Introducing: The Transit Clean Team

Stop me if you’ve heard this sentence before: “I would never take public transit, it’s so dirty!” You’ve heard it. Statistically speaking, you’ve probably even said it. In almost every ridership survey for any transit agency in the United States, cleanliness is a top three issue for riders and former riders alike. But it doesn’t have to be this way, so TPS explored ideas to keep a cleaner transit system in Los Angeles.

Metro Does Clean Their Vehicles

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the public discovered just how frequently, or not, their local transit agency cleans their vehicles. Metro Los Angeles came out on the frequent side, with buses and rail cars being thoroughly cleaned on a daily basis. Yet, even prior to the pandemic, this daily cleaning was not enough to prevent passenger complaints about cleanliness. 

Major props to Metro for being one of the more frequently cleaned transit systems, but anyone who rides knows how transit vehicles can go from pristine to icky in a matter of hours. One coffee spill on the B Line (Red) and the whole car will get an Iced Caramel Macchiato bath followed by a very sticky aftermath. Not to mention the trash people leave on board, which is totally the fault of terrible passengers, but still falls on Metro’s shoulders to clean. 

Specific Issues

Metro’s overnight cleanings are comprehensive, thorough, and probably take a few hours per vehicle to complete. The truth is, it’s unrealistic to do that type of cleaning in the middle of service hours on every vehicle in the system. 

Fortunately, I don’t think most passengers are asking for that. I would break cleanliness issues into the following four categories:

  1. Spills, smells, and (s)waste (I tried)
  2. Sanitary conditions
  3. Some other passengers (trying too hard)
  4. Visual dirtiness (I gave up)

Spills, Smells, and Waste

This is your standard wear and tear on the system throughout the day. All transit systems deal with these issues, but they require constant monitoring to be kept to a minimal level. This is an area where I think Metro has the most opportunity to improve.

Sanitary Conditions

Unlike spills and smells, whether or not a vehicle is sanitary depends more on perception than visuals. Passengers can’t see germs, so some will either ignore their presence and live their life, while others will choose not to touch anything or frequently sanitize their hands. 

Now if the train smells and is filled with trash, people will naturally worry about germs. However, there are opportunities outside of trash pickup to improve sanitary conditions throughout the day. 

Some Other Passengers

This falls outside of anything a transit agency can do, but other passengers being unclean can influence people’s perception of a clean transit system. If you read Metro’s Twitter comments, which is not recommended, complaints about homeless passengers on buses and trains overtake the friendly staff that run the account. 

Los Angeles has a problem with homelessness. People who don’t have a home live in public spaces like transit, streets, parks, etc. They need housing and various other resources to get back on their feet. In the meantime, we should be sympathetic towards people on transit and advocate for policies which get them housed. 

Visual Dirtiness

This is more about design than the actual cleanliness of the system. Design of spaces can make a huge impact on how we perceive safety and cleanliness. 

A major complaint of Metro passengers over the past few years has been the design of seats, which include a fuzzy fabric where passengers sit. Passengers hated the fabric citing uncleanliness, but Metro insisted the seats were cleaned daily. Finally the agency listened, and started refurbishing seats on some trains with a new vinyl cover. Since then passenger complaints have fallen, though the fuzzy seats remain on light rail trains and buses.

Another example is the stations themselves. While mostly clean, the design of some stations make the space feel dirty. I can’t really describe the phenomenon, so here is a photo of a clean Los Angeles Metro station next to a clean London Underground station.  Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Even though both are clean and have few people in them, one feels more clean and welcoming than the other. This is not to say all Metro stations should look exactly like the Tube, every agency can have its own unique style, but good station design matters for the user experience and perception of cleanliness. 

What Can be Done?

Introducing the Metro Clean Team™ or MCT. The MCT would be a crew of employees that perform regular cleaning of buses and trains during service hours. 

Image via Dawson Woodstone, TPS. March 2020

The MCT would be stationed at the terminus points for each metro rail and bus line. When the vehicle reaches its terminus, passengers alight and the MCT goes into action. Teams of two people per vehicle proceed to remove any trash, sweep floors, and wipe down frequently touched surfaces. This cleaning would be rapid, as the crews have less than 5 minutes to perform any tasks. Though short, the MCT would improve cleanliness and address passenger complaints.

Costs of the MCT

A program like this would incur some major staffing costs, which may require hiring upwards of 250 cleaners. Assuming each cleaner makes $15 per hour plus benefits, and additional money is allocated for supplies to clean vehicles, we’d estimate the program would cost roughly $20-30 million annually.

While this is a large number, increases in ridership could help offset those costs. If people are truly avoiding transit because it is dirty, as Metro surveys have indicated, some of those riders would return. Would that be enough?

At $1.75 per trip, Metro would need to grow by roughly 50,000 daily person trips to fund the program with entirely new revenue. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the current daily ridership of the E Line (Expo). However, the entire Metro system has a daily ridership of approximately 1 million person trips, so this would be about a 5% increase system wide. In terms of capacity, Metro ridership has fallen for the last decade, so space exists to accommodate these trips even with existing service.

I don’t think this program would return all of Metro’s lost riders or increase existing ridership by a full 5%. 2-3% seems more realistic, given that people have more issues with Metro than just cleanliness. Yet, I’d argue the program is still worth the effort for cleaner transit, happier passengers, and less fear of transit during flu season or other viral outbreaks. 

Additional Ideas

The MCT would help with regular cleanings of the Metro system, but what about the other categories of cleanliness?

Dispensaries – No, Not That Kind 

I was at Ralphs and I saw this wet wipe station next to the shopping carts. You could grab a wet wipe from the top of this dispenser, wipe down the cart, then throw it away at the bottom of the dispenser. Metro could easily put one or more of these dispensers in each vehicle and have them emptied out and refilled by the MCT. Put a hand sanitizer dispenser next to it, and now people will have complete control over the cleanliness of their space. 

Seat Covers

It’s really fun when you take a seat on the bus and notice a warm, wet sensation on your bottom. No, really. It’s great. Although, if you’re not like me and you prefer to stay dry from unknown liquids, the MCT could slip on plastic seat covers until the vehicle is taken out of service and cleaned. This prevents passengers from unknowingly sitting in who knows what and doesn’t take any seats out of service. Truly a win-win for everyone.

Metro Clean Team App

Because there’s an app for that. This app provides a reporting system for passengers and a MCT internal tracking system to catalog what cleaning took place. 

Say a passenger spills their water on a seat or notices someone left McDonald’s fries on the ground. The passenger could use the app to report the line, vehicle number, and issue they experienced, with urgent alerts for items like broken glass or bodily fluids. A passenger could even take a photo of the issue using their smartphone. The MCT would get notified and could prepare to clean the specific issue when the vehicle arrives at the terminus. 

For the MCT, the app could be used to track what cleanings have been done on a specific vehicle that day. The data could be uploaded to the app and made publicly visible for curious passengers. The data could also be used to help coordinate future cleanings between different crews and what cleaning supplies get used. 

Station Redesigns

Many of the underground Metro stations were built in the 90’s, and that architecture shows. It’s time for an upgrade to modernize these public spaces and make them appealing, comfortable, and clean for passengers. Some ideas and specific station renovations will be discussed in a later post, as this is a massive capital improvement. So for now, I just hope the new Crenshaw Line, regional connector, and D Line (Purple) stations are more modern and inspiring than our current architecture. 

Final Thoughts

Metro takes cleanliness of their fleet seriously, and the Metro Clean Team would be a worthwhile investment to maintain vehicles between overnight deep cleanings. If successful, not only would passengers come back to the system, but other agencies in the region could adopt their own Clean Teams to improve their fleets. This would be a big improvement for regular riders, and improve the image of public transit in Los Angeles. 

Post Scorecard (1 being the lowest)

  • Implementation Difficulty: 2/3 – The biggest barrier to implementation will be the budget and whether Metro’s Board thinks this is worth the expense. 
  • Photoshop Skillz: 3/3 – I’m pretty happy with this one. Simple, but gets the point across.
  • Outrage Meter: 0/3 – 250 new jobs and a cleaner transit system? I don’t think the public would have a problem with this.

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