David Gunn, former director of the NYC Transit Authority, tells of his strategy for ridding the subway of its infamous (and ubiquitous) graffiti in 1989. Reporter Ann Heppermann and host Roman Mars, on the 99% Invisible podcast, corroborate Gunn’s story with the perspective of Caleb Neelon, who was among those spray-can-wielding artists reclassified as criminals and driven out like rats. But this reclassification was less important to Gunn’s success than his reframing of the problem from one of mere sanitation to one of maintenance. Gunn’s approach drew attention to this otherwise hidden element, thereby motivating change. A clean train became the sign of a safe train.
Finally, Gunn demonstrates the importance of long-term commitment, having worn the vandals down by staying fast to his benchmarks of execution, despite the short-term inconvenience.
DateJune 3, 2014Title99% Invisible: Clean TrainsSegment6:23 – 6:49David Gunn (DG): Everybody says you cleaned up the cars… yeah, we did. We got the cars clean but we also fixed them. The clean train became sort of symbolic of the fact that the thing worked.
Ann Heppermann (AH): And here’s the difference between you and me and David Gunn. When we see graffiti, we think about it in terms of aesthetics. We may like it or hate it, but we’re reacting to it visually. David Gunn looks right past all of those wildstyle letters and sees a transit system not doing its job.
DG: You see graffiti, you’ve got bad maintenance. Because having equipment clean is part of maintenance.
Roman Mars (RM): For decades, people in charge treated subway graffiti like it was a sanitation problem. Gunn says that’s all wrong. It wasn’t just a sanitation problem, it was something else entirely.
AH: Gunn says the root of the problem was MTA’s deferred maintenance program… Here’s the thing about maintenance: it’s not sexy. It takes years to see improvements.
RM: Gunn knew people needed to see something now. Or in this case, not see something.
**Caleb Neelan : **He figured out a way to do it systemically, line by line. The MTA pulled [any subway car covered in graffiti] from the system. Even during rush hour.
DG: It was tough going at first, I mean we had one day I ended up pulling 500 cars out of the service.