Home Straphangers Campaign Straphangers study disputes subway cleanliness

Straphangers study disputes subway cleanliness

by Benjamin Kabak

In the grand scheme of the way I use the city’s transit system, I don’t get too worked up over trends in subway car cleanliness. Trains are constantly in motion, and it’s easy to see how one person — that woman who drops her French fries on the ground and tries to hide it by stepping on them; the man using the subway floor for his chewed up sunflower seeds — can ruin it for everyone. By and large, I find subway cars clean enough for every day usage, but not anywhere I’d really want to settle into.

Apparently, though, my standards aren’t high enough. According to a report released last week by the Straphangers Campaign, the subways are not clean. This will come as shocking news to no one, but the Straphangers allege that trains are getting dirtier by the year with the D train leading the way. Here’s the story, straight from the advocacy group’s press release:

The number of clean subway cars declined between 2011 and 2013, according to the thirteenth and fourteenth annual “subway shmutz” surveys released today by the Straphangers Campaign.

Campaign surveyors rated 52% of subway cars as “clean” in a survey conducted in the fall of 2011. But this fell to 42% in an identical survey in the fall of 2013 – a statistically significant decline. This continues a general trend of a decrease in the number of clean subway cars since 2008. Cleanliness dropped from 56% in 2008 to 51% in 2009, then again to 47% in 2010. There was a modest improvement in cleanliness to 52% in 2011, but a significant decrease to 42% in 2013.

The worst performing line in our most recent 2013 survey was the D, with the smallest number of clean cars at 17% in this survey, down from 49% back in 2011. The best performing line in our 2013 survey was the L with 63% of its cars rated clean, up from 58% in 2011. Nine of the twenty subway lines grew significantly worse, while none improved and eleven stayed largely the same.

“Transit officials are losing the war against dirty subway cars,” Jason Chin-Fatt, field organizer for the Straphangers Campaign, said, thus making sure that everything possible is a war.

It’s worth noting that the Straphangers Campaign’s findings and the MTA’s own metrics differ considerably here, and therein lies the story. The MTA believes that 92 percent of its cars are acceptably clean; the Straphangers believe that nearly 60 percent aren’t. The Straphangers believe, even with the number of cleaners holding steady over the past few years, that conditions are worsening; the MTA does not.

The Straphangers couldn’t pinpoint the differences. As they group notes, methodology is nearly identical, but Adam Lisberg, MTA spokesman, last week to vehemently dispute the findings. It seems that the MTA measures car cleanliness at terminals while the Straphangers surveys trains en route. It’s challenging to keep subway cars moving and clean at the same time, and the MTA doesn’t have the manpower to sweep out cars in motion.

Still, even with this back-and-forth, I have to wonder if it really matters. The subways are the subways, and their level of cleanliness, so long as food is allowed and litter laws barely enforced, will have, as the Straphangers have termed it, shmutz. It’s worse in the winter when we track in dirty snow. But give me a train that runs quickly and on time, and I can find a way to forgive some dirt.

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Keith Williams March 24, 2014 - 12:44 am

“Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the c** off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.”

–Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)

Abba March 24, 2014 - 6:12 am

We’ll said Ben.especally for just $2.50.dont like it take a cab which could be even worse in the summer.

Brandon March 24, 2014 - 6:52 am

I mostly find the trains themselves pretty clean, its the STATIONS that are utterly filthy.

D in Bushwick March 24, 2014 - 9:51 am

Why don’t they also rate the condition of stations? Some seem to stay remarkably cleanish while others always seem to be covered in filth.
Each station should also be rated by general cleanliness and also by the state of repair (peeling ceilings, crumbling tile, fury vent covers, etc.)
I’m starting to think the nasty stations we have is why people treat them and the trains the way they do. But that’s no excuse…

John-2 March 24, 2014 - 3:15 pm

The dirty station mindset goes all the way back to the beginning of the system, when too many things were allowed into it that had the potential to create trash. Ronan tried to cope with the problem by banning vending machines in 1971, but the mindset of just tossing your trash anywhere on the platforms was still in place, and has never been eliminated.

New York’s problem is why Washington’s enforced a ‘zero tolerance’ rule on litter from its opening in 1976, and why officials were so hard-headed about maintaining that rule during the great French Fry fight of nine years ago. WMATA came in for lots of ridicule over that one, but that’s the attitude the MTA and the politicians in charge are going to have to take if they want to change the culture here (and as the efforts to successfully stop people from having their dogs poop all over the sidewalks shows, it can be done if there’s enough will to back up the enforcement efforts).

SEAN March 24, 2014 - 3:27 pm

Simple solution – tasers. LOL

BoerumHillScott March 24, 2014 - 8:15 am

I agree that the trains are not too bad, and think the stations are much worse.

Until there is a crackdown on litter, things will not change much, no matter how many cleaners you hire.

Joe March 24, 2014 - 12:25 pm

I don’t even think litter is a huge deal in the stations. It’s the peeling paint, missing tiles, filthy floors, scurrying rats, and sludge dripping everyone that’s utterly disgusting.

SEAN March 24, 2014 - 3:47 pm

I know what you are getting at, but what you are describing is an entirely seperate problem beyond litter.

LLQBTT March 24, 2014 - 9:00 am

I’ve not noticed any material difference over the past few years. I’ll sometimes get into a few dirty cars in a row, and then I won’t ride in one again for a while. And that seems irrespective of the lines I use. Litter is an unfortunate fact of life in Gotham.

OlympusNY March 24, 2014 - 9:53 am

I think more PSAs- print and audio, on the trains and in the stations can help drive awareness. I honestly believe that some parents do not teach their children that littering is not OK…probably because they were not taught by their parents. In this day and age, my jaw drops when I see people blatantly litter. I think education can go a long way towards this problem.

SEAN March 24, 2014 - 3:44 pm

Yes, but lessens like that begin early on in the home.

BrooklynBus March 24, 2014 - 11:50 am

I wonder if Lisberg is telling the truth. I was recruited three times in the 1990s to perform an MTA cleanliness survey. At that time, the MTA checked cleanliness at terminals as well as along the line. I do not remember there being anything wrong with their methodology. I am not familiar with Straphangers’ methodology. I do remember that cars were not always cleaned at the terminals when they were supposed to be cleaned and sometimes the cleaner did a poor job. At that time we did not wear any vests, so the cleaners did not know they were being evaluated. That could be the difference now. Since the MTA evaluators are clearly identified, the cleaners could be doing a better job when they see someone with a vest, so the MTA gets better results.

You should know that if not for Strapangers, the MTA would never be measuring cleanliness at all. They started surveying in 1992 specifically to dispute the findings of Straphangers which they believed were not accurate. Then they stepped up their cleaning efforts when they saw Straphangers was correct, but would never admit that. So we have Straphangers to thank for the relative cleanliness of the subway cars today because they made it an issue.

sonicboy678 March 25, 2014 - 1:32 am

Just last Friday, my friend and I were at Wakefield-241 Street. Long story short, when we stepped on the train, the middle of the car looked like whoever mopped somehow missed it entirely.

anon_coward March 24, 2014 - 12:05 pm

straphangers campaign also says every train should have empty seats during rush hour and that the fare is too high as is

Roxie March 24, 2014 - 1:40 pm

I feel like there’s only maybe 3 trainsets on the D anyway. I always see the same car numbers, to the point where I actually notice it, when I don’t pay attention to car numbers otherwise.
Maybe it’s ‘cuz the R68/As are all on the B and G most of the rest of the time?

Rob March 24, 2014 - 3:09 pm

Right; it’s not a big deal. The point is that non-profit groups like that need to justify their existence. And they usually do that by magnifying problems and with scare tactics. If they admitted 92% of the cars were ok, their membership rolls would be trashed, and they’d be out of business.

SEAN March 24, 2014 - 3:37 pm

Perhaps you have a point with the Straphangers Campaign, but have you watched the local & national news lately? It’s all about scareing the public or infotainment & not real news coverage.

Rob March 25, 2014 - 2:27 pm


Bolwerk March 24, 2014 - 9:07 pm

Who cares where the filth is? Find the cause of the filth and fix it.

Simon March 25, 2014 - 8:48 am

It’s tough to give trains a thorough cleaning and turn them around quickly at terminals. It would be more effective to arrest the slobs who spill crap everywhere and shove food in nooks and crannies.


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