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Can Subways Ever Really Be Rat-Free?

In late January, the New York State Senate proposed a bill that would prohibit eating on the New York City subway system.

Joseph Lhota, the new head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority opposed the idea because, he said, it would hurt minority children who eat in the morning. He also said some less than flattering things about the bill's sponsor Bill Perkins, saying “as a legislator, he does nothing but talk and talk and talk, and he does nothing.”

That prompted calls for an apology, which Lhota issued the following day, and which Perkins accepted.

As far as Perkins is concerned, eating on city subways isn't a race thing. His proposed bill targets subway food consumption not to restrict individual liberty but specifically "to mitigate the growing rat infestation" in New York's subways:

NYC residents overwhelmingly stated they are facing a severe problem, and that the problem of rats rampaging through the subway is partly due to inept pest-control by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and most feel strongly that the conduct of train customers, eating in stations, on trains, and carelessly discarding refuse on the tracks or platforms, plays an important role in compounding the problem.

Those conclusions were drawn from a massive survey Perkins conducted in 2010 among users of 20 subways stations in northern Manhattan. Perkins found [PDF] that nearly 90 percent of riders saw rats in the station on at least a weekly basis and that nearly as many saw them either on the tracks or on the platforms. The results suggest to Perkins that the city attack the problem at its source: food left in the subway system. "If we feed 'em, we breed 'em," he concludes.

Perkins's survey may have been lacking for scientific methodology, but its conclusions fell in line with another study of the transit-rodent problem conducted by the city's health department around the same time. That effort examined 18 stations in lower Manhattan and assigned half a fair or poor infestation rating. The leader of the study, Robert Corrigan, attributed the problem not to the stations themselves but to the people who ride — and eat — in them: "If there's no food, there's no rats. It's really that simple."

Perkins believes in a two-pronged approach to the problem. The first, of course, is to ban eating on the subway. The second is to increase the number of trash receptacles in M.T.A. stations and to empty them more frequently. The Transit Workers Union also wants to improve garbage collection, and recently held a grossest-rat photo contest to prove its point.

That stands in direct contrast to the agency's own quirky attempt to handle the problem by removing trash cans from stations. That pilot effort, announced last October, has received mixed reviews. The idea was that if people don't have a place to throw away their garbage, they'll take it with them. While one station cleaner recently told AM New York that she now collects fewer trash bags at the test stations, another said he simply has to hunt more to find the trash that used to go right in the bag.

Whether New York sticks with the trash-can removal program or implements an eating ban, time will tell. What's intriguing about the recent spat between Perkins and Lhota is that both come from a shared rat-busting background. In 2000, Perkins served as master of ceremonies at a city "rat summit" attended by Lhota, who during the Guiliani administration was known as the mayor's "rat czar."

In the end, transit system cleanliness is only one element of a city's potential for infestation. In 2007, rat experts Dale Kaukeinen and Bruce Colvin rated the potential rodent problem in more than 30 cities [PDF]. The evaluations were based on 14 factors — among them the extent of transit facilities, but also things like basic population and density, city age, sewage and waste expenditures, and even climate.

New York topped the list, of course, but the connection with subway systems was tenuous at best. Chicago cracked the top ten despite having a ban against food on its subways, while San Francisco, which has a similar policy, ranked low on the list — below much smaller cities like Louisville and San Antonio. Houston had the second greatest risk of a rodent problem despite not even having a subway system.

Washington, which presents its clean and food-free Metro system as the foil to New York's dirty subways, also ranked high (7th) on the 2007 list. And earlier this month the Washington Post reported that the city is even planning a "rat summit" of its own, after a rodent hazard emerged at the Occupy D.C. camps. Anyone know a good emcee?

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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