Q&A With Sen. Bill Perkins: Getting Rid of the Rats on the Rails

| January 31, 2012 4:00 AM

Rats are a problem in the city's subways, says State Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Manhattan. His fix? Stop straphangers from eating on the subway, and thus providing food for the rats. Flickr/ laverrue

Decimating the city’s rat population has been on the agenda of State Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Manhattan, for at least a decade. When former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in office and Perkins was on the City Council, several properties in Perkins’ Harlem district that had fallen into disrepair became garbage dumps, and thus the stomping ground for rats. Today, Perkins is still fighting rats — but this time he’s taken the fight underground.

Perkins recently introduced a bill that would slap a $250 fine on any person caught eating on a subway train, platform or station. A study from Perkins’ office on rats in the subway system, called Rat Attack!, prompted the legislation, which must be approved by the Transportation Committee before it goes before the full State Senate.

MetroFocus chatted with Perkins about his proposed bill on Monday afternoon.

Q: Are people really to blame for rats in the subway system?

A: I travel all over my district on the subways and I’m a daily witness to what is happening in our public transit system. It is clear to me that there is a rapid growth of rodent infestation and a disturbing increase of people eating on the trains. The rodents don’t grow their own food, nor do they go shopping at the market. Their population is a function of the availability of food. We feed them and therefore we breed them.

Q: What’s your worst subway rat story?

A: They come out of the system and onto the platform scampering, and I wish I was exaggerating. I’ve seen rodents trying to pull a discarded piece of pizza into their little hideaway places. I saw a rat run across the body of someone sleeping on a bench. I was like, “Oh wow!” It wasn’t a bum either. I’ve seen some come out of subway grills. Recently, my Chief of Staff Cordell Cleare and I walked out of the subway at 125th Street and St. Nicholas and saw two rats run into a business!

The rodents don’t grow their food nor do they go shopping at the market.

Q: Why don’t you just prohibit people from tossing their food onto the tracks or the ground, instead of banning eating all together?

A: I don’t think everyone is purposefully dropping chicken wings, but what happens if it falls off your plate? You may not even know it. Sometimes it just happens. Some people do throw their food into the tracks contemptuously, ignorantly. They don’t have table manners. But it’s a losing battle. Clearly, we don’t need to be eating on the public transit system, especially if that has become the main source of food for the rodent population, which has been growing exponentially.

I’ve had the privilege of checking out transportation systems in other cities. In Washington, D.C., it’s as clean as a whistle. In Taiwan, too.

Other cities, including Washington D.C., have already banned eating in subways. Flickr/herzogbr

Q: Is banning eating on subways really the best way to get rid of rats?

A: We do need more general maintenance, but if you don’t eat, and you don’t leave food on the train or on the tracks, maintenance can focus on other aspects. And by the time a maintenance guy sees the chicken wing, the rat has already gotten to it! It’s a competition between the man and the rat.

Q: What about people who only have time to eat on the subway, when they’re traveling between jobs or to pick up kids?

A: Obviously there are emergency situations, but do you think someone is going to die from hunger by not eating on the train? We don’t want to be complicit with the rapid growth of the rat population.

Q: How will this be enforced?

A: Enforcement is always the key. We used to tell people to curb their dogs, and they never did until a law was passed by then-Assemblyman Ed Lehner: the “Pooper Scooper” law. It said if you’re caught not picking up after your dog, you’re gonna get fined. If you can pick up after your dog, you can not eat on the subway.

State Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Manhattan, says subway riders eating on trains are partially to blame for the public transportation system's rat problem. Photo courtesy of the Office of Bill Perkins.

Q: What’s next for the legislation?

A: [MTA Chairman] Joe Lhota recognizes there is a problem. He and I spoke when he was in Albany and he said we’re going to be working together on this. We have a history. We worked together when he was working for Giuliani and I was on the City Council. Hopefully the bill will get support. I know people can learn to live with it. Once you know you can’t do something, you stop doing it.

Q: At this point, do New Yorkers really care that much about seeing rats in the subways?

A: I know cultures where they don’t abhor the rat; there are places where they worship the rat. That’s not New York and that’s not me! New York has seen a lot of tourists. One of their entertainments is watching our rats! I hope they’re not going home and saying you’ve got to go to New York and see the rats!


MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

  • David

    Who will enforce this new rule? The rules about putting your feet or packages on seats or the rules about blocking the doors are not enforced. I can’t remember the last time I saw the police patrolling the subway cars. The only rule the MTA enforces is jumping the turnstile. That shows their real priorities.

  • Edie Kantrowitz

    Many New Yorkers are forced to spend several hours a day on the subways commuting, and for many people this is the only chance they have to eat. That is not an emergency situation, but an everyday situation. It is even worse if someone has a medical condition that requires them to eat at a specific time. The solution to the rat problem is better maintenance, more cleaning staff, and enforcement of fines for littering, not taking away more of our personal freedoms. We should be concerned about what is best for New Yorkers, not just for tourists. And I think that for most New Yorkers, subway rats are not worth giving up our basic right to eat.

  • Harriet Holtzman

    If memory serves, there was a time when eating and drinking were prohibited in the subway system and it wasn’t done much. Perhaps an educational campaign to stop eating on trains and in stations would be a good start.

  • Mark M

    I have seen many instances of ignoramuses tossing their trash on to the tracks. Such behavior is anti-social. It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to know that even tiny scraps of food will attract rats, so when people do it they are aware that they are feeding rodents — and don’t care! Fine them! It’s irrelevant if they have a ‘medical condition’. Let them eat before they get in the station! An energy bar is one thing — but I have seen families of four chowing down from McD’s, KFC, and fast Chinese. We should have low tolerance for their food in our faces — even if their aromatic rat-luring trash ends up in trash cans. The so-called freedom to eat on the train does not supersede the rights of others to not be subjected to it. Since when do hunger pangs or time-stress confer the right to add to a public health issue?

  • Maureen O

    I agree that the rat population is overwhelming – they now come right up on the platforms – one even ran across my foot – My question is however – What will happen to the News Stands what sell food as well as drinks? Will they be closed down or will they be allowed to sell food, but you cannot eat it? Also as someone stated above – who will enforce it. Will the Police be spending their time writing out tickets for eating rather than looking for criminals stealing iPods, iPads and other electronics or molesting women on the subway??? Let’s think about priorities and where the public needs the most protection.

  • Emile De Antonio

    Late night entertainment in the city that never sleeps. Leave the rats alone. What else is there to do while waiting for the train at 1:00 am? There are too many laws to enforce already, which leads to selective enforcement. Which increases the distrust between the police and the public. Are the police going to be going through the cars at 8 in the morning arresting the coffee and doughnut crowd? You bet your a– not. They’ll be handing out tickets late at night to half-drunk kids, homeless people who can’t pay anyway, and people working two jobs w/ no time to eat. while I appreciate that Senator Perkins is genuinely trying to do something for the city, this is a terrible idea.

  • Jaime

    This Senator is crazy. This is a BAD IDEA. More laws so the police can harass and give tickets to people of low income. Does he takes the subway everyday or he drives a car?

    • Miguel

      Totally agree, there are enough rules and laws already, let’s focus more on enforcing them. More maintenance should kill the rats. The police should be protecting people in the subway not writing tickets.

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