|Summary of Findings|
As ridership soars on New York City's subways, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority must make sure that it keeps subway cars clean. By November 1998, new discounts had attracted 303,000 more riders every weekday compared to 1997--riders who expect and deserve clean subway cars.
Our survey determines whether New York City Transit is keeping subway car floors and seats clean of dirt and other ground-in filth. As anyone knows, floors and other surfaces anywhere require constant cleaning. Dirt and other muck gets tracked in as a matter of course.
In this report, we review whether New York City Transit is beating back the filth--or surrendering to it. We surveyed 2,066 subway cars in July, August and September 1998 to find out whether cars are being mopped and otherwise cleaned, not whether litter is being picked up.
Here is what we found:
1. Subway cars have gotten dirtier in the last year. In 1998, we found that 73% of cars are dirty or heavily dirty. This compares to our 1997 survey, released last April, in which we found that 68% of cars were dirty or heavily dirty. The worsening trend is statistically significant. See Graph 1.
2. Subway cars are far dirtier than New York City Transit officials say they are, although transit surveys show deteriorating conditions as well. New York City Transit's Passenger Environment Survey survey for the 3rd Quarter 1998 rated only 41% of subway car floors and seats as dirty or heavily dirty, while our survey gives failing ratings to 73% of cars. Litter conditions, however, remained about the same.
As in our survey, however, the PES shows worsening conditions. In the Third Quarter 1997, the PES gave a failing rating to 32% of cars, compared to this year's 41%.
3. Riders on three lines--the 7, B and R--enjoy cleaner cars than riders on the other 17 lines we surveyed. Riders on the E, M, G, L and 6 travel on the filthiest lines, according to our survey. Our surveyors found that six in 10 cars on the 7 line were clean or extraordinarily clean, while only 1% of E line cars--the worst in our survey--were rated clean or extraordinarily clean. The 7, B and R were the only lines with ratings indicating that more than 50% of the cars we surveyed were clean or extraordinarily clean. See See Graph 2. Also see Table: Clean Cars by Line.
4. New York City Transit did not hire additional car cleaners in 1998, in spite of its own reports and public criticism. The budgeted force remained at 958 cleaners, 22% less than in 1994 and a far greater reduction than originally planned. The number of cleaning supervisors increased to 88 from 66 in 1997, but it did not appear to have an immediate effect. New York City Transit employed 104 supervisors in 1996. [After we released our report, New York City asserted that it had added 238 cleaners in December, 1998. We have not confirmed this.]
5. New York City did not set meaningful goals for subway-car cleanliness, as recommended in our previous report. Managers consider a car clean when it has a "dingy floor [and] one or two sticky dry spots." This qualifies as a dirty car by any reasonable standard.
Who's really to blame for filthy subways? Is it the MTA's own lackluster management--which cut the number of subway car cleaners by 22 percent and put all bets on using welfare recipients to mop the subways? Or is it riders who litter and track dirt into subway cars, as some editorial writers and letters-to-the-editor writers argue?
That's the spirited public debate that the Straphangers Campaign's first report on subway car cleanliness, "Subway Shmutz," sparked after its release in April 1998. Editorialists in the Post, News and New York Observer all commented on what the Observer called "subway sludge." Noting that the MTA had cut its cleaning force, the Post wrote: "It stands to reason that if you have more money, and more riders, you might want to bring on a few more folks to clean."
Several Daily News letter writers tossed out their own thoughts, with one noting: "Riders are slobs." (We consider our survey a measure of subway grime, not litter. In other words, we rate whether subway cars are getting mopped and whether particularly offensive litter is picked up, not whether the cleaners are collecting general litter.)
Elected officials also chimed in. Mayor Giuliani pledged that Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, an MTA board member, would press for cleaner subways. Later in the year, when the MTA's own survey showed deteriorating conditions, City Council Speaker Vallone proposed using a growing New York City Transit surplus to hire more cleaners.
For most of 1998, however, the MTA itself took little new action to deal with the filthy conditions--and the evidence is in our survey's results. A New York City Transit spokesman said in April that the authority believed it was "doing a pretty effective job;" in November, MTA Chairman E. Virgil Conway told reporters that the subways were cleaner than years past in spite of internal MTA data to the contrary. While some new supervisors were hired, New York City Transit did not hire any additional cleaners.
In the face of its own data and heavy public pressure, though, the MTA finally responded in December 1998. Instead of restoring full-time cleaners to the job, however, it revived its ill-fated plan from 1996 to use welfare recipients enrolled in the city's Work Experience Program. The decision to use welfare recipients by the MTA again raises real questions about the transit agency's commitment to clean subway cars. The MTA has chosen a path fraught with legal peril--one group has threatened to sue if the program does start--rather than simply rehiring cleaners with its substantial budget surplus. [After we released our report, New York City asserted that it had added 238 cleaners in December, 1998. We have not confirmed this.]
Adding new cleaners would be only the start of a new commitment toward cleaner subways. The MTA must take other steps, too. For instance, it should toughen its own internal standards, which allow filthy cars to get a passing grade in New York City Transit's Passenger Environment Survey. Another step would be to reevaluate how it assigns cleaners, whether cleaners have enough time to clean cars, and whether there is proper supervision at terminals and yards.
New York City Transit's subway car cleaning manual states that "each railcar in the New York City Transit subway fleet is to be kept continously clean..." When we first surveyed subway car cleanliness in the 3rd Quarter 1997, we wanted to see whether that standard was being met. The news disturbed us. We found that 68% of the subway cars we surveyed were dirty--dirty not because of litter but because New York City Transit had failed to mop and clean the trains.
In our latest report, conducted a year later, we wanted to find out whether New York City Transit had cleaned up its act, as it had claimed, or if riders still rode in filthy trains.
Once again, we rated floor and seat cleanliness. We believe the floor and seat cleanliness measurement reflects most closely the success or failure of the car cleaning program.
We do not evaluate New York City Transit's efforts to combat litter. The transit agency has more control over whether floors are washed, seats are clean and whether offensive or dangerous items are removed from cars than it does over commonplace litter. That makes cleanliness a fairer measure of the agency's performance.
We strive to conduct our car cleanliness surveys using the same measurements and standards as New York City Transit's own respected quarterly survey, the Passenger Environment Survey (PES). We use the same four-level rating system and give ratings based on the exact same criteria as the PES.
We examined the amount of dirt--particularly build-ups of ground-in dirt--on floors and seats and the presence of bottles, cans and exposed food. (Food waste, bottles and cans have been identified in rider surveys as particularly offensive or dangerous. In our survey, as in the PES, bottles, cans and exposed food automatically earn a subway car the worst possible rating.)
In July, August and September 1998, our 18 surveyors rated 2,066 subway cars, including at least 95 cars on each of 20 subway lines.
What did we find?
1. Subway cars have gotten dirtier in the last year. In 1998, we found that 73% of cars are dirty or heavily dirty. This compares to our 1997 survey, released last April, in which we found that 68% of cars were dirty or heavily dirty. The worsening trend is statistically significant.
2. Far too many subway cars in the New York City Transit fleet are filthy. Our surveyors found that almost three in four cars (73%) earned a rating of either a "heavily dirty" or "dirty" level of filth. Nearly half (47%) of the cars warranted what we call a "heavily dirty" rating. See Graph 1.
3. Ninety percent of subway cars that we rated as having "dirty" or "heavily dirty" conditions earned that rating because of unwashed floors or seats.
Only about 10% earned these poor ratings because of food waste, cans or bottles on the floors or seats.
4. Riders on three lines--the 7, B and R--enjoy cleaner cars than riders on the other 17 lines we surveyed. Riders on the E, M, G, L and 6 travel on the filthiest lines, according to our survey. See See Graph 2. Also see Table: Clean Cars by Line.
Our surveyors found that six in 10 cars on the 7 line were clean or extraordinarily clean, while fewer than 1% of E line cars--the worst in our survey--were rated clean or extraordinarily clean. The 7, B and R were the only lines with ratings indicating that more than 50% of the cars we surveyed were clean or extraordinarily clean.
5. There is no clear difference between the numbered, or A division, lines and the lettered, or B division, lines. In 1997, the A division clearly outperformed the B division.
6. Our survey shows worse conditions than a survey conducted by transit officials for the same period, but the transit survey shows deteriorating conditions as well. We found a far higher percentage of dirty and heavily dirty cars than that reported in New York City Transit's Passenger Environment Survey for the 3rd Quarter 1998.
According to New York City Transit's 3rd Quarter 1998 ratings, 41% of the subway cars surveyed in the PES deserved failing "heavy" dirt or "moderate" dirt ratings. These are the equivalent of our "heavily dirty" and "dirty" ratings. Our surveyors gave similar failing grades to 73% of the cars they surveyed.
In the 3rd Quarter 1997, the PES gave failing ratings to 32% of the subway cars, while in the 3rd Quarter 1996 the PES gave failing ratings to 24% of cars. This is a dramatic downward trend over the last three years.
One reason for the difference between our survey and the PES may be that our surveyors rated some subway cars on evenings and weekends, when cleaning staff coverage may be less extensive; PES staff rate subway cars only during business hours on weekdays. We also surveyed some subway cars at terminals at the end of their trips, in some instances before they were cleaned and returned to revenue service. However, in most cases, we surveyed cars in terminals only as the trains were about to pick up passengers.
In our April 1998 report, we speculated that the worsening conditions could be attributed to New York City Transit's experiment with a new supervision system in the 3rd Quarter 1997 that relied on employees who had other duties. New York City Transit has abandoned the experimental system, but with no increase in the number of cleaners, performance still lags.
When we released "Subway Shmutz," our first report on subway-car cleanliness in April 1998, we recommended that the MTA hire more cleaners. We also made four other recommendations that we believed would result in cleaner subway cars. Unfortunately, the MTA did not hire more cleaners or adopt our other recommendations. Nor did MTA board members push for monthly reports on cleaning, as we had recommended.
Under considerable pressure in late 1998 to hire cleaners in the wake of our report, New York City Transit's own internal surveys and a spate of editorials, the MTA opted instead to pursue a 1996 plan to use 1,000 enrollees in the city's Work Experience Program to clean the subways. This program would use workfare recipients to take the place of union employees, raising legal questions that are likely to be raised in court. (See below.) In the meantime, subway riders continue to endure filthy conditions. The MTA retains a surplus of at least $113 million that could be used in part to hire new cleaners immediately. [After we released our report, New York City asserted that it had added 238 cleaners in December, 1998. We have not confirmed this.]
Adding cleaners is the foundation leading to a more pristine subway. The MTA also must monitor its cleaning operation more carefully by honing its monitoring operation and improving supervision. It also must make sure not to repeat history by cutting the cleaning staff further the next time a money crisis hits.
We repeat our April 1998 recommendations here, with some updates. Here are five ways that the MTA, the city and the state, can recommit to the lost vision of a clean subway system:
1. Hire enough cleaners to get to 1994 personnel levels or better. Hire enough supervisors to oversee cleaners. It is hardly a shock that subway cars are filthy: eight cleaners are trying to do a job it took 10 cleaners to do in 1994. Since cleaning a subway car takes no less time now than it did four years ago, the MTA should use a portion of its remaining $113 million surplus to add to its depleted force of cleaners.
(New York City Transit's plan to use workfare recipients has not yet begun, and there is widespread skepticism about whether the program will work. Among the pitfalls the agency faces are a promised lawsuit filed by the National Employment Law Project if the program moves forward; a likely challenge from the Subway Surface Supervisors Association if regular cleaners are used as supervisors; and concerns about whether the workfare participants will receive adequate training in how to deal with toxic substances.)
New York City Transit must also hire an adequate number of car appearance supervisors. The state and city should ensure that operating funds remain adequate so that car cleanliness does not deteriorate in leaner years.
2. Set meaningful goals. Right now, the MTA pledges that 80% of its subway cars will be at least "moderately clean." This is a guarantee of unacceptable subway car conditions, since a car can be considered moderately clean with a "dingy floor and one or two sticky dry spots," according to the PES.
Instead, the MTA should set a goal that 95% or more of its cars have either light ("occasional 'ground in' spots, but generally clean") or none ("basically dirt free") conditions by mid-1999. These are easily achievable goals--if New York City Transit hires enough cleaners and supervises them adequately.
3. Survey and report honestly about cleanliness every month. Transit officials complain that the Passenger Environment Survey does not give them timely data so that they can respond quickly to reports of dirty subway cars. If that is the case, management must beef up the PES staff so it can get more timely reports.
Managers also should consider approaches to get more real-time information, such as adopting the use of hand-held computers by its PES surveyors. The New York City Parks Department's hand-held computers has resulted in greatly shortened turnaround times for data on park conditions by eliminating time-consuming data entry.
Over the next two years, the MTA should also monitor its progress in meeting these goals by reporting monthly to the MTA board. In those reports, the MTA should drop use of the term "moderately clean" for the more accurately descriptive "dirty." If New York City Transit does not voluntarily include these reports in its monthly agenda, MTA board members should require the reports.
4. Post the results of MTA surveys of subway car cleanliness--along with other measurements of subway service--in subway cars and stations so that riders can keep track of how well the public authority is doing its job. In the legislative session earlier this year, Assembly Member Catherine Nolan introduced a bill (A.2236, 1999-2000) that would mandate this; the MTA should start this voluntarily early this year.
5. Review cleaning procedures. While it does not happen often, cars can go for long stretches--several days or longer--without getting their floors cleaned. Managers should review procedures so that floor cleaning is always done regularly--if possible daily.
top of page Straphangers Campaign Report Index
Straphangers Campaign Home E-mail email@example.com