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MTA Gets Rolling on Hunt for Pee-Sniffing Tech for Subway Elevators

The agency says it’s borrowing “good ideas” from transit systems around the country — but some of them have already gone in a different direction.

May 10, 2023 Jose Martinez, The City
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Transit officials are looking to sniff out a tech wiz that can sound the alarm on subway soakers who urinate in station elevators.

The MTA is pooling input from companies that have successfully installed elevator car urine detection systems in large transit systems, airports or institutions, according to a request for information the agency issued last month.

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“The MTA is committed to maintaining a high standard of cleanliness to enhance the customer experience and we look forward to reviewing the information submitted,” spokesperson Meghan Keegan told THE CITY in a statement.

New York City Transit President Richard Davey told the City Council in December that the MTA was looking into ways to employ urine sensors in station elevators that sometimes double as toilets.

“It’s disgusting,” said Genesis Diaz, 20, who had her 4-month-old son in a stroller on a platform at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station in Manhattan on Friday. “I get out of the elevator if I smell urine.”

The MTA’s request outlines how the systems must be “smart” enough to tell the difference between urine and other aromas, including perfumes, colognes, food, garbage and smoke. The pee-detecting tech would then have to provide visual, aural or electronic alerts about soggy messes to the MTA so workers could be dispatched for cleanup.

Genesis Diaz, left, her boyfriend Eliesel Perez and friend Solanyi Polanco spoke at 59th Street-Columbus Circle about avoiding urine-soaked elevators, May 5, 2023.
Genesis Diaz, left, her boyfriend Eliesel Perez and friend Solanyi Polanco spoke at 59th Street-Columbus Circle about avoiding urine-soaked elevators, May 5, 2023. | Jose Martinez/THE CITY

The document notes the technology “must be capable of detecting odors using a minimal amount of sensing devices” and be made up of parts resistant to “acid, extreme temperatures, high humidity, seismic activity, salt, sleet, dust and water.”

“Urine damages unprotected portions of the car structure and floor, causing rust and premature component failure,” the request says. “Passengers encountering a soiled car are typically overwhelmed by strong urine odors, forcing some to forego using the elevator.”

“It is believed the [elevator car urine detection systems] will enhance NYCT’s ability to quickly detect unsanitary conditions and expedite resources to clean the affected car,” the document continued.

The agency has 354 elevators across 472 stations — though most stations do not have one. The MTA did not have figures for how often they have had to be taken out of service because of urine.

Trickle Down Economics

Davey said in December that he’s “happy to steal good ideas,” citing how other transit agencies — including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which he previously oversaw in Boston — announced plans last summer to begin installing urine detectors in station elevators.

Down in Georgia, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority first set up  pee-sniffing devices a decade ago but recently yanked all 92 out because they “trapped” urine inside the lifts and also set off loud alarms, according to Keith Chambers, the authority’s director of vertical transportation.

MARTA began installing the systems in 2013, but Chambers told THE CITY they were removed last year because of customer complaints about the stench of urine coming from metal containers in the elevators that house the sensors.

“These systems that were put in, they actually trap the urine in them and can’t be cleaned,” he said. “So here you have urine being stagnated in an elevator.”

Dried urine was visible on an elevator at the City Hall subway stop.
An elevator is soiled at the City Hall subway stop in Manhattan, May 5, 2023. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Chambers added that people who live near MARTA stations also griped about pee alarms being set off in stations and elevators that are open around the clock.

“It happened every night, in every station,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”

Chambers said that MARTA has had more success with installing deodorizers in the pits of station elevators and that complaints about subway stink “have gone down 80%” as a result.

Out west, Bay Area Rapid Transit, whose network spans 50 stations in four counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, has gone the old-fashioned route, using human elevator attendants at four downtown San Francisco stops, a BART spokesperson said.

The spokesperson, James Allison, told THE CITY that in stations without attendants, the elevators are checked every hour.

The MTA’s move to sniff out subway urine comes as the agency has this year reopened more than 30 subway station restrooms that had been closed since the start of the pandemic. The agency has also hired hundreds cleaners to help combat the tide of human waste on subway cars.

As she stepped off an elevator and onto a platform at the West 4th Street station in Greenwich Village, rider Lorain Reid from Queens said she smells urine all too often while in the subway system.

“I didn’t smell it in this one,” said Reid, 74. “But when I’m going home to 179th Street, the smell is just disgusting.”

Reid, who uses a cane to help her walk, said she would prefer to avoid using subway elevators.

“I don’t really like taking elevators, but I have to because of the pain in my knee,” she said. “I just don’t want to smell urine.”

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