NYC Advocacy Group: Subways Are Dirtier. MTA Disagrees.

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(New York, NY - Jim O'Grady, WNYC) New York's subway cars are getting dirtier, according to a transit riders advocacy group.

The latest Shmutz Survey conducted by the Straphangers Campaign found only 47 percent of subway cars were clean when researchers rode the trains over two months last fall compared with 51 percent the year before. (Schmutz is a Yiddish word for icky dirt and is part of the lingua franca in New York City.)

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, is fighting back much more aggressively than it has in previous years: it disputes the findings and questions the report's methodology.

Straphangers said the R train was dirtiest, with only 27 percent of the cars appearing clean. The No. 7 train, the cleanest line, was found to have clean cars only 68 percent of the time.

"I think they're dirtier because there are fewer personnel cleaning the subways today," said Straphangers spokesman Gene Russianoff, who noted the NY MTA helped cover a budget deficit last year by laying off 108 car cleaners — a 10 percent reduction. "Fewer elbows, less elbow grease."

The NY MTA also cut the number of car cleanings in half. A train used to be cleaned each time it finished a one-way trip to the end of the line; now trains are cleaned at the end of a round trip.

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Kevin Ortiz, an NY MTA spokesman, said the authority disagreed strongly with the report, "which does not accurately measure NYC Transit's ability to clean subway cars." He said the agency is now more flexible in shifting cleaners to trains that need them most, which has led to a "minimal impact" on overall car cleanliness.

The Authority has been engaged in a public relations campaign, with placards emblazoned in many subways and buses designed to promote the NY MTA's efforts to offer better service. That ad campaign came in the wake of the deepest service cuts and biggest fare hikes in over a generation in the past year.

The NY MTA criticized the Straphangers' report for rating car cleanliness while trains are in motion and can't be cleaned, making its ratings more a measure of passenger behavior than authority effectiveness.

The NY MTA rates the cleanliness of its subway cars when trains are stationary. It's unclear whether the trains are examined before or after a cleaning crew goes through. However, the authority gives itself a grade of 94 percent subway car cleanliness. That would seem to indicate trains are graded once they've been cleaned.

Russianoff stood by Straphangers' methods: "I think the riding public would find our numbers credible," he said. "To paraphrase Groucho Marx, 'Who do you believe, the Transit Authority or your own eyes?'"