Home View from Underground Stringer: Subway cleanliness falling well behind MTA standards

Stringer: Subway cleanliness falling well behind MTA standards

by Benjamin Kabak

Litter may stop here, but is anyone around to clean it up?

Having spent so much time traveling over the past few months, I’ve missed some key bits of subway news. While the broad strokes — a still-unopened 7 line extension, a renewed focus on opening the Second Ave. Subway on time, no action from Gov. Cuomo on the MTA’s capital funding gap — haven’t escaped my attention, some important items that deserve a post slipped by. One of those items was a May report from Scott Stringer’s office on the MTA’s inadequate cleaning efforts.

Over the past few years, the MTA has faced mounting criticism over trash and rats. One thing I noticed while traveling abroad is how utterly devoid other subway systems are of garbage on the tracks, garbage on the platforms, garbage bags sitting around. On the one hand, that’s because these systems shut down at night which give crews the ability to clean without disrupting service. On the other, keeping stations cleaner seems more ingrained in the cultural norms surrounding transit ridership. (Subway car cleanliness is a different beast.)

In New York, the MTA has tried to eliminate garbage cans from certain stations to encourage riders to take trash out of the system, and constant announcements remind us that trash can cause track fires and, thus, delays. Without an equal effort on the MTA’s part to actually clean, though, asking nicely won’t amount to much, and in that regard, according to the New York City comptroller, the MTA’s efforts are lagging woefully behind.

“The MTA is constantly reminding riders to clean up after themselves, but they’re setting a poor example by letting piles of trash on the tracks fester for months on end,” Stringer said. “Our auditors observed rats scurrying over the tracks and onto subway platforms, and it’s almost as if they were walking upright – waiting to take the train to their next meal. This is a daily, stomach-turning insult to millions of straphangers, and it’s unworthy of a world-class City.”

The report — available here as a PDF — paints a rather unflattering picture. Noting that the MTA has stressed Fastrack as a way to improve station and system cleanliness, Stringer highlights just how far its own goals the MTA is, especially considering the $240 million per year the MTA spends on cleaning and maintenance. For instance, the MTA wants its stations cleaned once every three weeks, and Stringer’s team found during its one-year audit that only seven stations were cleaned that frequently. Most underground stations were cleaned around 3-6 times per year while some were cleaned just once. One station — 138th St. on the Lexington Ave. IRT — wasn’t cleaned at all.

Meanwhile, as far as track cleanliness goes, the MTA aims to clean all tracks twice a year, but Stringer’s team found that the agency’s vacuum trains aren’t up to the task. One of the two trains was out of service for nearly the entire 12-month audit period while the functioning train picked up only around 30% of the debris. “Virtually all of the same trash,” the report noted, “remained in the roadbed after the vacuum train was employed to clean it up.”

For its part, the MTA didn’t dispute Stringer’s findings too aggressively and, in fact, agreed with most of them. The agency is buying three new vacuum trains that should be better than the two currently on hand, and they are working to better deploy cleaning crews to dirtier areas. But ultimately, these problems are economic and systematic. The MTA needs to — and should — budget more for cleaning crews. Stations are the most customer-facing part of the system, and they should be viewed as the visual presentation of the system. Riders take cues from their environment, and right now, the environment screams “garbage.” With the money to clean — and perhaps some flexibility on who can clean from the union — the system overall would look and feel much more inviting.

“Fares keep going up, but anyone who takes the trains can tell you that we haven’t seen a meaningful reduction in rats, garbage and peeling paint,” Stringer said. “New York City Transit management needs to get its priorities straight and start deploying its resources to help improve conditions underground.”

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Larry Littlefield July 13, 2015 - 9:31 am

“Fares keep going up, but anyone who takes the trains can tell you that we haven’t seen a meaningful reduction in rats, garbage and peeling paint,” Stringer said.

Given that he was basically put in place by the public employee unions and contractors, doesn’t he think the fact that they are taking more and providing less is a good thing? Or is he trying to distance himself from his crowd?

“New York City Transit management needs to get its priorities straight and start deploying its resources to help improve conditions underground.”

So what should be cut? Non-union personnel, and their wages should be frozen? Already done. Stop paying back Generation Greed’s debts? Stop paying for Generation Greed’s pension increases? I doubt that is what he suggests.

There is only one response to this.

“Scott Stringer, why are you and your crowd doing this to us?”

AG July 13, 2015 - 5:23 pm

Stringer is a politician… He’s always been a panderer. What do you expect?

Larry Littlefield July 14, 2015 - 9:43 am

I expect that at some point someone will start calling these people on this shtick. Knowing what I do, I find it absolutely infuriating. Ben is much too nice about it.

Larry Littlefield July 13, 2015 - 9:33 am

One more point. With Metrocard machines, station personnel sell vastly fewer tokens. The MTA asked its token clerks to spend some time outside the booth cleaning up. Stringer’s TWU supporters said no freakin way suckers.

Christopher July 13, 2015 - 10:21 am

At the end of June I was in Chicago, which is where I grew up, but I forgot how CLEAN the city is. The L is quite spotless. All the stations look clean and well painted. The streets zero litter. Some of that is because of the alley system and underground network of roads that take trash collection away from public view. But I found several times that I was in slightly bad neighborhoods as I walked around and if it weren’t for the empty storefronts and abandoned buildings I wouldn’t have known. Spotless streets and sidewalks. The buses there were also really nice, comfortable bucket seats, tap to pay boarding and LED signs that told you wanted streets were coming up. I took buses all over. I’m a frequent bus rider in NYC too but in Chicago it was much easier.

Charles Krueger July 15, 2015 - 11:35 am

Philadelphia is likewise very clean.

AG July 15, 2015 - 5:19 pm

I hope you are only referring to the the transit system in Philly… It can’t be the city itself. Try going north of Spring Garden if that be the case.

Charles Krueger July 15, 2015 - 5:37 pm

Yes. I think it’s much cleaner underground than it is on the surface.

Dorine July 13, 2015 - 10:35 am

“In New York, the MTA has tried to eliminate garbage cans from certain stations to encourage riders to take trash out of the system…”

Who are they kidding – encourage people to carry their trash? This city is full of lazy people who won’t walk more than 3ft to throw something in a garbage can. If a can isn’t right next to them, or is even a mere 10ft away, it’s thrown on the ground. Seen it too many times. If I’m near or going brand see that, I will pick it up and put it in the can.

Christopher July 14, 2015 - 9:20 am

It might seem counter-intuitive but those stations that experimented with it saw a decline in litter. If we can’t test new methods and ideas because “intuition” tells us that these won’t work, we’ll never grow as a city.

It’s the “intuition first” crowd that blocks all street improvements and any attempt to restrict raffle or parking because they “just know”. We don’t know until we try and test and measure it.

Dorine July 13, 2015 - 10:36 am

** going by, not going brand.

Larry Littlefield July 13, 2015 - 12:46 pm

Right. Before playing paddleball at the local court I usually have to pick up the garbage from the night before and move it to a trash can a few feet away.

Culture can change, even in “hurray for me, to hell with you” NYC. It used to be only the vigilant could walk more than block without stepping in dog crap. That is no longer the case.

Bolwerk July 13, 2015 - 12:42 pm

It’s a pretty simple enforcement problem that can pay for itself to fix. Just aggressively fine litterers, and use the proceeds for cleanup. It works above ground and below ground.

Ironically, you can probably blame broken windows authoritarians for the problem here. The obsessive focus with arresting people for so-called “quality of life” crimes and even victimless crimes has caused the police state crowd, which runs the gamut from Pat Lynch to Bill de Blasio, to neglect widespread problems that actually impact people.

In the end, that means resources that could be going to making this city clean instead for to paying out settlements for police violence.

JJJJ July 13, 2015 - 2:06 pm

NYC is a pigsty. I cant think of a single other Western city which is so disgusting. Trash everywhere.

AG July 13, 2015 - 5:20 pm

Philadelphia… Baltimore… Rio…DC used to be.. Those are just the ones I know. Yes – disgusting though.

JJJ July 14, 2015 - 10:45 am

My experience in Philly is limited to Center City, but I found it to be much cleaner than NYC. Their subway, and PATCO, also clean. DC is pristine (well Ive never been to Anacostia, but everywhere else). From my memory, Rio has an ocean trash problem, not a street trash problem.

AG July 14, 2015 - 1:46 pm

Well if you are only comparing city centers that is a different story. I mean even 34th street can look pristine. I’m talking about the places where people live. Generally in poor areas – you have filth. There are plenty of those in Philly and Baltimore… Though DC is gentrifying there are still plenty of those. In NYC – neighborhoods like Morris Park or Bayside are very clean.
As to subways/transit – then yes – NYC is most certainly the dirtiest though.

adirondacker12800 July 14, 2015 - 2:53 pm

NYC has the most people passing through it.
Wikipedia says the busiest station on the DC Metro is Union Station. 32,465 average weekday boardings. There are stations in the outer boroughs with more ridership.


The ten busiest stations have almost as many passengers passing through the turnstiles as there are on next busiest system and all of it’s stations.

Bolwerk July 14, 2015 - 1:49 pm

I don’t get the consistent NIH mystery about this. Nearly every other place on Earth has institutions that deal with trash pickup properly.

Michael July 13, 2015 - 2:13 pm

From the article: “One station — 138th St. on the Lexington Ave. IRT — wasn’t cleaned at all.”

I have not read the report, and the answer is probably in the report.

There are FOUR (4) IRT stations on 138th Street in the Bronx!

138th Street-Grand Concourse – #4 & #5
138th Street-Third Avenue – #6
138th Street-Brook Avenue – #6
138th Street-Cypress Avenue – #6

Maybe I’m just being picky, or maybe it is the way some stations get referred to, in a short-hand kind of way.

Still that is a glaring over-sight.


VLM July 13, 2015 - 2:18 pm

I’d hardly consider a “glaring oversight” that Ben forgot to mention that it’s the 4/5 stop at Grand Concourse and 138th St. Relax.

AG July 13, 2015 - 5:14 pm

Yeah the MTA could do better – but the real fault is the disgusting riders. I’ve seen people throw trash in a clean car. I’ve seen it thrown on a clean platform – sometimes with a garbage can 30 feet away. A lot of people are just plain disgusting. Most have no shame either because when I stare at them they just look away like nothing happened.

John Doe July 14, 2015 - 5:00 pm

Banning food on the subway would help cut down on the trash problem. Also, eating food on the subway is a disgusting habit.

AG July 14, 2015 - 5:11 pm

That is true – but littering is also banned. Without enforcement it does nothing.

Brooklynite July 14, 2015 - 9:22 pm

Step 1. Ban food and drink except for water.
Step 2. Fine people who eat and/or litter.
Step 3. Use said money to hire more cleaners.
Step 4. …
Step 5. Profit!


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