neglect. They don’t want dirt and grime, but that’s what they’re getting.

Yesterday, the Straphangers Campaign released its assessment of subway platforms and, not so surprisingly, found platforms to be “grim” and “dirty.” Their findings included observations of garbage on platforms and staircases or handrails in disrepair. Nearly a quarter of platforms had exposed wiring or “substantial areas of missing tile.” A third of all stations had visible graffiti and 40 percent had floor cracks. Another similar survey conducted at fewer platforms found rats at 13 percent of platforms and broken light fixtures at 20 percent of platforms. Water damage and peeling paint were found at over three quarters of the platforms.

“We found what many riders know from bitter daily experience: Many subway platforms are grim and dreary,” Jason Chin-Fatt, the Straphangers Campaign field organizer, said. In four metrics, the Straphangers found the station environments to be worse this year than last. Those include exposed wiring, graffiti, missing tile and lighting. The aesthetics, in other words, are on the decline.

Interesting, the MTA issued a defensive statement in response to the Straphangers’ report. Here it is in its entirety:

Safety is our top priority when it comes to the condition of our stations and platforms and all safety-related defects are repaired in short order. Our operating and maintenance forces have identified and repaired more station defects each of the last few years than ever before and we are on target to surpass last year’s results. In 2012, over 39,000 defects were repaired and we are projected to complete more than 53,000 in 2013, a 36% increase.

The items in the Straphangers report highlight elements that would be extremely costly to keep in perfect condition and would do little, if anything to either improve service or make stations safer. We have to prioritize projects using available funds to address the most pressing needs first.

Over the years, the MTA has issued various reports concerning the items identified in the Straphangers’ report, and ultimately, it all boils down to prioritization and use. If the items in question do not impact core functions — that is, the running of the trains — the MTA is hesitant to begin costly cosmetic improvements. For the sake of the agency’s delicate bottom line, I understand it, but should we accept it?

The stations themselves set the tone for the system. If passengers see stations that are well-kempt and in good repair, they are more likely to appreciate and enjoy the subways while working to keep it clean. If stations are a mess, customers will treat the subways as such. There’s no easy way out of this problem since nice stations cost a lot in both money and diversions, but it’s not a black-and-white issue that can be boiled down to a price tag.

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Ray October 31, 2013 - 9:11 am

Would “Sponser a station (sort of like “Sponser a Highway” work?
I’m not thinking rebranding here.

outerboroughs October 31, 2013 - 1:57 pm

It would play out like park conservancy’s. Stations in well off neighborhoods will get fixed up, maybe by the local BID and look real nice like central park while the rest of the city’s stations continue to fall apart – and the better it looks in nice areas, the less likely it is that you’d be able to get the MTA the funding it needs.

Josh Kahn October 31, 2013 - 5:39 pm

This is already the case — just take a ride on the C train. The walls at 50th – 110th are sparkling. However once you get up to around 145th, they just get nastier.

Frankly I would love to get a volunteer team together to clean my local station, where the walls haven’t been washed in the last decade (175th) if the MTA doesn’t have resources to do so. But would this violate a union agreement?

Spendmore Wastemore October 31, 2013 - 9:04 pm

In other words, someone volunteered either time or cash to maintain the neighborhood. In the biz district, that would be a local business association. Outside CBD, residents could do it, but the unions would probably kill any sort of volunteer effort.

There’s more than enough drug money in uptown to make those stations spotless… and that’s from tax-free income.

Any day now, civic-minded substance importers will spruce up their neighborhood.

John-2 October 31, 2013 - 9:22 am

The advantage of island platform stations — especially in the era of ADA — is they cut down on redundancy of stairs, elevators, escalators and fare control areas. The disadvantage, long term, is that unlike side platforms, where the walls are away from the tracks, doing anything to fix water (and other) stains or missing tile requires either line detours to neighboring express tracks or complete stoppage of service through the station while work crews go in to do repairs.

You really do need something of a Fastrack program just to have time to do the island platform stations’ wall work efficently (and hopefully if the MTA has any wall work plans for City Hall, Whitehall, Court or Lawrence while they’re partially shut down during the Montague tunnel repairs, they’ll do it now when traffic’s stopped on weekends, and that station wall work on other hard-to-get-to stops like Bedford Avenue on the L will also be coordinated with the time period when the post-Sandy tunnel repairs are done).

Ray October 31, 2013 - 9:26 am

I meant to say “Adopt a highway”

BrooklynBus October 31, 2013 - 10:23 am

Adopt a Station is not a new idea. I always thought it would work at least in Manhattan. it may have even been tried. I do not remember for sure.

BrooklynBus October 31, 2013 - 10:29 am

While I agree with most of the MTA’s response, I think it is a disgrace that three quarters of the stations should need a paint job and I don’t see what is so “costly” about a coat of paint. I understand why you don’t want to paint where there is a water problem that needs to be addressed, but that can’t be the cause of all the places where paint is peeling.

Many stations have not seen a coat of paint in over a generation. Joe Lhota as chairman even said he would accelerate the paint program but wasn’t around long enough to make it happen. Painting is a very cost effective improvement.

VLM October 31, 2013 - 10:34 am

Painting is quick and easy. Lead paint remediation is time consuming and expensive. That’s the major reason why the paint program has stalled, and it ties in nicely and obviously with your point that some stations haven’t been painted in over a generation. It’s related!

Bolwerk October 31, 2013 - 11:15 am

Doesn’t it make more sense to just paint if they’re going to wait decades to do remediation anyway? I would think that would make lead less of a threat.

tacony October 31, 2013 - 11:16 am

The MTA’s response is really disappointing. I know people don’t always buy into broken windows theory anymore but the post-apocalyptic stations contribute to an atmosphere of dysfunction and I think people are more likely to litter in the stations because they already look like garbage. Somebody eating a bag of chip looks down at the littered trackbed and grimey gum-spotted floor throws his bag down there among the 30 others. He wouldn’t do it to a squeaky clean station.

And the MTA could do a lot to improve stations without spending much money or disrupting service. Get out there with a mop and bucket and scrub those yellow platform edge strips until they aren’t black anymore! There was a huge gross glob of purple (gum? food? whatever) on a stairwell in my local station for months and nobody ever cleaned it up — it eventually wore away from weather and wear from people not watching their step.

The subway cars used to look like hell as well but we suddenly decided to do something about them in the 80s. Why can’t stations see a similar transformation?

Eric Brasure October 31, 2013 - 11:23 am

I agree with this. I’ve ridden subway systems in Europe and North America (some as old or older than the New York subway), and they are all well-lit and reasonably clean and well-maintained. I fundamentally do not understand why our stations looks like this.

Well, I do understand–it’s the hangover of deferred maintenance.

BrooklynBus October 31, 2013 - 12:44 pm

They also did something about the stations. They removed the graffiti and kept it off, but aside from station modernization, that’s as far as the routine maintenance got.

What I don’t understand is that when they retile floors, they don’t order any replacement tiles, so as so soon as a tile wears out, it is either replaced with a mismatched tile or a concrete patch, making the platform look like sh*t.

Eric Brasure October 31, 2013 - 4:38 pm

For as much as anecdotal evidence is worth, to your point about litter, I have never, never encountered as much litter strewn about on sidewalks, in gutters, and on subway tracks as I have in New York.

Tower18 October 31, 2013 - 12:00 pm

Aside from the maintenance issues, the cleanliness issue is somewhat unique to New York. Systems in Boston and Chicago that are substantially similar to New York’s are much much cleaner as it relates to litter and such. Forget DC, which is on a whole different level.

The “ah what the hell, I’ll just drop my trash here” is really endemic to New York, and not seen elsewhere in the United States on such a scale. Some have posited that it comes from the habits of immigrants who come to the US and, back in the motherland, picking up garbage was the work of the lowest classes, so it is their custom to just drop things. Except that’s not how it works here. I’m not sure if that fully explains it, or is just xenophobia, but it does make -some- sense.

BruceNY October 31, 2013 - 2:16 pm

I agree with points on all of the comments above. And you don’t even need to look at other cities in the U.S. for better station upkeep–just take the PATH train and see. The floors are actually shiny!

The MTA has always let station maintenance drop off the priority list entirely. It is appalling to see the condition of some stations. The last time I saw Chambers St. on the J, I thought of some sort of archaeological ruin from antiquity. Even West 4th St.–one of the busiest–has acres of stained or missing wall tiles, and peeling paint chips falling from the ceiling. A ride up the escalator from the 6th Ave. to 8th Ave. platforms elicited “Eewwws!” as the walls were so filthy. Most station cleaners do little more than sweep up whatever litter happens to be within easy arms reach into their dustpans.
(However, I must commend the cleaner at Lexington/60th who was actually wiping the escalator rails with a cleaning cloth–what a shock that was!)

Having vented all that–I must say I think the Fast Track program has done a lot to make certain improvements. Track litter is disappearing, ceilings are being painted (albeit black over the tracks which only adds to the dreary darkness). But they seem to miss all the nooks & crannies when cleaning where soot, grime & gunk accumulate for years.

Tower18 October 31, 2013 - 4:10 pm

Black over the tracks is the right move. Chicago for a while (maybe still) insisted on painting their subway stations white. White concrete, not even ceramic tile. Yes, they were disgusting within weeks.

BruceNY November 1, 2013 - 1:43 am

White ceilings don’t seem to get disgusting in Tokyo or Paris.

Alon Levy October 31, 2013 - 4:04 pm

Is Toronto also dirty? Because Vancouver, which is also an immigrant city, is reasonably clean, and SkyTrain doesn’t have trash on the tracks.

Tower18 October 31, 2013 - 4:08 pm

No, Toronto is spotless as well, both in and out of the subway (although the city is certainly dirtier than the average Canadian city, it’s spotless compared to most American cities). I can’t speculate on why those cities are cleaner, except the general Canadian culture of cleanliness and politeness vs. that of New York. There’s also a more substantial tolerance for public sector employment in Canada, and those are the people who sweep.

Bolwerk October 31, 2013 - 5:09 pm

The NYC Subway might be the most overstaffed in the world.

Hmmmm... November 1, 2013 - 12:55 am

Show your work, please.

Alon Levy November 1, 2013 - 10:00 pm

Compare number of employees with number of revenue train-hours at other systems that report numbers of employees (not all do).

Peter October 31, 2013 - 2:38 pm

There’s an issue beyond deterioration: the fact that the MTA itself (or its contractors) frequently do incredibly shoddy work in stations. I was waiting on the downtown 1 train platform at Columbus Circle recently, standing beneath a wifi transmitter that had been suspended from the ceiling. That part of the station has a dropped ceiling, and two jagged ugly holes had been cut into it to make room for the supports for the transmitter. Wiring and other fixtures above the dropped ceiling were clearly visible through the holes. This is a small thing that degrades no one’s travel, but why can’t the MTA be bothered to install the transmitter in a more aesthetically pleasant way? The Columbus Circle station was just rehabbed a couple years ago, meaning those sloppy holes will probably be there for decades to come.

Frequently it seems that this sort of work in stations is performed as quickly and as cheaply as possible, with little regard for workmanship or aesthetic quality. On a case-by-case basis, the shoddiness is not appalling, but the cumulative effect is noticeable.

John Doe October 31, 2013 - 4:46 pm

Banning food/drink would help a ton!!! Some people in this town are absolutely filthy!! No food/drink = less vermin!! Let’s do it!!

asar October 31, 2013 - 9:05 pm

The station that has rats , paint peeling, & water damage is the 21st station on the G. That station has NEVER SEEN BETTTER days. Hopefully they put it into rehab while reconstructing the greenpoint tubes.

Spiderpig October 31, 2013 - 9:50 pm

His name is really Chin Fatt? Ugh.

mattmaison November 1, 2013 - 9:48 am

How much could it cost to power-wash the walls once a decade or so?…

Tower18 November 1, 2013 - 12:22 pm

I bet enough people would VOLUNTEER to power-wash the walls on a YEARLY basis to do at least the worst offenders. But that would be against the rules.

Josh Kahn November 1, 2013 - 4:12 pm

I would do this absolutely in a heart beat right now if it were allowed.

Have to imagine there’s a way to pitch a volunteer clean up crew to the MTA

BrooklynBus November 1, 2013 - 7:14 pm

Can imagine a whole bunch of problems like protests by the union, legal issues, having to sign a zillion waivers and of course having to take the track safety course. Can’t imagine the MTA woud agree. How about corporations and businesses making donations to the MTA specifically for this purpose? That way the MTA workers do the work so there is no training or legal issues involved and it is less embarrassing for them.

Josh Kahn November 1, 2013 - 7:16 pm

Absolutely right for all of the above reasons — though let’s be honest. You could stand on a platform two feet behind the yellow line aiming a hose at the wall and it would make a massive improvement.

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