MTA pilot hopes to sniff out soiled elevators in NYC subways


The MTA is considering a new device that can detect a certain unpleasant smell in subway station elevators.

While discussing elevator reliability and cleanliness during a Monday City Council hearing on subway safety, New York City Transit President Richard Davey said the system would be testing an odor-detection system that would send out an alert when a urine-adjacent aroma is identified.

“We are actually going to be piloting a device that would alert, I won’t tell you what the smell is, but will alert cleaners about the potential lack of clean in an elevator,” Davey said. “There’s another transit system in the U.S. that’s doing this. We picked it up, and I’m very interested … We take it very seriously.”

The agency Davey was referring to was the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, where Davey once worked as a general manager. Earlier this year, the Boston Herald reported on an announcement from the MBTA planning on piloting similar devices this summer. A similar program was also implemented in Atlanta after being piloted nearly a decade ago.

“[The device] has a scent detector, if you will, within the elevator,” Davey told Gothamist on Monday. “If it does detect a urine scent, it will alert via email, whoever we want to alert. So we probably have the station cleaner, the station management team alerted so we can get in there and clean the elevator as soon as possible, as opposed to waiting for a customer complaint or stumbling upon [human excrement] ourselves.”

The transit chief described the program as a “proactive” move by the agency, and not a result of significant customer dissatisfaction, adding that hopefully having devices detect the smell would mean no one ever having to experience the unsavory scent in the first place.

“I have not heard this as a major or significant problem from customers either in the feedback that I receive or in the data that we collect,” Davey said. “But I mean, one incident is too many. And so to the extent we can be proactive and address these kinds of concerns with the technology that proves out, we hope, and can alert us quickly.”

But disability rights advocates told Gothamist that unsanitary conditions of elevators have been a perpetual issue in the city’s transit system.

“I think a lot of passengers just think, ‘I’m going to make a complaint, it’s going to go nowhere, you know, into a black hole.’ And I think that’s one of the reasons that people get frustrated. They don’t think that there are responses,” said Joseph Rappaport, the executive director at the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. “And there should be a way of getting the word to the MTA quickly. If technology is part of that answer, fine.”

The BCID is one of the plaintiffs in a 2017 lawsuit challenging the MTA’s maintenance of its elevators, both in operational status and cleanliness. Rappaport said he hoped a settlement in that suit would hold the agency accountable.

“The MTA should settle the lawsuit because a settlement presumably would put into a legal agreement precisely what the authority has to do to keep elevators clean. It might involve detection devices, it might involve a commitment to have a more regular cleaning, it could involve all sorts of things,” Rappaport said. “Without a legal agreement, the MTA doesn’t have to do anything except play around with technology.”

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn is another plaintiff in the suit. He said for people who use wheelchairs and rely on elevators for their commute, the chances of encountering a malfunctioning one are actually higher, since they often have to use multiple elevators at each station on each way of their commute.

Blair-Goldensohn said the problem of cleanliness is only secondary to reliability.

“We’re used to it, I mean, like of course the elevators smell bad,” he said. “The problem is that when they’re out of service, you can’t ride, you’re stuck on the platform. I mean, that’s the existential issue.”

The MTA did not comment on the suit, but Davey said the pilot program proposal was not a result of any purported legal action.

Currently, locations with elevators have scheduled cleaning at least once per day, and elevators are cleaned when spills occur as needed, a spokesperson for the MTA said.

Davey said the agency has yet to choose a specific company or product for the program, which he described as in its “exploratory stages,” set for a potential launch sometime in 2023.

The transit chief also defended the reliability of elevators throughout the subway system.

“I’m sure you hear stories, but I would beg to differ,” Davey said during the Council hearing. “And I, in preparation for that question, I can tell you 97, 98% of our elevators in the last few months have been available.”


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