NEW YORK, NY — New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s controversial, and seemingly counterintuitive, experiment to reduce exposed trash and rats in subway stations by getting rid of trash receptacles showed little evidence of success, according to an audit released by his office today.
“There’s no doubt that removing garbage cans from subway stations saved work and possibly some money for the MTA,” DiNapoli said. “It’s not clear that it met MTA’s goals of improving straphangers’ experience and making stations cleaner and there’s no evidence it reduced the number of rats in subway stations. After four years the best one can say about this experiment is that it’s inconclusive, except for the fact that riders have a harder time finding a trash can.”
The MTA’s NYC Transit launched its “Trash Can Free Stations Pilot Program” to help mitigate straphangers’ “poor customer experience of exposed trash bags in stations and to eliminate the accompanying presence of rodents.” The pilot was based on the theory that removing trash cans meant no overflowing trash or full trash bags lying around for customers to see or smell or attract rats. DiNapoli’s auditors found little evidence the experiment achieved those goals.
Phase I, October 2011
The MTA first removed trash cans from the 8th Street station on the R line and at Flushing-Main Street on the 7 line in Oct. 2011 and evaluated the impact over the next four months.
In Feb. 2012, MTA reported mixed results. There was no noticeable change in the rat population at the stations. The MTA didn’t count exposed trash bags, despite the program’s stated purpose. Instead, it counted the number of trash bags it filled with litter at the stations every day. DiNapoli’s audit notes that subway trash is collected and stored in containers on platforms or storage rooms, so counting the number of bags collected each day isn’t the same as counting the number of exposed bags which are what attract rats.
Not surprisingly, there was less garbage to collect when there were no garbage cans. At Flushing Main Street workers collected 13 trash bags each day, down from 39 bags and three trash bags at 8th Street down from six bags.
Phase II, September 2012
The MTA expanded the pilot program to gather more data. It pulled trash cans from eight more stations in September 2012, two per borough. Again, it didn’t check whether it resulted in less exposed trash, but instead counted the number of bags collected each day. Collections dropped from an average of 6.2 bags a day to 2.1 bags after the trash cans were removed.
The MTA’s evaluation noted that the amount of trash collected from the tracks increased slightly during Phase II, as did track fires.
When it came to rats, the MTA reported that rodent activity dropped at the stations. However, based on the MTA’s rodent activity rating of 1 to 10, auditors found that 9 of the 10 stations in the pilot were at the lowest rat rating before the garbage cans were removed. The remaining station scored 5 out of 10 for rodent activity.
Finally, the MTA did not seek rider feedback on the removal of trash cans. Its broader passenger surveys showed riders initially gave lower cleanliness scores to the stations in the pilot program, which then rebounded to pre-pilot levels. The MTA’s Passenger Environment Survey did not find the stations were cleaner than before trash cans were removed.
Phase III, July 2014
In July 2014, the MTA expanded the trash can ban to another 29 stations, all elevated stations on the J and M lines. The MTA had not reported any results as of June 2015.
MTA’s Marketing Campaign
In Jan. 2014, the MTA indicated that it had launched a marketing campaign in support of the pilot that included notices on its website and in the affected stations. Auditors visited 10 of the 39 stations in the pilot from August through October 2014 and found notices posted at three stations but at two other stations they were posted where riders couldn’t easily see them. In response to preliminary audit findings, MTA officials said new notices had been posted in all pilot stations. When auditors revisited 18 of the stations in March and April 2015, two of them still did not have signs posted.
DiNapoli’s audit recommended that the MTA objectively assess the results of the pilot program based on its stated purposes and objectives and then decide whether to continue it. The MTA disagreed with the audit’s findings and stated its belief that the pilot did result in improving its customers’ experience by significantly reducing trash. In August 2015, after the audit concluded, the MTA announced a 36 percent drop in trash collected at these stations and its intention to continue the program.