Every summer, New Yorkers have one more thing to kvetch about: the heat on the subway platforms. You know, that eighth circle of Hell where your clothes turn wet with sweat and you find yourself smelling way too many things you wish you didn't know about.
Thankfully, and without getting all religious about the experience, there is salvation once a train pulls up. All subway cars are air conditioned. And the difference between the heat of the platform and the chill of the train is so striking, you might wonder why storm clouds aren't forming in between.
We wanted to see how big a difference there really is by taking a digital thermometer down to the trains. WNYC web producer Amy Pearl accompanied me. We started at the Houston Street stop of the 1 train, where it was 95 degrees on the platform - about 3 degrees warmer than it was outside. Once we got on the train, the numbers on the hand-held thermometer rapidly fell to 76 degrees. It wasn't as cold as some passengers would have liked. But it was far more comfortable than our next stop.
The uptown platform of the 1,2,3 line at Times Square felt like the blast of a furnace. Amy held out the thermometer and watched in horror as the numbers ticked upward. 'So far it's 94! 95! 96!' she exclaimed. 'It feels really hot, actually. Your hair is looking really frizzy.' It was getting big.
The thermometer appeared to settle at about 101 or 102. But when a train passed by, with a rush of more hot air, it climbed to 106. 'It’s really hot and humid there’s no air in this station, you can’t take it,' one woman told us, looking miserable.
We got on the 2 train with Katherine Guerrera, a 21 year old rider from Westchester. She was wearing a long-sleeved blouse and a skirt. She said she was grateful for the cold air of the subway train. It was 74 degrees at that point. But she said the trains can sometimes get too cold. 'Usually when you have on a skirt or something or even a T shirt after a while it can get a little chilly in here.' The temperature fell to 70 degrees as the express train continued heading to 72nd Street.
When we got off the train at 72nd Street, the platform was also about 100 degrees. We turned around and headed back downtown on the 2 train. Again, the train was about 72-73 degrees.
It turns out that's exactly how New York City Transit wants it. Leon Stanevich, director of Maintenance Support, says air conditioning units on subway cars are programmed by their manufacturer to aim for 72.5 degrees. There are 3 points on the ceiling of each car that transit workers scan with readers, on a regular basis, to make sure they're achieving that ideal setting. Stanevich also says the cars have sensors which can adjust to how many people are on the trains. When the trains get crowded, the air conditioners pump even harder. That's why they can feel especially cold if a whole crowd of people leave at once. The units can also malfunction. Some have gotten too cold, sending temps into the 60s. And, of course, they can break down. We all know the sign: an empty train in the summer.
With New Yorkers being told to conserve energy - and save money - by keeping their homes at 78 degrees, we wondered if the cars were too cold. But Stanevich said that wouldn't make sense because the doors are constantly opening, meaning trains would get much hotter without the setting at 72.5. He also reminded us that the settings cannot be manually changed. If they were, he said, there would be chaos. Cars on the subway trains in Chicago and Boston are also set at around 72 degrees, according to their transit authorities. But in Washington, D.C. the metro adjusts to something 10-15 degrees lower than whatever it is outside in summer.
Washington also has air chillers on its platforms - something that only exists in New York at Grand Central.
New York City Transit says the Lexington Avenue line platforms are unusual because they get air cooled from Grand Central Terminal above. At the downtown platform of the 4,5,6, the temperature was 87 degrees. So 'chill' is still a relative term.
New York City Transit also has fans scattered throughout the system. Stations built after 1989 have them. So do some deep underground platforms in Washington Heights, at Union Square and in Times Square near the shuttle. There's no fan at the Grand Central side of the shuttle, where musician Moses Josiah was playing 'This Little Light of Mine' on a saw. Josiah is from Guyana so he said he's used to the heat. It was 89 degrees where he was sitting. He also said he's 80 years old, though you'd never know it. He said he just drinks lots of water to cope with the heat.
So what about the platforms? Is there any way to cool them? Passengers would love such a thing. But New York City Transit says it's prohibitively expensive. Even if cost wasn't a factor, there are logistical problems. Frank Talty, president and founder of the Refrigeration Institute in midtown (which calls itself the Cool School) says it would be very difficult to get air conditioning on a subway platform. 'Even if you put air curtains at the tunnels to go ahead and prevent hot air from coming in, the heat generated from the granite, the pure size of it alone and the logistics of putting a plant and cooling tower and everything else, it would be difficult.' Talty did suggest one idea, though: closed spaces on subway platforms that are cooled, the equivalent of bus shelters on a rainy day. They could take up 50 percent or more of the platform. We wouldn't want to see New Yorkers competing for place in the cooling zone!
The MTA says it's stations of the future will be a little cooler. The new Second Avenue Line and the extension of the 7 train at 34th Street will have 'tempered air' about 10 degrees cooler than what's outside. So will the new Fulton Street Transit Terminal. The new South Ferry station already has tempered air.
Until then.. those of us on the rest of the platforms will have to sweat it out. Assaf Shave, riding the 2 train (73 degrees) summed up the attitude of most New Yorkers: 'As long as it's not overly dirty I've learned to accept it and to adjust.'