Home New York City Transit Touting success, Transit continues trash can-free pilot program

Touting success, Transit continues trash can-free pilot program

by Benjamin Kabak

Signs Transit used in 2012 explain the reasoning behind the receptacle-free pilot program.

The long-running joke about the MTA’s pilot programs is that they never end; they just fade away. Over the years, the MTA has announced a few high-profile pilot programs — a contact-less fare payment system, strip maps in certain stations to aid in navigation — that seem to simply die from lack of attention. Just take a look through these Google searches for some indication of the reasonably good ideas the agency has pushed through the pilot phase only to see fall be the wayside when agency leadership changes.

One of the few pilot programs with legs — and one that survived the end of the Jay Walder Era — concerns trash cans. This program — which is still in the pilot phase after nearly four years — involves reducing trash the MTA has to collect by simply removing trash cans. If there’s nowhere to deposit trash, the theory goes, the vast majority of people will simply take the trash with them until they pass a trash can. Now, some people are bound to litter whether there’s a trash can nearby or not, but the MTA and other international transit agencies have determined that the vast majority of people won’t discard garbage without a can around. It’s an idea that many struggle with but one that’s proven successful.

The MTA first announced this program back in October of 2011, and I was a bit skeptical as I believed the key to eliminating trash was to ban food. But as time passed, the program seemed to work. Coverage in February of 2012 indicated that the agency had less trash to collect and clean from stations without trash cans, and in May of that year, they announced a program expansion. In August 2012, they added eight more stations, and 29 addition stops saw their garbage cans disappear in early 2014.

Now, touting the program’s success, the MTA is going to not expand it but simply continue it for another 6-12 months to study its effect. It’s not clear why so many years of data isn’t enough to merit expansion, but the MTA wants to continue to analyze the program. “This pilot appears counterintuitive but when we placed notices at the pilot stations indicating that the cans had been removed and asked the customers for their cooperation, it looks like they listened,” New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said. “Given these results, we’ll continue the pilot and monitor and collect additional data at stations.”

In announcing the continuation of what has become the MTA’s most active pilot program, the agency noted that garbage collection is down significantly at the 39 stations under review. The early stations have seen bag collection drop by two-thirds while the stations that saw cans removed just last year have undergone a 36% reduction in trash. Meanwhile, overall trash volumes and, more importantly, rat population at stations without trash cans have declined.

“The reduction in trash in these stations reduced the number of bags to be stored and, consequently, improved the customer experience by reducing the potential bags visible to customers as well as the potential food available to rodents,” Senior Vice President of Subways Joseph Leader said. “Additionally, the significant reduction in trash reduced the need for trash pickups in the pilot stations, which freed up personnel for deployment to other stations.”

It’s not entirely clear where Transit goes from here. They still have another 429 stations with trash cans that could be added to this pilot, and they seem hesitant to include any of the popular stations. Flushing-Main St. on the 7 and 8th St.-NYU on the R remain the two most crowded stations without trash cans, and anecdotally, I’ve certainly not noticed a decrease in cleanliness at either stop.

Ultimately, the MTA can’t eliminate all litter without overly aggressive enforcement, but it seems that removing trash cans can cut down on the garbage the agency has to remove to street level from an above- or underground subway system. So why not keep expanding? After a while, pilot programs have to move into the realm of permanence, and this one seems a good candidate for rapid expansion. After all, it’s been nearly four years.

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Alan Minor August 7, 2015 - 1:17 am

I frequent the Lorimer J/M station, and I haven’t noticed the platforms being any cleaner over the last year. I have noticed an uptick in litter on the tracks at this station and other stations in this pilot program though.

I’d be interested in seeing data on track litter at these pilot stations before and after the cans were removed. However, I doubt I’ll ever see that.

adirondacker12800 August 7, 2015 - 1:19 am

I’m obviously missing something here. If they remove the cans and collections drop 36%… that means there is 64% of the garbage floating around loose in the station.

Bolwerk August 7, 2015 - 10:51 am

Predictor: absence of trash receptacles
Criterion: tendency for users to take their trash with them when they leave system
Evidently the MTA says it’s working. Of course, we all know the MTA is a bunch of book-cookin’ lying liars, but that is roughly how things work in the rest of the world.

But since the NIH crowd insists it isn’t working because they still see trash in stations (and not all of it is theirs), I guess we should dismiss the MTA’s claims. When has the NIH crowd ever been wrong?

John-2 August 7, 2015 - 2:00 am

So far it seems like they’re limiting the test to the lower and mid-volume stations in the system. How well it works will probably be known when they start taking the cans out of the high-volume stations, where if people aren’t carrying their garbage with them, there may be enough extra debris on the tracks to literally spark an increase in track fires.

Nathanael August 7, 2015 - 4:40 pm

In fact, you might expect people to take their trash to the next station with a trash can. If there are no trash cans in the entire system, then you’ll just see more littering.

Nyland8 August 7, 2015 - 6:01 am

Since collecting and disposing of trash costs money, I’m all for removing all the cans tomorrow – and lowering the fare accordingly. But if the fare remains the same, then we’re all paying for the convenience.

Jon Y August 7, 2015 - 9:17 am

Normally I’d agree with you, but the farebox recovery isn’t 100% (closer to 50%). Any cost savings then means more in surplus for things like actually CLEANING the stations.

22rr August 7, 2015 - 4:31 pm

$2.75 is already dirt cheap. Any excess cash the agency finds themselves with should go toward improving the sorry state of train operations.

Herb Lehman August 7, 2015 - 7:24 am

Maybe the stations become cleaner… but then the trains themselves and the surrounding streets become the trash cans. It’s a zero sum game. Anyone who thinks people are just going to keep their trash until they get home are kidding themselves.

Matt August 7, 2015 - 9:44 am

I think we’re missing the forest for the trees here.

If it’s gotten so bad that a government agency is no longer able to even collect trash out of trash cans isn’t it time to blow the whole thing up and start over

Benjamin Kabak August 7, 2015 - 9:52 am

A non-insignificant number of transit agencies don’t even have trash cans in the system at all. If the MTA’s main job is to transport people, why not leave trash collection at ground level to Sanitation?

tacony August 7, 2015 - 10:38 am

The difference is that most transit agencies clean their stations regularly.

The MTA sure goes out of its way to not actually clean stations. It’s not complicated. They just need to pick up garbage and scrub all surfaces regularly. They don’t do that.

This program of just removing trash cans to cut down on trash in stations reminds me of a kid who spends hours devising clever ways to cheat on an exam instead of actually studying.

Herb Lehman August 7, 2015 - 12:59 pm

The more I think about this trash issue, the less well it sits with me. Trash collection is a very basic function of any public facility, transit or not. It seems like a very odd hill for the MTA to continually want to die on. Removing trash cans and expecting people to “take it with them” doesn’t seem a whole lot different to me than removing the lights in the stations and telling passengers to bring their own flashlights.

John August 7, 2015 - 1:05 pm

Well, for one thing – litter in a station is a public nuisance, and providing light is a public safety issue. Not trying to be pedantic, but there is a difference.

Herb Lehman August 7, 2015 - 1:51 pm

OK, point taken. Maybe that’s the wrong analogy.

Let me try again:

I work for the public library system in NYC, and over the past five years we’ve been asked to cut budgets to the bone. There have been cutbacks in all sorts of troubling ways (ordering virtually no books, having no security, etc.) But there’s never once been a discussion about eliminating garbage cans in the library. It’s just one of those things that’s, well, basic.

adirondacker12800 August 7, 2015 - 2:27 pm

It’s a health and life-safety issue. The rats and other vermin eat the food waste. What they eat and drink eventually comes out again. What they don’t eat collects in the nooks and crannies and catches fire.

John-2 August 7, 2015 - 1:18 pm

The MTA is fighting a 111-year-old problem, in that from its inception, the New York City subway system allowed more things to operation within the stations — news stands, food stores and kiosks, vending machines, etc. — capable of producing trash, and there wasn’t enough oversight at the time to keep people from discarding the waste in the stations.

It’s why William Ronan banned the vending machines in the early 70s, and why newer systems that opened during that era, like WMATA, didn’t make the same mistake and enforced strict bans on litter and strict limits on what could be sold in and around their new stations.

There’s still a collective mindset within the city that doesn’t take keeping the stations clean seriously nor fear fines for littering in the stations (WMATA caught grief a decade ago over the French fry kerfuffle that ended up involving Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, but the point of the agency’s effort was an is not to allow the New York mindset about creating opportunities for trash in the subway system to build up among Washington-area riders). The MTA can take the cans out of the stations, but they’re going to have to make a major effort to alter the public’s behavioral patterns, and part of that is that the agency is going to have to keep the stations clean and maintained, beyond the litter itself.

22rr August 7, 2015 - 4:34 pm

yet Tokyo has numerous drink machines on every platform, Berlin has sandwich carts on many platforms, Hong Kong has food shops of every variety a few steps from the platforms…

Marc August 7, 2015 - 3:23 pm

1) How many of those systems do it for security reasons? I was in Paris after 9/11 and the RATP sealed up all the little trash bins and put hoops with clear transparent plastic bags in them for trash to prevent trash cans from being a place to hide bombs. Eliminating them entirely is another was. 2) You could say the same thing about many institutions: parks, museums, government buildings, the Staten Island Ferry. At best, it passes the buck to the next place people go. Good luck finding a street garbage can at 56th & 6th that isn’t overflowing. At worst, people dump their garbage anyway and you have a litter problem and more rats and track fires.

I wouldn’t be so opposed if Sanitation put more recycling bins around the City–and they are–particularly near subway entrances, since I mostly trying to dump AM New York, Metro, or the Village Voice, but that doesn’t help people getting rid of coffee cups and other food containers.

Tower18 August 7, 2015 - 9:55 am

What exactly are they measuring when measuring trash amounts? I could very easily see “total trash” decline, while “trash on platform and tracks” goes up, in the absence of bins. But only talking about “total trash” you wouldn’t see that.

SEAN August 7, 2015 - 10:24 am

Ultimately, the MTA can’t eliminate all litter without overly aggressive enforcement, but it seems that removing trash cans can cut down on the garbage the agency has to remove to street level from an above- or underground subway system.

Why not? overaggressive enforcement has been employed in lesser issues than littering as http://www.lionelmedia.com pointed out the other day.

AlexB August 7, 2015 - 1:01 pm

I think the bigger question is not whether the program is successful, but rather why the MTA was so incapable of keeping their stations and tracks clean. Why do they only have 2 track cleaning trains? Why can’t they keep stations painted? It’s a lack of basic customer service and respect that’s reflected in everything they do.

APH August 7, 2015 - 1:41 pm

Agree 100% – There is no satisfactory explanation for the lack of track cleaning trains and the fact that they don’t clean many of the stations for super long stretches at a time. It seems SO simple that it boggles the mind.

And you’re spot on about the overall lack of upkeep for seemingly simple things: painting the stations (and removing old paint before simply painting over things would be a plus), scrubbing tiles, power washing grime and gum on a regular basis. Could they at least try a pilot program with an “Adopt a Station” concept like highways and get outside money or labor to help. I noted in another thread that the MTA bus uses a 3rd party contractor to power wash, clean, and take care of advertising posters at the glass CEMUSA bus stops and they do a great job – is it really so far-fetched to have these guys work on the subway?

I think it’s silly the MTA has even put so much effort into having trash cans removed at stations.

22rr August 7, 2015 - 4:36 pm

well, to be fair, it’s not just the subways that are a problem. Look at the sidewalks, streets, Port Authority, Penn Station, etc…. not as bad as the subway stations, but still disgusting.

adirondacker12800 August 7, 2015 - 5:20 pm

Shove half the ridership of BART through one NYC subway station they are gonna create as much garbage as half the BART system….
Shove the ridership of BART through Penn Station and they are gonna create the same amount of garbage as the whole BART system…

Anonymous August 8, 2015 - 6:48 am

“Could they at least try a pilot program with an “Adopt a Station” concept like highways and get outside money or labor to help.”

Something tells me that the unions would never allow that.

al August 8, 2015 - 1:32 pm

Spin off the cleaning and maintenance units and have them compete with all the other private sector unions.

JJJJ August 7, 2015 - 2:42 pm

For research purposes, would it make sense to have a pilot where you go to 20 stations and saturate them with trash cans?

Then you compare how much trash is on the tracks, how many track fires, and how many trains get damaged due to trash getting stuck underneath.

Further, if rodents are the problem, stop using bags and start deploying Big Belly trash cans

tacony August 7, 2015 - 3:14 pm

I don’t think the issue is that rodents are infiltrating the MTA’s trash cans. They look pretty sturdy and the design makes it hard for rodents to get in and back out.

The problem seems to be the process by which the MTA empties them. There are often piles of trash bags– sometimes just laying on the end of the platform– waiting to be picked up by the trash train or trash trucks. Sometimes they’re put in bins in storage rooms on the platform for some amount of time before they’re picked up during late night hours. These two scenarios seem to be the areas where rodents are getting at the bagged trash. At least those are the ones I see frequently.

The trash train workers need to be able to pick up the bags of trash very quickly, so I’m not sure they’d have the time to empty Big Belly trash cans.

adirondacker12800 August 7, 2015 - 3:32 pm

Doesn’t matter what kind of trash container you have if someone throws their french fry scoop with four fries left in it onto the tracks.

Ike August 7, 2015 - 8:30 pm

Removing trash receptacles has worked well on the PATH system. This is really surprising to me because it’s so counter-intuitive. However, PATH overall is cleaner than the NYC subway system, so the average schmuck is less likely to litter. When there’s litter, more people will litter more and more, because people are conformists. It’s a self-reinforcing problem. So removing trash cans may not work as well for the MTA, because people may think, “Well, this station is a dump anyway, they can’t even bother to paint it, so the hell with it, I’m throwing my coffee cup anywhere I want.”

Also, occasionally you’ll notice a lot of garbage left on top of certain surfaces in the PATH system — mainly the emergency defibrillators. I don’t know what it is about defibrillators that screams “leave your empty cups and used napkins on top of this!” but something apparently does.

(That’s not to say PATH is a good system overall. Its late night and weekend timetables, among others, are HORRIBLE. I’ll take the MTA *ANY DAY* over the extraordinarily f*cked-up Port Authority which wastes money on a scale that even the MTA would find embarrassing and ridiculous. That said, they’re better at keeping things clean — but then they only have 11 train stations to deal with, not hundreds.)

Rob August 7, 2015 - 9:54 pm

I visited a national park last week and they have the same policy. No trash cans, just signs that tell you to “bring it in, take it out”. It was kind of a pain as I wasn’t expecting it, but I did as the sign said and suspect most others did too as there wasn’t a ton of trash around.

JJJJ August 10, 2015 - 4:49 pm

Except the NYC subway doesnt have bears

pete August 8, 2015 - 2:47 am

If I am at a no trash cans station such as Broadway 8th street, I am going to litter to prove a point. I’ve seen the station cleaner’s dust pan be overflowed with trash, and her abandoning her round due to a full dust pan and going back to her closet/office.

Does the MTA’s statistics about trash count only what the station cleaner picked up with her dust pan and broom, or does it count track trash too? If the cleaner brooms the trash over the edge onto the tracks, the “no trash cans” program is a success. I dont think the VacTrak can’t measure the lbs of trash from a couple hundred feet of vacuuming from out of its 1000s of feet run.

Stephen August 9, 2015 - 7:34 am

This is starting to sound like an exercise in “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.”

AMH August 14, 2015 - 9:53 am

“the agency had less trash to collect and clean from stations with trash cans”

Wait, shouldn’t that be “stations without trash cans”? Or did the other stations see a decrease too?


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